Taking Reform Jews Seriously

Taking Reform Jews Seriously

Editor & Publisher of The NY Jewish Week.

Dallas — I wish the chief rabbinate of Israel had sent a representative or two last weekend to the Reform movement’s biennial convention here. These emissaries would have seen more than 4,000 delegates participating in a conference whose theme was “Renewing The Covenant: Our Reform Jewish Future,” and which focused on “the need to return to God and Torah,” in the words of Rabbi Eric Yoffie, the leader of American Jewry’s largest denomination.They would have seen thousands of delegates at prayer, in sessions and workshops on spirituality and healing, and listening to Rabbi Yoffie call for a renewed commitment to Torah study at home and Torah reading at times of communal worship. They would have heard him propose a movement-wide Tikkun Layl Shavuot, or night of intensive Torah study to usher in the Shavuot holiday next spring, symbolizing what the rabbi hopes will be “the most intensive year of Torah study in the history of Reform Judaism.”

This is not to say that the Reform has abandoned its liberal, non-halachic approach to Judaism — the convention cuisine was not kosher — but it does underscore Rabbi Yoffie’s emphasis on the recent trend toward ritual and tradition in a movement where intermarriage rates are dangerously high and Jewish literacy is depressingly low. The rabbi and other movement leaders are trying to counter the negative spiral by injecting a more serious approach to prayer and study into an agenda that largely has been synonymous with social action for decades.Whether the approach will work remains to be seen, but the Israeli chief rabbis, who have denounced some Reform rabbis as “clowns,” and worse, have yet to appreciate that there are large numbers of Reform men, women and teenagers out there who take their Judaism seriously. And it’s much more difficult to dismiss them when you’ve encountered them as real people.The same is true, of course, of Reform leaders who publicly disparage the chief rabbis as antiquated medievalists, giving Israel’s Ashkenazic and Sephardic religious leaders no credit for their level of Judaic scholarship, observance and humanity.

Stereotypes work both ways and are always the enemy of honest encounters. That’s why I would make it mandatory, in the quest for increased tolerance among us, that Orthodox, Conservative and Reform leaders attend, and address, each other’s conventions. Getting to know each other is the first step toward breaking down barriers of prejudice and misunderstanding. Let the rabbis disagree, by all means, but face to face, in real dialogue, rather than by taking rhetorical potshots at unseen adversaries across the ocean.The most popular button seen at the convention had a simple, powerful message. It read, “Israel: Don’t Write Off 4 Million Jews.” There were many delegates who expressed anger and frustration over the Israeli government’s move toward passing a conversion bill in the Knesset that would, in their eyes, codify the notion that non-Orthodox Jews are second-class Jews.

Now that the Ne’eman committee in Jerusalem has been given a three-month extension in trying to work out a compromise among the Orthodox and non-Orthodox streams, there appears to be a division among Reform leaders over how hard to push for recognition in Israel. The disagreement is embodied by Rabbi Ammiel Hirsch, director of the Association of Reform Zionists of America, and his father, Rabbi Richard Hirsch, executive director of the World Union for Progressive Judaism, who advocated different approaches toward the non-Orthodox movements’ efforts in Israel.The younger Rabbi Hirsch asserted that the liberals will prove triumphant because “you can’t sustain over time anti-democratic values in a democratic society.”

He called for an additional $100,000 in funding to fuel an advertising and media effort in Israel over the next three months to win Knesset votes and empathy among Israelis “for this monumental struggle for the soul of the Jewish people and the future of Judaism.”But his father urged caution and conciliation, asserting that “compromise is not a sign of weakness but of strength.“Israel-diaspora relations are more important than our rights,” he said in calling for patience. And the senior Rabbi Hirsch used the metaphor of atomic war, insisting that if the liberal groups’ efforts fail, the damages of internecine war among the Jews cannot be calculated. “I don’t want to push that button,” he said.There are signs of a rift, as well, between the Conservative and Reform movements on this issue.

Publicly, the two groups have taken a unified stand in attacking Israel’s Orthodox establishment. But there are serious religious differences between the two liberal branches — Conservative rabbis, for example, do not recognize Reform conversions or patrilineal Jews — as well as conflicting strategies regarding how to proceed in pressing their cause now. Israel appears to be using a divide-and-conquer approach by telling the Conservative group in effect, we can deal with you because you respect halacha; just separate yourself from the Reform.Uri Regev, an Israeli Reform rabbi and member of the Ne’eman committee, told me that as nasty as things have been until now, the next three months will be far more contentious as the committee grapples with its impending deadline and emotions run high. That’s why a button we should all wear now would say, “Jews: Don’t Write Off Each Other. We’re All We Have.”

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