What’s the problem with Reform Judaism?

Today I came across an article by Rabbi Baruch Efrati in which he opposes cooperation between Israelis and the Reform Movement.

So what, you say. Another Orthodox attack on the heretical reformim. Perhaps so, but here is what caught my attention:

The secular Jewish world does not want to take over the religious world from a theological point of view, but to live beside it – hence, the possibility of influencing that world, listening to its hearts’ desires, elevating its holy sparks to their heavenly source. The secular are actually non-observant Orthodox, they do not present an alternative organized religion that turns transgressions into an ideology intended to take the place of the Torah. They have not invented a made up religion but are in the midst of a process where secularism is withering and faith is blossoming, as one can see over the last few years in which there is constant strengthening of ties to Torah, baruch Hashem.

“Non-observant Orthodox,” or as the saying goes, ‘the synagogue that they don’t go to is Orthodox’. At worst, thinks Efrati, they won’t interfere with the religious world while at best they might join it. On the other hand, the Reform are a threat. “It’s either we or them [sic],” he adds.

One wonders why he is worried, because only about 3% of Israeli Jews identify with the Reform movement, and most of those are English-speaking immigrants. The ‘non-observant Orthodox’ aren’t rushing to join them, either. Those that I talk to simply don’t see the point of Reform Judaism, maybe because just living in Israel provides the sense of Jewish community that many American Jews seek from their congregations, and because even the least observant Jew in Israel is likely to have a stronger background in Jewish history and ideas than most American Reform Jews. And of course, they already speak Hebrew!

The real possibility of religious change in Israel today comes from Orthodox Jews (including well-known rabbis) who ask why certain customs, particularly in respect to women, are adhered to when they are not required by Jewish law. They also ask why certain rabbis should have a monopoly on kosher certification, conversions, and so forth. These folks will certainly have a much greater effect on the nature of Jewish observance in Israel than Reform Jews, because they can’t be accused of ‘inventing a religion’.

Nevertheless, the American Union for Reform Judaism does present a problem for Israel, but it has little to do with theology.  It is because the Reform Movement is conducting a left-wing political campaign targeting both American Jews (primarily) and Israelis.

The campaign focuses on issues like mixed prayer at the Western Wall, ‘segregated’ Haredi buses, and the Rabbinate, which is widely perceived as arbitrary and even corrupt in its behavior in regard to marriage and conversion. Another issue is ‘religious pluralism’, which means the fact that Orthodox synagogues and rabbis are subsidized by the government’s Religious Affairs Ministry while liberal streams of Judaism are not. The URJ’s associated groups have filed numerous lawsuits in connection with these issues. The controversies are presented as evidence for Israel’s failure as a liberal democracy.

They resonate as civil rights issues in the US. But they haven’t ever become serious concerns for most Israelis, who are much more concerned with security and economic problems. The average secular Israeli sees both the Women of the Wall and the Haredi Rabbi of the Kotel as radical extremists, and their struggle as having nothing to do with ‘normal people’.

The URJ also takes a strong position for a ‘2-state solution’ and is critical of Israel’s settlements across the Green Line. In the US it has supported the Obama Administration’s policies (after agonizing for a time, it decided ‘not to take a position’ on the Iran deal that was strongly opposed by both the Israeli government and opposition). Many American Reform rabbis belong to J Street, and the President of the URJ, Rabbi Rick Jacobs, is a former activist in both J Street and the New Israel Fund.

Jacobs wasn’t shy about his intention to intervene in Israeli politics when he outlined his positions in his 2015 biennial address and announced that the URJ would not “check [its] commitment to tikkun olam at the door.”

The American Reform Movement, in its 1885 Pittsburgh Platform was explicitly anti-Zionist. After the state of Israel was established it was grudgingly accepted, but it wasn’t until the 1997 Miami Platform that Reform Judaism began to present itself as a Zionist movement. But two years later it began to specify the kind of Jewish state it wanted Israel to be, and the proprietary attitude has only gotten stronger. Like the Obama Administration and J Street, Reform seems to love us to death.

All of this fits neatly with the program of the tiny but loud Israeli Left, which lately has been arguing that the liberal Israel that they knew and loved is being replaced by an undemocratic, theocratic and militaristic monster, the Jewish counterpart of the Islamic State. They too want to make us better.

Just as very few Israelis are attracted to Reform Judaism, very few agree with the political point of view that the URJ espouses. And neither secular nor religious Israelis buy the idea that Israel is becoming undemocratic, theocratic and militaristic. What is happening is that the cultural elites that have set the tone here since 1948 are finally changing to match the more right-wing political landscape. Naturally, those being deposed are unhappy.

Regardless of whether they think Reform Judaism is a “made up religion” or even care, most Israelis think that decisions affecting life in this country should be made here, and not by a liberal American organization that represents very few of us. And that is the real issue.

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2 Responses to What’s the problem with Reform Judaism?

  1. Keefe Goldfisher says:

    Prior to the horrendous shootings in Dallas this week, news was dominated by Hillary Clinton’s great escape from indictment. Citizens who were disgusted by the appearance of a double standard, one that allows the very corrupt Clintons to avoid prosecution, and another that applies to the rest of Americans, were voluble about the role Director Comey donned for himself pointing out the inapplicability of the law by reason of intent.

    Stand back from this lamentable morality play and regard the long arc of the Clinton’s malfeasance–nearly 40 years of the same behavior on the public’s dime uncorrected by anything other than getting voted out of office, or deciding to run for even higher office–and it starts to resemble all public events where it would seem general trends tell the tale of reality winning through, but what registers in the news comes across as a malevolent resurrection.

    It is good to hear, between the lines of your essay, the general inefficacy of Reform Judaism’s influence in both the religious and political realms, but the battle still rages at the edges where the potential to do harm akin to what the Clintons and Obama and liberal Jews do here, is strong. I want to have faith that because Israel can jail a President and a Prime Minister, that it is tamping down the influence of the Jacobs’ and Haaretz’s, and moving to invigorate its polity and align it with the generally more sober right that should be hatching policy instead of being constantly overruled by what Martin Sherman refers to as the back-seat drivers in the limousine of state.

    But look at how long the Clintons have been able to run their con. Forty years and counting, and the very real possibility hangs over us that it can go another 8 if Madame Clinton is elected President. When I read these columns, I come away feeling more confident that the trends toward Israel’s proper assertion of sovereignty have been strengthened… Yet there are so many kooks and malicious souls to push back on that it literally exhausts the mind and spirit to deal with each affront. How long has Rick Jacobs and the Reform movement been at their shenanigans? You used to write about it at Frezno-Zionism. How long has J-Street avoided dissolution; an obviously anti-Israel group that just keeps lingering around. Ehud Barak got up and burbled the other day about some notion he had–wasn’t he retired? Martin Indyk is still causing trouble for Israel; Dennis Ross pens an occasional peace-processor’s lament; BDS still breathes; the UN chugs along on it quest for record-breaking numbers of anti-Israel resolutions.

    Edward G. Robinson told an anecdote about a party he attended very late in life, shortly before his death. A young and very beautiful woman was introduced to him. Amid her gushing over his movies she also let slip, ‘I thought you had died!’. He had a good laugh from it.

    Not only can we not seem to shed our lesser angels, but the scale of waiting for their exit seems to vastly exceed routine patience, and there is nothing amusing or even reassuring about the constant reappearance of supposedly enfeebled old foes.

  2. chazer503 says:

    I find this article and the Goldfisher’s response to be in spot. The Democrats and their
    meshuga plank builders from Bernie’s tribe represent liberalism in its ugliest. It must
    be a certain credo for any and all Jews, regardless of what or if not religious at all-
    Israel is totally capable, through its democratic structure, to make their own decisions.
    If on wants the right to voice their opinion-then make “aliyah”.

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