The 800-Pound Gorilla of American Judaism

I won’t write about Peter Beinart’s latest obscene appropriation of Jewish concepts in the service of putting an end to the third Jewish commonwealth and returning the Jewish people to a condition of persecution and dispersal. He gets too much attention as it is. If you care, read this or this.

But I am interested in exploring where he and the Jewish audience that applauds him came from. What happened to the immigrant Jews like my grandparents, who put a few pennies in the pushka on Shabbat for the Jews trying to create a state? Their descendants go to college, join If Not Now, and say kaddish for Hamas terrorists. My grandmother would have kicked their butts around the block.

Much is written about the “gap” between American Jews and Israelis. Israelis wonder how American Jews can fail to understand the geopolitical insecurity that’s a fundamental fact of life for them. Americans think that Israelis are arrogant and treat them as “not real Jews.” There are several things that make communication difficult.

To start with, most non-Orthodox Jews in America have almost nothing in common with Jewish Israelis, religious or secular. Everything is different. Most Israeli Jews do compulsory military service and reserve duty, but few American Jews serve. Most American Jews go to university immediately after high school; Israelis wait until after their army service (and usually after several months or years of travelling). Israelis get married and have relatively numerous children; Americans often do neither.

Recent Israeli history includes numerous conflicts in which soldiers and reservists have been killed or seriously wounded; America’s professional military insulates the rest of the society from their losses. Terrorism is an almost daily occurrence in Israel; at least as yet, America has experienced comparatively few incidents of terrorism. The last time artillery shells struck the American mainland was during the Civil War; the last rocket attack against Israeli towns was last week.

Israeli Jews, even secular ones, tend to know more about Judaism. Every child studies the bible in school. Biblical themes are found in popular culture. In America, religion is an aggressively private matter. Non-Orthodox American Jewish children may have some religious education in the very non-rigorous weekly lessons provided by Reform or Conservative congregations, if their parents are members. Israeli children are surrounded by Jewish history and customs. The fact that Hebrew is the mother tongue of most Israelis makes it much easier for them to obtain basic Jewish literacy.

I like to say that the Torah is a story about the three-way relationship between God, the Jewish people, and the land of Israel. But even an Israeli that does not believe in God can feel the connection with the land. Consider the atheist kibbutzniks who plowed during the day and wrote poems to Eretz Yisrael at night.

I believe that there is a reason that so many Jews of America have lost that connection.

In America, the largest denomination is the Reform movement, representing 35% of Americans who identify as Jews (another 30% have no denomination, 18% are Conservative, 10% Orthodox, and 6% “other”). The movement claims to have 1 million members and even more adherents in the US and Canada, although the membership has been dropping steadily in recent decades since its heyday in the mid-to-late 20th century.

The Reform Movement started in 19th century Germany, in part as an attempt to make it possible for Jews to enter the broader society and take advantage of the opportunities which they believed would become available as a result of the climate of relative tolerance that was sweeping Europe, while still maintaining their Jewish faith – or a version of it.

The early reformers did away with those parts of Jewish ritual that set Jews apart. They dressed like Germans, they ate like Germans, they worshiped (on Sunday) like Germans, and some even called themselves “Germans of the Mosaic Persuasion.” As everyone knows, German Jew-hatred managed to overcome even this.

Reform Judaism took root in America for similar reasons. Although there were few civil laws that oppressed Jews, the strict rules of Orthodox Judaism prevented full participation in society. The founders of the Reform movement also believed, like the Germans, that much traditional Jewish ritual was superstitious and meaningless to modern Americans, who would not be rebuilding a Temple in Jerusalem. And, like the Germans of the Mosaic Persuasion, they did not want to be seen as foreigners. Indeed, the 1885 Pittsburgh Platform, the first manifesto of the Reform movement in America, explicitly stated that

We consider ourselves no longer a nation, but a religious community, and therefore expect neither a return to Palestine, nor a sacrificial worship under the sons of Aaron, nor the restoration of any of the laws concerning the Jewish state.

They believed that they would be able to fill the voids left by the elimination of the so-called “ritual commandments” like observance of kashrut and Shabbat by emphasizing the “ethical commandments” and the prophetic tradition, which they interpreted as a call for social justice.

The early Reform rabbis at least were well-grounded in the tradition that they were rejecting. But one of the advantages of Reform Judaism for many Americans was that it was easy*. You didn’t have to find kosher meat, you could work on Shabbat if your boss wanted you to, and you didn’t need to learn a foreign language. This is as true in the 21st century as it was in the 19th.

The Boomer generation was sent to Reform religious school by their first generation American parents who felt guilty for the fact that they had neglected the Judaism of their immigrant parents. They were not observant themselves, but they wanted their kids to be Jewish in some sense. The future rebels of the 1960s were bored out of their minds. They couldn’t see how any of this stuff, these holidays when their parents would get all dressed up and drag them to interminable services that were simply meaningless, had any relevance to them.

Later they got religion of a different kind, throwing themselves into the civil rights or antiwar movements, or the various unfocused  leftist causes of the 1960s. Most of them did not connect any of this to what they had ignored back in religious school.

The Reform movement, meanwhile, was having trouble. People were looking for spiritual content in their religion, and traditional Reform Judaism had squeezed it all out. Many Jewish seekers embraced Buddhism or other Eastern traditions. Nothing was less spiritual than repeating the prayers in the Union Prayer Book, written in archaic English, praising an abstract God over and over.

The Reform Movement flailed around, trying to recapture its public. It reintroduced some Hebrew into its services, invented new traditions, and most importantly, embraced its version of Tikkun Olam – understood as social justice action – as the centerpiece of Reform observance.

The emblem of Tikkun Olam was Rabbi Abraham Joshua Herschel walking arm-in-arm with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. But as time went by, it became harder and harder to distinguish the specifically Jewish character of the “mitzvah” of Tikkun Olam from liberal politics – and then from more and more radical progressive ideology.

Unfortunately liberal and progressive politics isn’t very friendly to Israel. At best, they want the Jewish state to make dangerous concessions to the Palestinians. Or they believe – like Peter Beinart – that a Jewish state is unnecessary, and in the name of justice should be replaced by some kind of binational state. At worst, they want Israel to disappear.

After the movement appointed Rabbi Rick Jacobs its president, the movement adopted the position that Jewish ethical principles call on them to “help” Israel become better, in spite of herself. Who would think that American Jews, who neither understand the situation in Israel’s neighborhood nor will have to face the consequences of any mistakes, should have the right to dictate what Israel should do? But Jacobs has said over and over that his movement not only has the right, it has a duty to do so.

Not all anti-Israel Jews are Reform Jews. Some are Reconstructionists, some secular, some are atheists. Some hate all religion. And the Reform movement has not (yet) endorsed Beinart’s binational state or followed Jewish Voice for Peace into the company of Haman and Amalek.

But it is the 800-pound gorilla of American Judaism, and its embrace of progressivism, with its component of intersectional support for the Palestinian Cause, that has legitimized anti-Zionism for all American Jews.

* I’m reminded of the early Jewish followers of Jesus, who found that they would have an easier time attracting former pagans to their group by dropping all that hard stuff.

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3 Responses to The 800-Pound Gorilla of American Judaism

  1. Sidney Orr says:

    Yes, excellent, again. Let us all hope for
    a resurgent “right” in coming elections.

  2. levari says:

    True, but a bit of a generalization. A lot of young Jews are starting to wise up and reexamine what their future looks like here–and who their actual friends are.

  3. Shalom Freedman says:

    I do not know if this piece does justice to American Jewry as a whole, though I certainly agree with the condemnation of those who have made themselves enemies of Israel.
    My worry this morning and I suspect for many mornings to come is that these people will have an Administration in Washington that thinks as they do in regard to Israel, or perhaps even worse.
    My concern is that the great friend of Israel will leave us alone here with a China-backed- Iran and surrogates. And that the war in which we may succeed in destroying our enemies will nonetheless devastate our society.

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