Opinion

Why Are Reform Jews Waging War on Orthodoxy?

If Reform Jewish leaders were really honest with themselves, this is what they would say – acknowledging they’ve elevated their opposition to Orthodoxy far above grappling with the critical problems in their own house

Reform and Conservative rabbis protest at the Western Wall, November, 2016.
Emil Salman

Reform rabbis Rick Jacobs and Gilad Kariv, the president of the Union for Reform Judaism and president/CEO of the Israel Movement for Progressive and Reform Judaism respectively, recently indulged in a bit of fantasy.

They laid out the speech they wished Prime Minister Netanyahu would make to the General Assembly of Jewish Federations of North America soon to take place in Tel Aviv (The One Speech Netanyahu Will Never Make to Diaspora Jews). The speech, they add, that the prime minister would deliver, if only he decided "to honor true dialogue – and not the tele-prompter."

Among the statements the Reform leaders wistfully imagine the prime minister making is a declaration that the Kotel is "a place that should unite – not divide – all Jews. And an announcement that the Netanyahu government will enforce an agreement to create a separate, pluralistic section of the Wall so that there can be ‘One Wall for One People.’"

"Jewish life in the Diaspora," the fantasized prime minister is imagined acknowledging, "is thriving today, especially in North America."

For my part, I harbor, in my own hopeful mind’s eye, my own fantasy speech, one delivered by Rabbis Jacobs and Kariv to the same august body. It goes something like this:

"Thank you all for coming here to Tel Aviv to show your concern for Israel’s religious future. We all want to see Israel as a place where all Jews can feel comfortable and appreciated, and a Kotel that is welcoming to all Jews, whatever their religious affiliations or personal practices.

But God’s "signature," our religious tradition teaches, is Truth, and it is time we were fully honest with ourselves.

For more than 50 years, the Kotel has in fact been "One Wall for One People," – the only place in the world where Jews of all types – black-hatted and head-covered haredim, national-religious, Reform, Conservative and agnostic – have stood together, and prayed.

The Orthodox, who made up, and continue to make up, the vast majority of "regulars" at the site, have never checked what prayer books visitors used or what head-coverings were worn, if any. They were, and remain, happy for any Jew to share the holy place with them - to pray and let pray.

The reason why vocal public services at the holy site have hewn to traditional halakhic standards for more than a half-century was and is not, we must honestly acknowledge, to disenfranchise any Jew, but rather to allow Jews of different persuasions and affiliations to stand together as one.

We all know that we are free to hold whatever egalitarian and progressive services we want in the temples and synagogues we have established throughout Israel.

Birthright participants from Uganda attend a prayer at the mixed-gender prayer area at the Western Wall in Jerusalem. 27 August 2018
Olivier Fitoussi

Do we really need to balkanize the Kotel, having our Orthodox brethren and other traditionalists at one area of the Wall and those of us who value progressive agendas above all else in another place – each out of the sight, and the presence, of the other? Should we want that?

I submit to you that, no, we shouldn’t.

[Grumbling, eventually fading to stunned silence]

Our honesty should extend, too, to whether non-Orthodox Jewish life in North America is, in fact, as we claim, thriving. All of us know in our hearts that it is not.

If we ever imagined it was, we were disabused of the notion by the 2013 Pew report on American Jewry. It revealed that a mere 43% of Jews affiliating with our movement say that being Jewish is very important to them – and that doesn’t include the fully 30% of American Jews who are unaffiliated with any movement and care even less about their Jewishness.

And that a full 28% of those raised in our movement have, in the report’s words, "left the ranks of Jews by religion entirely."

Can we reasonably argue that our approach to things like conversion, marriage and divorce – not to mention intermarriage – will benefit Israel? No, we cannot.

[Murmurs and inaudible comments]

Male and female Jewish worshippers take part in a priestly blessing held on the Jewish holiday of Sukkot at the Western Wall in Jerusalem's Old City September 26, 2018
\ AMMAR AWAD/ REUTERS

It’s time we came to understand that, despite the intemperate remarks of some uncouth individuals, the Orthodox are not our enemy, and they don’t hate us. In fact, as anyone who has interacted with Orthodox Jews knows, they love and cherish us fully as fellow Jews.

They simply want to ensure that halakha – which they see as having preserved Jewish peoplehood for millennia – remains the determinant of the personal and marital status of Jews in Israel. They look at the American scene and see a multiplicity of discordant "Jewish Peoples." They fear that happening in Israel. We should fear the same.

So let’s not vilify the Orthodox "monopoly" in Israel. The rabbinate, for all its bureaucratic problems, is simply trying to maintain the standards that Orthodox Jews believe – and reasonably so, we should admit – have maintained Jewish unity from time immemorial.

Let’s concentrate instead on our own house in America. Let’s work to strengthen Jewish identity and discourage intermarriage. Let’s stress the positive in Israel and in Orthodoxy. Let’s focus on better familiarizing ourselves and our followers with Jewish texts and traditions – and reestablish Jewish learning as the centerpiece of the American Jewish table.

We have a stark and important choice before us: To wage war on Orthodoxy or to focus on strengthening our own Jewish knowledge and identity on our home turf. As Jewish leaders, we vote for the latter.

[Respectful, pensive, silence]

Rabbi Avi Shafran is a blogger, a columnist for the American edition of Hamodia, and serves as Agudath Israel of America’s director of public affairs. Twitter: @RabbiAviShafran