Why Israel Desperately Needs Reform Judaism

Reform Judaism has not failed in Israel - and ultimately, it will triumph. Here are the reasons for optimism.

Rabbi Eric H. Yoffie
Eric H. Yoffie
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Rabbi Eric H. Yoffie
Eric H. Yoffie

The enemies of Israeli Reform Judaism see it as a failure. While it aspires to be a mass movement, its detractors point out that it is far from being that. A large majority of Israel’s population has only the vaguest notion of what Reform Judaism is all about.

In this view, Reform Judaism in Israel is primarily an American religious movement transplanted to Israeli soil. It is an example of American Jewish “denominationalism” in a place where such thinking has little relevance or meaning.

This critique is not altogether wrong. The Israeli Reform movement is indeed small, and its penetration into Israeli society has been limited. But Reform Judaism has not failed in Israel; in the ideological realm, it is a spectacular success. Institutional growth will come with time, but for now, Reform Judaism in Israel has dared to offer an audacious and radical challenge to the principles of mainstream Zionism.

And such a challenge is desperately needed. After all, while Zionism has succeeded in creating a Jewish state, it has failed miserably in defining what Judaism means in such a state. In fact, Zionism has done its best to kill off Judaism altogether.

Half of Israel’s population is either Orthodox (roughly 20%) or traditional with Orthodox sympathies (roughly 30%). But 65 years after Israel’s founding, the vibrant and creative Orthodoxy that one would have expected to develop there is nowhere to be found. The ultra-Orthodox have withdrawn to their ghettos, casting off basic responsibilities of citizenship, including army service; three Orthodox parties are known mostly for their shamelessly self-serving politics; and the enormous religious bureaucracy, headed by a corrupt Chief Rabbinate that regularly misuses its coercive power, repels and infuriates Israelis. In America, Orthodoxy is dynamic and often inspirational; in Israel, at least in its institutional forms, it is an embarrassment.

The rest of the population has followed the path of Israel’s socialist founders, who were, at best, indifferent to Judaism as a religious tradition and, at worst, dismissive of religious practice and belief. David Ben-Gurion had contempt for religion; he never went to synagogue, never covered his head, and never observed Jewish holidays—including Yom Kippur. The nearly 50% of Israel’s Jewish citizens who now define themselves as secular Jews are not quite as hostile to religion as Ben-Gurion was, but they aren’t friendly to it either. For them, being secular means that religion is a secondary affair, marginal to their daily concerns.

Respected Israeli political and cultural figures, such as A.B. Yehoshua and Ruth Calderon, offer insightful thinking about Jewish matters. Nonetheless, their perspective is profoundly secular; in their view, if there is to be a Jewish renewal of any sort in Israel, it will be secular in character.

Enter Israeli Reform Judaism. Despite hostility from the Orthodox and secularists alike, it proclaims a bold message: The State of Israel cannot sustain itself without some connection to Jewish religion, God, and Torah. No sane person can think that Israelis are the first Jews in 3500 years who have no need for mitzvoth, prayer, and the sacredness of Jewish texts and traditions.

To the Orthodox it says: Israel is a modern state and requires a modern Judaism of the sort that Reform Judaism offers. Israel desperately needs an evolving and changing Judaism—a Judaism that is egalitarian and inclusive; that promotes justice and cares about the world; and that educates and convinces rather than compels.

And to the secularists it says: Don’t make the mistake of thinking that Israel will always be Jewish because it has a Jewish majority. Reform Jews believe in a diverse, pluralistic Judaism, but if the Jews of Israel lose all connection with Jewish religious practice and belief, they can and will assimilate. Fifty years from now, the Jewish State could find itself populated by Hebrew-speaking, no-longer-Jewish Israelis who are perfectly content to separate themselves from the Jewish people around the world.

It is not surprising that Reform Judaism is a small movement; what’s surprising is that, given its bold, countercultural approach, it has made so much progress.

And this progress is impressive. With no support from a government that lavishes funds on Orthodox institutions, it has built a network of schools and synagogues, including half a dozen large synagogue-centers in Israel’s major cities. With little backing from politicians who cower before the Orthodox parties, it has made an impact on the political system, mostly by filing legal appeals for religious rights with Israel’s Supreme Court. And bit by bit, it has begun to reach more Jews and touch more lives.

Difficulties should not be minimized, and progress made should not be exaggerated. Israelis are searching—desperately, awkwardly, and often in bizarre ways—for spirituality and religious meaning, but most have yet to make a connection with Reform Judaism. Still, there are three reasons for optimism.

First, Reform Judaism’s Israeli seminary – the Hebrew Union College in Jerusalem—has ordained more than 60 Israeli graduates. Israeli Reform Judaism can only thrive with Israeli-trained rabbis, and in a few years, more than 100 such men and women will be working in Israel—teaching, leading congregations, and bringing liberal Judaism to Israel’s grassroots.

Second, Israeli politicians are mostly a timid bunch, but there is a limit to how much abuse Israel’s impatient electorate will tolerate from the Chief Rabbinate and its minions. And Diaspora Jews are fed up as well, furious and frustrated with decades of empty promises from Israel’s leaders. The time is coming when Reform Judaism will be granted equality before the law in Israel—meaning recognition and funding now denied to Reform rabbis and institutions.

And finally, Reform Judaism will triumph because its message will carry the day. Zionism, after all, is not a political idea; it is a religious concept, rooted in covenant, religious commitment, and faith. And a state built on Zionism must make room for multiple expressions of Judaism, including Reform Judaism—the largest religious movement in the Jewish world.

Rabbi Eric H. Yoffie served as president of the Union for Reform Judaism from 1996 to 2012. He is now a writer, lecturer and teacher, and lives with his family in Westfield, New Jersey.

Women wear tallitot and tefillin as they pray at the Western Wall.Credit: Tali Mayer

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