Tuesday, December 18, 2007

Rosner's Reform Domain

Shmuel Rosner's column in Haaretz, which the editors have decided to mis-name a "blog" in order to sound more with-it, covers the American Jewish beat. It's generally quite a boring beat to cover, as most of the American Jewish Establishment consists of old fat rich Ashkenazi men who are awarded presidencies of this or that organization based on massive monetary contributions rather than actual accomplishment. It's not so much a problem of too many Indians and not enough chiefs, but more that the Indians (in this case, rank-and-file American Jewry) has never even heard of their self-appointed chiefs.

In today's column, er, sorry, "blog," Rosner quoted Eric Yoffie (note the non-Jewish surname,) President of United Reform Judaism, basically the chief cleric of the American Reform movement:

"If we fail to create a significant presence in Israel, this failure casts doubt
on our authenticity as a religious movement. In other words, if we do not become
a force in Israel in the next generation, we will have consigned ourselves to
the margins of Jewish history."

One wonders how long it's going to take them to crack this nut. The Reform, in fact, predate Zionism by a century or so. Theodore Hertzl himself was raised in a Reform household decades before he wrote Der Judenstadt. For some time, the Reform may even have had a plurality of self-identifying Jews, although today the largest segment is by far that of lapsed non-observant Orthodox Jews. Given their sizeable numbers and phenomenal wealth, and hundred year head start, why are the Reform still talking about creating a significant presence here, while Torah observant Jews, who make up a smaller and poorer but rapidly growing portion of the population, are firmly established here in Eretz Israel?

I think the main answer is that Reform and secular Zionism were really flip sides of the same coin. Both seek to answer the fundamental question: how does a Jew integrate into the secular western world. Classical Judaism (also known as "Orthodoxy") has always had a simple answer, "He doesn't." Or, more accurately, there were those who accepted or rejected certain aspects of western culture, and there were others who closed themselves off completely, but never would any classical Jew consciously advocate abandoning one iota of Torah.

But Reform and Zionism took two different approaches to the question of religion versus nationalism. Reform sought to obliterate all national loyalties of Jews to one another. The famous "Berlin is the new Jerusalem" doctrine, issued by the Reform Jews of Germany, meant that every Reform Jew now paid homage to the capital of the country where he resided, rather than Jerusalem as Jews had throughout the ages. All acts which might foster separation between Jews and the surrounding host nation, including Hebrew prayer, kashrut, and the like, were disposed of.

Secular Zionism took precisely the opposite approach. Instead of diminishing the national aspects of Judaism, it emphasized them, turning Hanukkah into a festival of military pride, Shavuot into a sort of harvest festival, and reviving the Hebrew language, while eliminating any sort of deeper spiritual meaning.

Reform has never succeeded in Israel because it is unnecessary. Any Jew who needed an ideology to justify an escape from Jewish behavior such as kashrut or thrice daily prayer, but still wanted to identify Jewishly while attempting to join the greater world, now had Jewish Nationalism, Zionism. Reform served no purpose. Then again, now that Secular Zionism is no longer a living ideology, who knows what the future holds.


Batya said...

One of the attractions of Reform in Chutz L'Aretz is the absence of Hebrew and the dominance of the local language.
In Israel, Israelis know Hebrew and can read and understand the prayers and Torah, so when they do go to synagogue, they like the "real one."

Ephraim said...


Yes, and there are certain erasures of Halacha in the United States that Israeli reform could never get away with. In America, if someone with the title of "Rabbi" goes around saying it's okay to drive on Shabbat, then everyone gets in their car and off they go. In Israel, if someone were to say such a thing, they would be laughed off the pulpit. There doesn't seem to be this need amongst the less-observant population to justify non-observance like there is outside of Israel.