The Masorti (Conservative) movement in Israel has allied itself with the Israel Movement for Reform and Progressive Judaism (IMPJ) in the legal struggle over what forms of worship are permitted at the Western Wall. I’ve written about that question before (here and here for example). The Supreme Court has taken the matter under consideration, and seems to have listened to and taken seriously the complaints of the progressive movements and the Orthodox authorities. Probably there is no solution that will completely satisfy both sides, but unlike some other conflicts, a compromise in this one is possible.
I’m concerned, though, that the Masorti movement is making a mistake by cooperating closely with the IMPJ on this and other issues. Most Israelis, religious and secular, already think that there is little or no difference between the movements. Religious people see them both as dangerously subversive of Judaism, while secular Israelis see them as equally pointless. “If I wanted to be religious, I would choose real Judaism,” say some secular people, who almost certainly do not want to be religious and for whom “real” Judaism would ask more of them than they are prepared to give. Both religious and secular Israelis lump the movements together as “reformim.”
But the theological gulf between the Reform and Masorti movements is far wider than that between Masorti and Orthodox Judaism. IMPJ states that “the suitable observance of religious law is through intention, in other words: through study, understanding and identification,” which simply means that the educated Jew is entitled to decide for him or herself which commandments to observe and which to ignore. Lip service is paid to the individual being cognizant of the history and tradition that gave rise to the halacha of today, but in fact Reform Jews (both in Israel and the US) commonly ignore what they call “ritual” commandments including observance of Shabbat and kashrut, in favor of “social” or “prophetic” commandments for “tikkun olam,” by which they usually mean progressive or left-wing politics.
In a few words, the Reform position is that there is no obligation to follow halacha, and most Reform Jews don’t (including egregious violations like this one). The Masorti movement, on the other hand, does assert that a Jew is obligated to observe the commandments. It is true that Masorti rabbis have issued rulings that are less stringent than Orthodox practice (although contrary to popular belief, the Israeli movement does not permit – as the Conservatives in America do – driving to synagogue on Shabbat), but these rulings are based on traditional texts and are argued in traditional ways. An Orthodox rabbi might disagree with this Conservative responsum on the difficult subject of homosexuality, but he would have to take its arguments seriously (read it; it’s great).
I recall reading a magazine article some years ago by an Orthodox rabbi, which unfortunately I can’t find. It was called something like “Is Reform Judaism a different religion?” He argued that the proposition “a Jew is obligated to observe the commandments according to halacha” is essential to Judaism. It is the way we understand our part of the covenant between Hashem and the Jewish people. Deny it, and you have “a different religion.”
Everyone on the Orthodox spectrum accepts this, as do Masortim, even if the Masorti rabbis are more lenient in their understanding of the obligations created by halacha. But the Reform movement removes the content from this principle by saying “you are obligated to observe the commandments, but every individual gets to decide what they are.” It is more like the fundamentalist Protestant idea of a personal God than the Jewish one of a covenant between Hashem and his people.
There is another problem, a political one. The Reform movement in America was explicitly anti-Zionist from its beginning with the 1885 “Pittsburgh Platform” until its “Columbus Platform” of 1937, and even then did not fully see itself as a Zionist movement until 1967. Lately, due to its close relationship with the Democratic Party, the overwhelming support shown for the anti-Israel Barack Obama by Reform Jews, and the flirtation with J Street and the New Israel Fund by many Reform rabbis (including the President of the movement, Rabbi Rick Jacobs), one has to say that the American branch of the movement is less and less supportive of the state of Israel than before. One example: it decided not to take a position on Obama’s nuclear deal with Iran, which virtually every Zionist politician in Israel opposed.
The Israeli Reform movement, of course, is far more explicitly Zionist, even if it does sit on the Left of the Israeli political spectrum. But the American movement is the 800-pound gorilla that funds the Israeli movement, and its political arm, the Israel Religious Action Center (IRAC). And to a certain extent, the American movement has political goals in Israel that it uses its Israeli affiliates, especially IRAC, to promote – including embarrassing PM Netanyahu and his “right-wing” government.
Although the Masorti movement in Israel is also concerned with social issues and also leans slightly to the left, it is not healthy for it to be associated with IRAC and its political machinations.
I think that if the Masorti movement wants to succeed in Israel – something which I believe is possible – it should stress the ways it is like the more liberal Orthodox groups, rather than what it has in common with the Reform movement. After all, what represents a wider theological divide? The presence or absence of a mechitza (partition between the sexes) in a synagogue, or the understanding of mitzvot? Is it even necessary to ask?