The Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism (RAC) is the “social justice” arm of the American Reform movement (it has a parallel organization here in Israel, the IRAC). Although it claims to be “completely non-partisan,” if you look at the issues that the RAC is interested in, you will find that they are exactly the same ones that occupy the progressive wing of the Democratic party: immigration, minimum wage, climate change, LGBTQ rights, the 2-state solution, abortion, gun control, separation of church and state, antisemitism (from the Right) and of course “Islamophobia.”
This is not news. The Reform movement was created in 19th century Germany in the hope of easing the acceptance of Jews into the larger society. The promise of emancipation made in the early part of the century had not been fulfilled, and Jews were still severely discriminated against unless they converted to Christianity. So the reformers changed or eliminated practices that made Jews stand out, including distinctive clothing, religious services on Saturday, kashrut, and more. But the intention was not to assimilate but rather to prevent assimilation. The hope was that German society would then become more tolerant and grant Reform Jews the same rights as their Christian neighbors, while allowing them to remain Jewish.
As the movement developed over the years in America, the focus became different. American Jews in the 19th century did not face the same kind of pressure as European Jews. In America the problem was a lack of Jewish knowledge and education. The founders of the movement were formerly traditionally observant, knew how to pray in Hebrew, and had a many scholars among them. Most Eastern European immigrants to the US around the turn of the 20th century brought some traditional background with them from Europe. But many members of the post-WWII generation of American Jews, busy becoming Americans – although still very conscious of being Jews – did not have the tools to be traditionally observant. The Reform movement was a good fit for them.
But by the 1960s, it became clear that something had been taken out of the Judaism they were practicing. When the ritual went away, so did the spirituality. There were numerous Jews who turned to Eastern religions like Buddhism in search of something transcending the mundane. At the same time, many Jewish liberals were active in the civil rights movement, and some even became involved in more radical political activity. The idea developed that some of the political fervor could be brought into the temples, to fill the vacuum. After all, there are “social” commandments and a prophetic tradition in Judaism which can be emphasized to compensate for the de-emphasis of the “ritual” commandments. And so what has come to be called “tikkun olam Judaism” arrived, whose basic ethical principles coincided more or less with those of liberal Protestantism and secular humanism, and in which “social action” replaced Jewish ritual.
At the same time, Reform Judaism became more accessible to non-Jews. Reform Judaism accepted a child as Jewish if either the mother or father were Jewish, as long as the child received a certain amount of (Reform) Jewish education. Conversion classes were offered to non-Jewish spouses or others who wanted to become Jews; the students learned some Jewish history (from the Reform perspective), they learned about observing the major holidays, and a few Hebrew songs – and it was explained to them that Judaism had moved beyond old-fashioned ritual, and was now concerned primarily with moral issues. Since most of these converts were already liberals, they felt very comfortable with the tikkun olam Judaism that they were taught.
The removal of the differences between Jews and non-Jews caused by the de-emphasis of ritual commandments helped accelerate the amount of intermarriage in the Reform world, so that today something like 50% of married Reform Jews have a non-Jewish spouse (among all non-Orthodox Jews, including those who are secular, the rate is close to 70%).
In part because of the universalist, anti-nationalist strain in the secular humanistic ethics of tikkun olam Judaism, and perhaps also because of the increasing number of converts and non-Jews (spouses that chose not to convert) in the Reform population, there is a weaker connection to the Jewish people as a whole. If you ask an orthodox Jew what the primary attributes of his identity are, he will almost always say that the highest priority is that he is a Jew. An American Reform Jew might be almost as likely to place something else first, like their American identity, their political creed, or even their profession.
The feeling of peoplehood is considered atavistic among liberals, including Jewish liberals. Sometimes they place themselves so far above it, that they actively disdain those Jews that do have a strong connection to their people, either through traditional observance or Zionism.
So it was not surprising to me to read that the RAC had invited to speak at its recent “Consultation on Conscience” a man who had been an active antisemite, an enemy of the Jewish people, someone who had actually incited violence against Jews on more than one occasion, Al Sharpton.
Sharpton has never admitted that he did more than “say cheap things to get cheap applause,” but the three-day long Crown Heights riot that he inflamed in 1991 was arguably the closest thing to a pogrom America has ever seen.
Sharpton, styles himself a version of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., but he does not deserve to have his name mentioned in the same sentence as the nonviolent civil rights leader. And yet, because he represents himself as a spokesman for one of the “oppressed” groups that progressive Democrats see as part of their coalition, they are able to ignore the anti-Jewish acts for which he never apologized. This is because they identify more closely with the progressive movement – although this movement rejects them as “white” and takes the side of the Palestinians in their conflict with Israel – than they do with the Orthodox Jews of Chabad, who were the victims of the Crown Heights riot.
Indeed, after expressions of outrage from Orthodox rabbis and relatives of Yankel Rosenbaum, the Chabad student that was stabbed to death during the Crown Heights riots, RAC clearly expressed its solidarity with progressivism against the Jewish people. In the words of Rabbi Jonah Pesner, RAC director:
That there are members of our Crown Heights family and our Chabad family that are in pain over this actually creates a lot of pain for us, and we’re sorry about that…
At this moment — when children are being separated from their parents at the border, and Jews are being murdered in the synagogues, and people of color are being gunned down in their churches, and people in mosques are being firebombed — we need to stand together, and Reverend Sharpton has stood with us these past couple of years.
Pesner hit all the progressive notes, including the obligatory swipe at President Trump’s immigration policy and the nod to the must-mention issue of “Islamophobia.”
But for his Jewish brothers in Chabad, whose blood has never been avenged (the stabber of Rosenbaum was acquitted of murder in a series of trials reminiscent of those that acquitted murderers of civil rights workers in the South, and ultimately spent 10 years in jail on federal civil rights charges), Pesner only has these words: “Sorry about that.”