Reform Jewry That Even an Israeli Could Understand

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A Reform Shabbat prayer service at the Reform Yuval Congregation in Gedera. Photo courtesy of the Yuval Congregation.

Reform Judaism: Thought, Culture and Sociology, Edited by Avinoam Rosenak, Van Leer Jerusalem Institute and Hakibbutz Hameuchad, 557 pages, 112 shekels

Around a decade ago I lived in Irvine, California, near Los Angeles. There were three synagogues, all on the same street: Orthodox, Conservative and Reform. The Jews were split among the three (the Reform congregation was clearly in the lead), even though to my untutored eye most Jews who attended them were, in Israeli terms, secular.

No movement is as invisible in Israel as the Reform movement, which in the United States is the largest Jewish movement. There’s very little Hebrew-language literature about Reform Jewry, and what exists is largely historical — most notably the translation of Michael Meyer’s excellent “Response to Modernity: A History of the Reform Movement in Judaism” (1988).

Or the stuff is programmatic writing by people on the inside. Thus “Reform Judaism: Thought, Culture and Sociology,” edited by Avinoam Rosenak, is essential reading.

Though its quality is spotty, and some of the writers’ acquaintance with Reform Judaism is solely textual, it contains a wealth of analyses – both social and philosophical – of the American and Israeli contexts. Fortunately, the collection doesn't not focus on the repression of the movement in Israeli law – the much-disparaged Orthodox monopoly. Rather, if probes the movement's nature and  inner debates.

The Reform movement has undergone many changes in its 200-plus years, from formalism to communitarianism, from anti-Zionist to Zionist (and after the Six-Day War, devoutly Zionist), from opposition to rabbinical law to conservatism.

Members of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism in a gay parade in Washington DC.Credit: Tim Evanson

The movement’s European founders saw themselves as Germans of the Mosaic faith, and its foundation was the universal morality of the Prophets. The immigration to the United States gave the movement full civic acceptability but exposed it to the individualist American world and later the large East European immigration. For those Jews, the elitist and cold “temples,” not to mention English as a language of prayer, was totally alien.

At the start of the 20th century the movement became more national, traditional and “Hebrew.” In the second half of the century it underwent another transformation and took in existentialist, pluralist (“the big tent”) and even New Age trends.

The history of the Reform movement is the history of modern Jewry, and of its move (at first willing, later by force) from Europe to the United States. After that the story is, in many senses, the American-Jewish story of the 20th century: the success of the immigration to the New World, the Americanization, the shift to the suburbs, the great flourishing after World War II, the incredible immersion in the capitalist game, the search for a Jewish identity and the transformation of Israel into a major focus of identity.

German lesson

The field of Jewish studies, too, is intertwined with the movement’s development. The 1832 German-language book “The Worship Sermons of the Jews, Historically Developed” by Leopold Zunz was the pioneering volume on research into the Sages. To this day it’s the most important introduction to the literature of the Midrash and Aggadah. It was born as part of Zunz’s effort to revive the institution of the drasha, or homily, in light of his disappointing experience as a preacher at the “temple” in Berlin.

A few decades later Abraham Geiger of Breslau, a leader of the movement, tried to prove that the Pharisees, the forbearers of the Talmud sages, were always flexible in their approach to the Bible and tradition, basically founding the study of post-biblical Judaism. Hermann Cohen, the most important Jewish philosopher of the19th century, taught at the Reform rabbinical seminary in Berlin; his position on moral monotheism as the kernel of Judaism must be understood in the context of the growth of Reform thinking at the time.

It’s a pity that these European contexts are completely absent from this new book, and that it doesn’t contain a historical description, including the German roots, of the period between the end of the 18th century and the Holocaust.

An entire section of the book is devoted to rabbinical law. The writers stress the tension between revising rabbinical law and revising the religion — an abandonment of rabbinical law. It emerges that the willingness for change in rabbinical law is not the key to understanding the tensions in the movement, but rather the attitude toward change, the loss of innocence.

It’s not that the continuity of rabbinical law was broken, but rather the myth of the continuity, which began at Mount Sinai. Indeed, Reform writing deals with the attempt to create alternative myths, prime among them “ongoing revelation.”

To this must be added the fascinating duality in the Reform approach to ritual: on the one hand, a preference for the morality of the Prophets and scorn for those clinging to outdated customs, on the other a quasi-Protestant dignity of ritual. Both  aspects were blurred in America after the Holocaust.

But overall it seems the great interest in rabbinical law stems more from the writers of the articles than from the movement itself. There is a vast gap between the treatment of rabbinical law by the movement’s rabbis (and their declarations for a return to rabbinical law in recent decades) and the very limited interest among community members.

Responsa Committee rulings are hardly ever made on the personal level – the main place for traditional rabbinical rulings – but rather in the context of community policy; for example, the ordination of women rabbis, same-sex marriage, the acceptance of “mixed-marriage” couples into congregations. Here, too, centralist rulings often exist separately from actual life in the congregations.

Beginning with the 1797 removal of the Av Harahamim (Father of Mercy) – a medieval Ashkenazi prayer calling on God to exact swift vengeance for the spilling of His servants’ blood – from an Amsterdam congregation’s prayer book, the history of the Reform movement is entwined with the history of liturgical changes. It’s entwined with changes in language (from Hebrew to German to English and back to Hebrew), in synagogue architecture and in prayer books. Since the beginning of the 19th century there have been more than 100 editions of the prayer book.

Manifestation of a market economy

More than Reform Judaism was a theological revolution or rabbinical-law revolution, it was a liturgical revolution, Hebrew Union College’s Dalia Marx has written about the prayer book’s incarnations. The changes have to do with form but also with the basics of faith.

Ever since Geiger (“We must rid our prayers of their remnants that we have overcome,” he wrote in 1860), the editors of the various prayer books have been trying to replace mentions of the resurrection of the dead with the more spiritual and rational permanence of the soul.

The debates were so stormy that sometimes it seemed they could lead to a schism in the movement, writes Marx.

A key theme lies in the background of the book edited by Rosenak: the movement’s huge success in the United States and its lack of success in Israel. Brandeis’ Jonathan Sarna takes pride in the growth of the movement, whereas Hebrew University’s Eliezer Schweid criticizes it harshly and sees it as a manifestation of a market economy.

To Schweid, it’s a religion that has become a “spiritual commodity,” a provider of thrills and meaning. It does not demand anything.

As Schweid has put it, “An authentic religion speaks in the name of a spiritual truth and imposes on the individual obligations to his God before promising him rewards of happiness and the awareness of meaning in his life .... Therefore from the religious perspective, the Reform deal as Sarna describes it is totally a loss.”

The problem with Schweid’s analysis is the disassociation of the Reform story from broader phenomena in the Judaism of recent decades. Both the individualistic New Age approach and the use of religion as a political tool serving the nation are not unique to Reform Judaism.

In the Israeli context, some critics accuse the movement of a lack of sufficient effort. As Aviad Cohen has written: Instead of settling in the hearts of the public, the Reform movement has settled in the halls of the Supreme Court.

Asher Cohen explains the phenomenon with the help of the words of political scientist Shlomo Avineri: “The synagogue I don’t attend is an Orthodox synagogue.” Despite the reservations, the Orthodox approach is still seen as an authentic expression of Judaism.

But these are descriptions without an explanation. And the basic explanation is perfectly obvious: What Reform Judaism gives the American Jew – basic identity and belonging to a community – is provided in Israel by Zionism. There are two important differences. In Israel, identity is a given. You don’t need to work on it, and you certainly don’t need to account for it.

When novelist A.B. Yehoshua scolds American Jews that for them Judaism is like a garment that can be donned and removed, whereas in Israel it’s like skin, he’s missing the point. A garment has to be worked on, while skin is taken for granted.

I know many people who have discovered the synagogue while living abroad, because in Israel not only did they not feel a need to maintain their religious identity, they felt a burden in established religion and the dependency on the interior minister.

But there is a more crucial difference: The flag, the Hebrew language and school replace tradition and the community.

A new Judaism has developed in Israel; the main elements are victimhood – from Antiochus, Haman and Pharaoh to Holocaust Remembrance Day and Memorial Day – with a generous dollop of “we are the chosen people.” Without humanism and basic textual literacy, is this a source of great pride?

Prof. Ishay Rosen-Zvi teaches in the Department of Hebrew Culture Studies at Tel Aviv University.