How Dare Reform Rabbis Speak on Behalf of 'Diaspora Jewry'?

When Reform leaders level veiled threats at Israel in the name of 'Diaspora Jewry' – accept our Judaism or else – they're not speaking for me nor for Orthodoxy, the real epicenter of Israel support in America.

Reform and Conservative Jews.
Illustration by Ruth Gvili

He may not have meant it as a threat, but Reform Rabbi Rick Jacobs, president of the Union for Reform Judaism, certainly sounded like he was delivering an ultimatum last month when he warned that if an area at the Western Wall is not set aside for non-Orthodox services, “it will signal a serious rupture in the relationship between Diaspora Jewry and the Jewish state.”   

It struck my ears like a Jewish version of a protection racket pitch.  “Hey, nice relationship you got there.  Be a real shame if anything bad happened to it” 

Rabbi Jacobs has been vocal about the need, as he sees it, for Israel to officially recognize non-Orthodox Jewish movements’ standards in personal status issues. He views Israel’s longstanding halakhic standard and its halakha-respecting Rabbinate as offensive to religious rights.  Thus, the “rupture” he warns of if Israel doesn’t embrace “Jewish religious pluralism.”

If he indeed meant to make Reform Jews’ support for Israel dependent on her adoption of the Reform movement’s determinations in religious matters, that’s regrettable.  And if he imagines his movement as “Diaspora Jewry,” that’s risible.

To be sure, Reform lays claim to being the largest Jewish religious movement in North America.  Its official magazine, “Reform Judaism,” boasted a quarterly circulation to “nearly 300,000 households, synagogues, and other Jewish institutions,” according to its advertising department.  But the periodical has folded, and published its final issue (whose cover story, significantly, celebrated Jews who sport tattoos, which the Torah expressly forbids) in 2014.  How many of even its erstwhile subscribers are actually active in the movement, though, is questionable  (This one, who subscribed for years, is decidedly Orthodox.)  

By contrast, American Orthodoxy is indeed puny, or, at least, may seem that way to a dullard’s eye.  But a perceptive observer, gauging things not by magazine subscriptions but by growth, vibrancy and connections to Israel, will discern a very different picture of “Diaspora Jewry.”

Approximately 10 percent of American Jews identify as Orthodox; 35 percent, as Reform.  But whereas, by very definition, Orthodox Jews consider their Jewish identity of great importance, according to the 2013 Pew report on American Jewry, a mere 43 percent of self-identified Reform Jews say being Jewish is very important to them. When the question posed is how important their religion is to them, the percentage drops to 16.  Which helps explain why fully half of married Reform Jews married non-Jews.

The Orthodox not only have Jewish spouses but endeavor to have large families, as per Judaism’s directive.  The average number of children for middle-aged American Orthodox Jews is 4.1; the number rises considerably in the ultra-Orthodox community.  The average in the rest of the American Jewish population is 1.9.  The picture of “Diaspora Jewry” is clearly morphing considerably.

And when it comes to attachment to Israel, the contrast between Orthodox and non-Orthodox American Jews is similarly stark.  The Pew survey found that 61 percent of American Orthodox Jews say they are very emotionally attached to Israel, whereas 27 percent of other American Jews say the same.  

Orthodox Jews are more likely than American Jews of any other denomination to have traveled to Israel; 77 percent have done so, compared with 40 percent of Reform Jews.

I honestly don’t enjoy contrasting Reform’s failings with Orthodoxy’s successes.  And doing so invariably draws accusations of “triumphalism.”  But when a Reform leader arrogates to speak for “Diaspora Jewry,” well, as King Solomon said, “There is a time for everything.”

And, in any event, what is triumphant here is not any segment of population but rather the Jewish religious heritage of all Jews, the ancient system of belief and practice that defined the lives of the forebears of us all until, historically speaking, fairly recently.  

So, while Rabbi Jacobs may have standing to speak for some American Jews, he does not represent the sizable and thriving segment of American Jewry that lives Judaism, that most broadly supports Israel morally and financially, whose members most frequently visit her (and send their children to study there) and are the prime engine of American aliyah.  

There’s much to say about the “multi-winged” model of Jewish life that has so compromised the American Jewish community and the toll it would take, if adopted by Israel, on Israeli society – including the splitting of the populace into different “Jewish peoples.”  But Rabbi Jacobs is welcome to make what case he can that “religious pluralism” would somehow be a healthy import for a population whose most secular members already live more Jewishly-informed lives than the average American member of his movement.

One thing he may not do, though, not if facts matter, is present himself as the voice of Diaspora Jewry.  There is another substantial and very different Diaspora voice, resonant and strong, and it supports a single Jewish standard in Israel, and a single Jewish people.

Rabbi Avi Shafran is a columnist for the American edition of Hamodia, blogs at www.rabbiavishafran.com and serves as Agudath Israel of America’s director of public affairs. Follow him on Twitter: @RabbiAviShafran