Given the state of religious cold war prevailing within Judaism since the advent of the Reform movement in the early nineteenth century, a literary collaboration on matters of faith between a Reform rabbi and a fervently Orthodox counterpart might well be seen as something of a watershed. The recently-published "One People, Two Worlds," is indeed just such a cross-denominational dialogue, jointly authored by Rabbi Ammiel Hirsch, who heads the Association of Reform Zionists of America (ARZA), and Rabbi Yosef Reinman, a scholar and writer in the haredi (fervently Orthodox) community centered around the major Talmudic academy at Lakewood, NJ. Whether it breaks much new ground --- or ice --- at all is, however, another matter.
While the book --- a correspondence, actually, comprised of two years' worth of e-mail exchanges --- has an ostensible objective of fostering mutual understanding, if not rapprochement, between individuals inhabiting disparate religious universes, at book's end, the authors don't seem very much closer to that goal than when first they hit the "send mail" button. To be sure, neither author's postings lack for warm affirmations --- or are they protestations? --- of friendship and respect for his correspondent's integrity, intelligence and devotion to the Jewish people, and when the book concludes they part in "abiding friendship" and with a new-found estimation of each other as "kind, gracious and reasonable."
Yet, what the book's back-cover blurb touts as an "unprecedented meeting of minds," might be more accurately described as minds passing in the night. From the outset, for example, Hirsch pegs Reinman as a hyper-literal fundamentalist and, despite Reinman's forceful rejoinders on that point, persists in reiterating the pejorative at every turn. Hirsch is, of course, correct in the limited sense that Orthodoxy indeed regards both Scripture and the Oral Law that explicates it as Divinely-ordained and, hence, immutable and eternally binding, while the Reform ideal of religious autonomy gives license to every Jew, in the words of Union of American Hebrew Congregations (UAHC) president Rabbi Eric Yoffie, to "pick and choose which mitzvot (commandments) to observe and which not to observe."
What is truly ironic, however, is that in their attitudes toward Jewish religious texts it is, as British Chief Rabbi Jonathan Sacks observes, "precisely the liberal forms of Judaism that come closest . . . to the Protestant fundamentalist model. They . . . represent a reaction against the authority of community, tradition, precedent and established practice. They argue . . . that piety demands a fresh encounter with the texts, untrammeled by the history of the way those texts have been understood by the community of faith." Having rejected the Orthodox view that the Written Law and its accompanying exegetical tradition have formed a seamless whole since their contemporaneous inception at Sinai, the Reform movement has no choice but to read the Jewish Bible in the same unmediated manner that a Deep South Christian preacher might.
This contrasts starkly with the Orthodox Jewish worldview, in which it is axiomatic that Scripture as well as later religious works such as the Talmud are incomprehensible without verse-by-verse interpretation supplied by meticulous teacher-to-student transmission that once was entirely, and to a great extent remains, oral --- in a word, the very antithesis of populist literalism. Even a glancing acquaintance with the rabbinic literature evinces that the Torah's historical sequence, as well as countless of its legal and narrative passages, are given a decidedly non-literal rendering by the Oral Law.
That is not to say that Reform eschews creative textual interpretation; au contraire, non-Orthodox polemicists, Hirsch among them, are forever invoking the Talmudic references to "seventy faces of Torah" and the fact that "Torah is not in Heaven." These, along with the storied disputes of the Houses of Shammai and Hillel in the Mishnaic period and, in a later era, the plethora of opinions abounding on every Talmudic page, are recurrently adduced in Reform literature as evidence of the Jewish tradition's open-ended, multi-vocal nature. So too, unsurprisingly, the art of writing of what is known as "creative midrash," interpolating fictitious conversations, facts and entire episodes into Biblical narratives as a way of "imagining the unsaid," has, for some time, been all the rage in the liberal Jewish movements.
And, lest modern-day Reform Jews feel the least bit inadequate in taking their place as expositors of the holy texts alongside the spiritual and intellectual giants of earlier epochs, poet and "midrashist" Alice Ostriker, writing in Reform Judaism magazine, assures them that to "write midrash requires no special knowledge of the Bible and no extraordinary writing skill . . . . The crucial factor is that you find a character or a situation that rings bells for you." After all, says Ostriker, "Torah is a Tree of Life . . . [and to] reinterpret Torah is to add new twigs and leaves . . . with the understanding that no single interpretation can ever be final and complete."
Ultimately, however, in the Reform view, contemporary interpretive efforts are not intended to arrive at the actual intent of the Scriptural author, who, in any event, was a religious and moral primitive writing with tendentious motives. What's paramount is that each individual salvage however much of the text that accords with his particular moral compass, and as for the rest, one can, according to Rabbi David Ellenson, who heads the Reform rabbinical seminary, Hebrew Union College (HUC), "get around it through creative interpretation."
For his part, Reinman repeatedly refers to adherents of Reform as "secular Jews" in contradistinction to the "observant Jews" in Orthodoxy's ranks, and, to Hirsch's unending consternation, nothing the latter says about the legitimacy of alternative religious paths seems to penetrate his co-author's mindset. Hirsch, his frustration with Reinman apparent, writes movingly of the noble spiritual sensibilities that he and other Reform Jews possess, and, in that sense, his personal umbrage at being termed "secular" is understandable.
While Reinman's intended usage of the term "secular" might not give adequate due to Hirsch's self-perceived religious persona, it nevertheless does capture some of the essence of what divides the Jewish heterodox enterprise, Reform included, from traditionalist Judaism. Jewish religious liberalism, after all, arose and prospered in the milieu of the Enlightenment, which proffered its blandishments to the Jew so long as he was amenable to acting "as a Jew in his home, but as a man in the street." Until that point, religion, and society generally, had been emphatically theocentric, with religious creed and deed as central determinants of the course of society and state. Pre-Enlightenment Western man was, at core, homo religiosus, whose beliefs informed all aspects of life, however mundane.
Perhaps the gravest damage inflicted by the Enlightenment on religion was that the sweeping anthropocentrism of the former effectively compartmentalized the latter, relegating it to, at best, one day of the week out of seven and one little corner of the modern individual's heart and mind. It has been two centuries now since organized religion, under sustained assault from the then-ascendant forces of science and reason, forfeited its societal primacy and was consigned instead to the status of a perceived refuge for the sentimental and weak-minded, and it has yet to recover.
Nowhere is this more apparent than in the Reform movement, which, having debunked, by its lights, the Torah's Divine authority, sees Jewish tradition as but one of a multiplicity of secular and sacred sources that individuals might draw upon in fashioning their worldviews. Although the roots of this approach to Judaism hark back to the early 1800s, it received its most recent confirmation in 1999, when the movement resolved to issue a new mission statement and circulated six successive drafts of a proposed "Ten Principles for Reform Judaism" among its membership. Like the saw about a more liberal-minded Moses descending from Sinai with Ten Suggestions, the ten prongs of this intended precis of Reform belief were truly just that --- politically correct to a fault and replete with the language of voluntarism and personalism that exemplifies what Charles Liebman calls contemporary Jewry's "privatized religion."
The early drafts of the document contained several daring nods to tradition, such as support for voluntary adoption of kashrut (religious dietary standards), but these were quickly dropped in response to a firestorm of protest --- dubbed the "cheeseburger rebellion" --- from a laity concerned that such suggestions would "render suspect or unacceptable any of us who do not observe." In the statement's final version, one of the most telling deletions was this powerful statement that had first appeared in the third draft: "In the worldview of Reform Judaism's founders, modernity was the center, the scale on which we measured what was valuable and enduring in Jewish practice and belief . . . We proclaim that the mitzvot of the Torah are our center."
This retrenchment was in direct response to the resentment resonating from the pews over the perceived attempt to dethrone individual autonomy and replace it with concrete standards of religious conduct that, for the first time, would beckon Reform Jews to accommodate their lifestyles to Judaism, rather than vice versa. The prevailing sentiment was best captured in this letter to Reform Judaism magazine: "ABANDONMENT, HURT, OUTRAGE, VIOLATION, BETRAYAL. These are just a few of the first words that came to mind after I read [a draft of the Principles]. . . . Rather than forcing upon us foreign languages, garments and dietary laws . . . why doesn't [the Principles' author] look at how most American Reform Jews really live today and try to make the religion better fit our lives?"
What the final version of the Ten Principles doesn't say, then, seems to reflect the mindset of a majority of Jews today, for whom religion is, as David Ellenson expressed it, "irrelevant, [because] it neither guides nor directs . . . even a substantial segment of the diffuse commitments and values that mark [their] lives, . . . which no longer move from a Jewish center to the larger world." And so, describing Reform's flock as, on the whole, "secular" might indeed be apt, despite their nominal affiliation and regardless of how paternalistic that term might sound emerging from Reinman's pen.
Beyond the essential secularity of Reform theology, though, there is the vexing real-world fact of the Reform laity's massive attenuation from all things Jewishly religious. Granting Hirsch's own religious bona fides, there's no gainsaying that he is a relative anomaly within a movement a majority of whose members Rabbi Yoffie describes as "those for whom the vision of the sacred has all but died within their soul." Or, as another Reform leader depicts the condition of his denomination's rank-and-file membership: "Reform rabbis will insist ad nauseum that Jewish religiosity is not to be confused with demonstrations of stylistic piety . . . that one can be deeply pious, observant and theologically traditional and yet not be Orthodox. The culture of our affiliates knows better. Reform is where the weak, the marginal, the alienated, the removed and remote Jews can be found whose Judaism is at best a sentimental and emotional dressing for liberal secular politics or self-absorbed and self-indulgent contemplation."
Indeed, surveying the Reform scene, one senses that it is not merely religious apathy that is the problem --- that, in Rabbi Yoffie's words, his laypeople, and "more than a few . . . rabbis" as well, have "little sense of what a Reform Jew is, or even why it is important to be a Reform Jew at all." Rather, at times --- most recently, in the outraged reaction to the Ten Principles' traditional bent --- there is an unmistakable "attitude," an indignant antinomianism that is one part Kantian moral autonomy and one part Miss Mary O'Toole of Mrs. Piggle Wiggle renown, with her signature "I'll do it because I want to, but not because you tell me to!" One Reform rabbi summed up the regnant mood amongst the membership this way: "'Reform' is thus said to mean, 'I will do what I want, call it Judaism, and refuse to indulge or even tolerate rabbinic judgment to the contrary.' Reform is an intellectual and political technique of immunity from normative Jewish evaluation."
In fact, the wide religious chasm separating author Hirsch from the great majority of Reform Jews for whom he ostensibly speaks highlights a basic flaw in the book's operating premise. While its title promises some sort of ideological interface between Orthodoxy and Reform, what the book actually delivers is merely an exchange between broad-based Orthodoxy and Ammiel Hirsch's idiosyncratic Jewish beliefs.
For all of Orthodoxy's variegation --- and sometimes raucous internal squabbling --- spanning the Modern Orthodox and religious Zionist camps on the left to the yeshiva and Chasidic communities on the right, and numerous subsets thereof in between, these diverse sectors share, as Yeshiva University's Dr. Norman Lamm puts it, "overwhelming commonalities; [the] differences do not at all touch fundamentals." The Reform world, by contrast, is one in which complete personal religious autonomy is the supreme ideal. As such, it is a movement that, as the late Reform scholar Jakob Petuchowski once remarked, upon first perusing the Reform prayerbook, Gates of Prayer, with its nine different Friday night services ranging from humanistic to traditional, is "held together by the staples of the publisher."
Under such a worldview, it becomes impossible to speak of virtually any minimal threshold that a Reform Jew dare not cross if she is to maintain her religious good standing. Indeed, Rabbi Ellenson posits that only "[d]eclaration of faith in another god would be my red line," uncannily echoing Michael Medved's trenchant observation that the "chief distinguishing characteristic of most American Jews is not what they do believe, but what they do not believe. They do not believe in Jesus as the messiah. Period. End of sentence, end of story."
This exaltation of personal preference above all else pervades not only the broad membership, but the spiritual leadership as well, resulting in a rabbinate that the theologian Arnold Jacob Wolf famously described as "fifteen hundred different theologies held together by one pension plan." Thus, at one end of the Reform rabbinic spectrum we find Ammiel Hirsch averring a belief in "many of the things [Reinman] believes. . . . . I believe in the sanctity of the Jewish people . . . in the holiness of the land of Israel . . . in God [who] selected the Jewish people for a divine task . . . that all of our texts . . . seek to define and refine what this means . . . that engagement with this process showers us with holiness." At the other pole, however, stand those Reform clergy --- as far back as 1972, the figure stood at 90% in an internal Central Conference of American Rabbis (CCAR) survey --- who are unable to profess belief in God in "the more or less traditional Jewish sense," preferring self-descriptions like "agnostic" and "theological humanist." In 1986, Reform leader Rabbi Paul Menitoff attributed the sparse attendance at Reform temples to the "sizeable segments of the [Reform] lay and rabbinic populations [who] do not believe in God." Apparently, the bon mot about the Reconstructionist movement's motto --- "There is no God, and Mordecai Kaplan is his prophet" --- rings at least partially true for many in its sister denomination as well.
Other seminal matters of traditional Jewish belief do not fare much better among Reform's spiritual elite. Long Island Reform rabbi Marc Gellman tells of attending the funeral of a CCAR leader at which six eulogies were delivered, yet "the only speaker who pronounced that '[the deceased's] soul is now in the world to come' was a Methodist minister." Even the rite of circumcision, one of the few rituals that has maintained some traction in the face of intensifying Jewish assimilation, has, as reported anecdotally by Reform theologian Lawrence Hoffman in his work on the topic, Covenant of Blood, evoked among some rabbis under his tutelage "intense rage . . . at themselves for allowing [their sons' circumcision] to happen."
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Ultimately, what disappoints most in One People, Two Worlds is the squandered opportunity for a genuine conversation to occur between those who stand squarely within the tradition and proponents of a Jewish latitudinarianism that, in Israeli Reform leader Rabbi David Forman's words, "may seem legitimate for [their] own reality, . . . [but] that has no relation to anything historically recognizably Jewish." This book is not at all such a conversation, in part because Hirsch engages in a form of theological triangulation, choosing to do polemic battle on Reinman's turf. Thus, not only does Hirsch claim to "believe many of the things [Reinman] believes," but he also adduces text after rabbinic text to buttress his case for liberal Judaism. Reinman ably dismantles these challenges by placing each passage in its fuller context, or, in some instances, correcting a misquotation or other basic error on Hirsch's part.
For one schooled in Talmudic studies, or, for that matter, any other largely text-based jurisprudential system --- and irrespective of one's religious allegiances --- it is almost painful to follow these interpretive clashes as they unfold. Reinman is, after all, a first-rate Judaic scholar who has spent many decades at his craft and has a masterful volume of Talmudic legal analysis to his credit. Enter Rabbi Hirsch, a comparative dilettante flinging about all manner of abstruse Midrashic quotes, leaving the reader to wonder whether the latter didn't write with an indexed copy of Bialik's compendium of Talmudic lore, Sefer Ha'Aggadah, at his side for easy reference.
While Reinman's detailed and rigorously reasoned postings on textual issues make manifest the often simplistic level of Hirsch's readings in Torah, the latter sees in these retorts only a smug attempt by Reinman to hoard the Torah, as it were, for his own kind, and reflexively discount the interpretive efforts of anyone whose religious orientation differs from his. Hirsch is right to sense in Reinman's responses a certain righteous indignation, but one that is perhaps rightly felt as well. Envision a law school classroom scene in which the legendary author of Corbin on Contracts is barraged with snippets of Supreme Court opinions on contract law by a first-year law student who is oblivious not only to his own inadequacies in the law, but also to any sense of context and nuance in the texts he cites, and one has a rough analog for these authors' intellectual skirmishes.
Far more enlightening to the reader would it have been for Hirsch to forthrightly acknowledge the truism first noted by the great 19th century Orthodox thinker whose surname he shares, Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch, that the chasm separating Reform from Orthodoxy is wider, in theological terms, than that existing between Protestantism and Catholicism, and to let the dialogue proceed from there. The Reform movement was, after all, the first in Jewish history to reject the binding nature of both the written Torah and its oral counterpart. The schismatic groups that preceded it conceded the Divine origins of Scripture and parted ways with tradition only over the authority of the Oral Law.
Not so Reform, which accepts as incontrovertible truth that, in the words of Rabbi David Sperling, faculty chair at HUC's New York branch, the Torah is comprised of "politically charged texts [that] provide historical evidence [only] for the period in which they were composed." (As an aside, Biblical Archaeology Review calls Sperling's recent book on the subject "badly flawed not simply by . . . extreme Biblical minimalism but . . . by the misuse of archaeology.") Intellectual honesty, then, would seem to require Hirsch to concede that the classical Jewish texts he cites are no more the authoritative predicate for his beliefs than is the Rig Veda. Such a concession by Hirsch is, however, nowhere forthcoming.
The result is that Hirsch's postings set forth a less than fully coherent amalgam of rather traditional convictions, such as "that God selected the Jewish people for a divine task," premised only on his earnest avowals that "I feel it. I intuit it." Although those feelings are a most slender reed on which to base an audacious claim like Jewish chosenness --- what the philosophers called the "scandal of particularity" --- they have, at least, the advantage of irrefutable, albeit entirely subjective, authenticity. The same cannot be said for Hirsch's other argument for the Jews' selection --- that "[m]y texts, my tradition, my culture, have acted as if this proposition were true." Ironically, this latter contention smacks far more of parochial conceit than does Reinman's belief that it was God who did the selecting; however odd that may have been of God, He does have His prerogatives.
Hirsch's insistence on employing the language and sources of tradition in service of a thoroughly untraditional --- indeed, counter-traditional --- conception of Judaism calls to mind the anecdote related by leading Conservative Jewish scholar David Feldman, who, as a member of his movement's Committee on Jewish Law and Standards, voted to uphold the traditional exclusion of women from the prayer quorum. After the committee vote permitting female participation, Feldman received a phone call from a rabbinic acquaintance, congratulating him on his vote for the minority position. "What? You, a Reconstructionist, congratulating me on a traditionalist stance? I don't get it," was Feldman's reaction. The caller's reply? "Well, it's because your vote makes sense. We, in keeping with our liberal position, abolished the minyan altogether. But for those who retain the minyan, integrity demands that one let it be true to its own rules, that it follow its own logic, namely that the minyan be a quorum of the obligated."
Hirsch, too, sees nothing untoward in, at once, claiming the tradition as his, yet utterly discounting both its historicity and ultimate moral and legal authority. While such an approach may stem in part from genuine intellectual confusion, it may also have much to do with his active role, as head of ARZA, in Israel's pluralism wars. Liberal Jewish leaders in Israel regard it as an urgent desideratum, for two reasons, to highlight their tradition-minded propensities and downplay the truly yawning ideological chasm their departures from classical Jewish norms have opened.
First, they are cognizant that the notion of a Jewish state is not, as Hirsch concedes, "incompatible with democracy" since, as the experiences of numerous other countries demonstrate, the "American model of separation of church and state is not the only democratic model." While Judaism reigns as Israel's state religion, any number of other religious groups, including the Samaritans, whose religious practice has pronounced Judaic roots and influences, receive a full official imprimatur as autonomous faith communities, even to the extent of governmental subsidization of their ecclesiastical courts. For such treatment to be accorded the Jewish heterodox movements would, of course, be, in their view, an unspeakable affront; hence, the imperative to position themselves as being within the historical Judaic mainstream, and, thus, entitled to whatever perquisites redound to normative expressions of the state religion.
Advocates of pluralism must contend, moreover, with the perception of the Israeli public that, in Rabbi David Forman's words, "while they are fighting to maintain Jewish survival, Reform Judaism is doing its best to combat Jewish survival" and that even "the ritual lifestyle of Reform rabbis is no different from that of a self-defined secular Israeli Jew." If, then, Reform is to have any prospect of securing widespread societal legitimacy, its Israeli boosters must be prepared to earnestly claim, as Hirsch does in this book, that "the approaches of Orthodox and non-Orthodox Jews" concur in the conviction that "Torah for the Jews is life itself," no matter how profoundly dissimilar their respective definitions of "Torah" or how starkly at odds that statement may be with the facts of Reform religious life.
Indeed, the need to present a dubious traditionalist posture in Israel played a pivotal role in the CCAR's recent deliberations over whether to endorse rabbinic officiation at same-sex unions. Many in the Israeli Reform rabbinate protested vociferously that granting rabbinic sanction to such ceremonies would play horribly in the culturally conservative court of Israeli public opinion, which, as the author's father, Rabbi Richard Hirsch, put it, would thereupon perceive Reform as a "separatist movement engaged in 'aberrations' and 'perversions' of Judaism," thus bringing all of the hard-won progress in the pluralism wars to a screeching halt.
And so, in the spring of 2000, after internal debates roiled by what one rabbi described as "personal attacks, professional attacks, outright lies and innuendoes," the rabbinic body voted on the matter after a fifteen-minute floor discussion, which, as Dennis Prager observed, treated one of the most fundamental questions of Western thought with all of the gravity usually accorded a motion to break for lunch. And the group's resolution of the matter followed vintage Reform fashion: it voiced support for the decisions of those rabbis who choose to perform same-sex ceremonies, as well as those who do not.
Nor has legitimization of homosexuality been the only cherished Reform ideal to be sacrificed for the all-consuming push to secure official religious parity in the Jewish state. In several past occasions, Reform's Israel Religious Action Center has complained to American and Canadian government officials that Israel deprives its citizens of their religious rights, a notion that was subsequently echoed by the U.S. State Department in testimony before Congress. This willingness to manipulate foreign pressure points even at the cost of jeopardizing Israel's democratic reputation elicited outraged cries of "anti-Israel" and "anti-Jewish" even from some members of the Israeli Reform camp.
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Although Rabbi Hirsch insists that he and Reinman "agree on many things---more than [Reinman] cares to admit," a goodly portion of the book is actually a study in communication breakdown. An exchange that takes place early on in the book is representative: Reinman avers a belief in the existence and attainability of absolute truth and queries Hirsch about his views on the matter. Hirsch replies that "[a]ll people who strive to understand things larger than themselves search for truth," but that "to actually discover religious truth, well, that is a whole other matter." Reinman is quick to pounce on this seeming tautology with the claim that Hirsch has "made the unfulfillable search for truth [his] religion" and that religious liberals "are the only ones in the world who have found this absolutely incredible truth that there is no absolute truth." Hirsch, in response, waxes psychoanalytic, musing that the Orthodox "have this need to hold onto what [they] call 'absolute truth,'" because they "need, crave and demand certainty."
While Reinman's position is the better-considered one, he neglects to draw the reader's attention to the significant logical lacunae in Hirsch's own arguments. He addresses Hirsch, for example, as if the latter was espousing unalloyed moral relativism, when, in fact, Reform theology is a set of actual religious beliefs based, albeit, on "feeling and inspiration," and the attempt to "discover and engage" God through an admittedly man-made Torah or, alternatively, through nature or moments such as occur when parents "look at their newborn child." What Reinman ought to have noted, then, is the inherent paradox of Hirsch being, at once, unable to abide those who claim to know God's will through revelation, yet himself prepared to make the very same claim based on the merest intuition.
And although Reinman is correct to retort that "Judaism has always fought against" those who . . . speak in God's name because of something [they] intuit," he fails to point out the truly astonishing psychological naivete involved in arrogating to one's subjective intuition the authority to discern the Divine will. It is the very same self-delusion underlying Reform president Eric Yoffie's statement that "ultimately I must examine each mitzvah and ask the question: do I feel commanded in this instance as Moses was commanded?" The problem with predicating religious observance on "feeling commanded" is not merely that it contravenes Judaism's foundational presuppositions of the last three millennia, but that it is either highly disingenuous or bespeaks a breathtaking obliviousness to the basic human proclivity for freedom from obligation and moral restraint. To assert that I will do what my heart pleases irrespective of what God has to say in the matter, may be many things, but not necessarily naive; to say that I will do what my heart tells me pleases God surely is.
Reinman is also inexplicably silent as Hirsch reiterates the tired relativist's syllogism positing that since "[g[reat evil has been perpetrated by people who were convinced that they possessed absolute truth," it follows that to believe "that all other beliefs are . . . not true . . . leads to terrible consequences." Great evil, however --- as that bloodiest of centuries we have just taken leave of amply attests --- can be committed rather effectively by confirmed nihilists, as well as by despots who, supposed ideological allegiances notwithstanding, have, at bottom, no truth but their own power lust. And, then, of course, there is the untold good that has been achieved by countless individuals precisely because they hold certain "truths to be self-evident," to borrow the phrase of one such distinguished group of do-gooders.
Unwilling to concede that he, too, like most everyone else, holds dear a variety of truths on matters both trivial and momentous, Hirsch makes the quite arresting assertion that, pace Moses and his innumerable prophetic colleagues, "Jewish tradition was always quite skeptical of those who claimed to possess and pronounced divine truth." It is a particularly surprising proposition to hear from a spokesman for Reform, which, since its inception, has sought to cast itself as firmly grounded in the "prophetic Judaism" of earlier Jewish epochs.
True, in its infatuation with the Hebrew prophets, the movement has always seemed to suffer from a case of selective hearing, embracing their messages of moral rebuke and calls to social justice, even as it filtered out the inconvenient fact that, as Professor Jerold Auerbach has written, "it is extremely difficult . . . to locate any prophetic accusation that is independent of Mosaic legislation. The Prophets knew the law, cited it, and demanded obedience to it." The universalistic impulses of Old Testament prophecy, as well, were never of the modern liberal sort; they were, as the preeminent Bible scholar Yehezkel Kaufmann states, "always connected with the glorification of Israel, Jerusalem and the Temple." In the final analysis, however, whether the Prophets are seen as early forebears of the Democratic left wing or rather, as the Jewish tradition recorded in the Mishnaic tractate Avot would have it, a link in the chain of Mosaic legal transmission, they were, undeniably, the Prophets --- men and women who quite bluntly claimed to "possess and pronounce[ ] divine truth.
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As Reinman tells it, his participation in this dialogue was intended, in part, as a corrective to a certain "demonization" of Orthodoxy that holds sway in some Jewish quarters, as well as in the general media. Nor is the phrase "demonization" too strong a term for much of what passes for acceptable discourse when Orthodox Jews are the subject. That such biases, subtle or otherwise, inform media coverage of this community should not particularly surprise, since, as Rabbi Marc Gellman has pointedly observed, the "last socially acceptable prejudice in America is the prejudice against those who take their faith seriously," which certainly includes Orthodox Jews. Indeed, the social scientist Marvin Schick calls attention to the fact that "through the simple device of identifying [some Jews] . . . as 'ultra-Orthodox,' . . . [a] pejorative term has become the standard reference term for describing a great many Orthodox Jews . . . . No other ethnic or religious group in this country is identified in language that conveys so negative a message."
What might, however, be less expected --- at least by those unfamiliar with the ignominious historical record of intra-Jewish strife --- but is far more disconcerting, is what Conservative Jewish historian Jack Wertheimer terms the failure of the larger Jewish community "to comprehend --- let alone respect --- Orthodox sensibilities, routinely characterizing Orthodox Jews in toto as 'extremists,' 'fundamentalists' . . . ." and other choice epithets, several of which appear in the pages of One People, Two Worlds. In this regard, the Orthodox are equal-opportunity targets. That is to say, the invective is as likely to issue forth from Conservative figures like Rabbi Harold Kushner, who opines --- with no apparent compunction about saying bad things regarding good people --- that "Orthodoxy, as distinct from Judaism, is a religion of hatred and vituperation, and . . . its chief mitzva is condemning people who believe differently," as from Reform's Eric Yoffie, who has referred to Orthodoxy as a "ghetto Judaism" that is "nothing less than a betrayal of America."
The open animus that non-Orthodox leaders convey in these indictments reinforces and amplifies the unsavory, albeit more subtle, mental portrait that some in the broad Jewish public already possess regarding their Orthodox peers: that of an undifferentiated mass of extremist, angry people preoccupied with censure of others and their own petty religious obligations, to the exclusion of all else. The mix of elements that allows such skewed perceptions to form is, no doubt, a complex one, with emotions like embarrassment and guilt, along with negative experiences --- or no experiences at all --- with Orthodox individuals, all likely contributing factors. Yet, much of the ill will emanating from non-Orthodox precincts is traceable to institutional leaders, on both the congregational and movement-wide levels, who find that treating the Orthodox as Jewry's all-purpose bete noire does wonders for Israel-related fundraising as well as for distracting attention from the spiritually moribund condition of their laities.
Rabbi Hirsch, for his part, takes pains to assure his correspondent that "I want Orthodoxy and Orthodox Jews around. . . . We need each other and our different understandings of Judaism." One supposes that he ought to be taken at his word on this, although it is somewhat difficult to fathom precisely what Hirsch would find of redeeming value in a belief system and its community of practitioners that he clearly regards as embarrassing throwbacks to a benighted medievalism that "distorts some of our most basic principles."
Still, Hirsch acknowledges that one of his objectives in the present volume is to "dispel the myths" held by some non-Orthodox Jews who "unnecessarily idealize Orthodoxy." Reinman, in turn, makes a creditable effort to debunk some of Hirsch's harsher caricatures of Orthodox life and belief, and the mere fact that a fervently Orthodox scholar, ostensibly cloistered in the yeshiva study hall, is capable of reasoned and articulate debate might itself help puncture a stereotype or two in the minds of some readers. Hirsch is given, at times, to rather sweeping, wholly unsubstantiated generalizations, such as the claim that "[m]any ultra-Orthodox parents and grandparents . . . around the world live largely unhappy lives," to which Reinman has only to respond with a request for Hirsch to produce his supporting data.
Reinman's own portrayals of the many laudatory aspects of Orthodox life are tempered by his acknowledgment that while the Torah provides a "paradigm" for a fulfilling individual and communal life, it is one that human beings, with their "complexes, inadequacies . . . and all sorts of other imperfections," may sometimes disappoint. Not content to take yes for an answer, however, Hirsch insists that "[m]any books and studies . . . about Orthodox domestic life . . . portray a far different picture" than that offered by Reinman, but buttresses that statement with only a solitary newspaper quote from an Orthodox psychiatrist.
In seeking to dispel myths regarding the Orthodox, Rabbi Hirsch ought not have neglected to take up one particularly egregious such untruth that, as it happens, his own organization has helped disseminate. During the recent Holocaust restitution case involving a consortium of Swiss banks, a broad spectrum of Jewish groups sought a share of the settlement proceeds, including the World Union for Progressive Judaism (WUPJ), the international representative body of Reform and Reconstructionism, for which Ammiel Hirsch serves as American director. In its submission to the special master in the case, the WUPJ rested its claim, in part, on the fact that liberal Jews who perished in the Holocaust "would certainly have been appalled to see funds deriving from their losses given to institutions who question their Jewishness or that of their descendants. . . "
The notion that Orthodoxy and its adherents delegitimize other Jews is a baseless canard, albeit one that is given periodic airing by heterodox spokesmen, and occasionally, in the general media as well, as in a ballyhooed --- and subsequently retracted
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Even when Reinman does turn his attention to the particulars of Reform life it is, for example, to express his amazement at learning of a bar mitzvah affair in a Reform temple that featured pork. Anecdotal arguments are, of course, inherently flimsy and Hirsch, while conceding that pork-laden bar mitzvah feasts are "offensive" to the sensibilities of kosher-observing Jews, has only to respond that he has "not once had a similar experience." Exchanges like this one, however, sidestep entirely the questions that really bear asking in regard to Reform's efficacy as a Jewish movement. The fact that the movement has failed, for example, to produce a laity observant of Judaism's dietary dictates --- as of this writing, not even the catered fare at UAHC's biennial national conventions is kosher --- may distress the religious traditionalist, but not the Reform ideologue, given that, from the Pittsburgh Platform of the 1880s until the new mission statement enshrined in Pittsburgh three years ago, Reform accorded dietary observances virtually no religious value.
A far more relevant inquiry --- but one not undertaken in this volume --- is, whether Reform has been successful, to any significant degree, in fulfilling its own self-defined religious agenda. One might conceptualize things this way: if Reform were a large corporate entity, the product it purveyed a self-manufactured brand of reconstituted Judaism and American Jewry its target market, investors would want to know whether, by prevailing industry standards, that entity could be said to have achieved significant success in getting its putative consumer base to use its product in an ongoing, life-enhancing fashion. With between one-quarter and one-third of synagogue-affiliated American Jews identifying as Reform, it is fairly undeniable that, in some sense, the movement has captured a very sizable market share. But what is the relationship of that cohort to the product --- modernized, liberal Judaism --- whose ostensible consumers they are?
In several of the areas to which Reform is committed most vocally and visibly, the movement's track record does not quite comport with the idyllic theoretical portrait that Hirsch paints for his readers. Nor is Reinman, who lacks close familiarity with the workings of the movement, capable of providing the necessary counterbalance to Hirsch's over-idealizations.
Were the authors to examine, for example, the history of Reform's vaunted egalitarianism, they would learn that perhaps its most striking result has been a marked inversion of gender involvement. As women have assumed ever more prominent roles in the spiritual and lay leadership, Reform men have correspondingly disengaged from the religious arena. Prominent Reform Rabbi Jeffrey Salkin, reflecting on the fact that on "any given festival morning, 90 percent of the worshippers in my synagogue will be women over the age of 70," refers to this disengagement as "the great, unspoken crisis facing modern Judaism." The extent of male flight from the temple has even moved Reform movement head Eric Yoffie to entertain the otherwise unthinkable --- that "if it takes men's worship groups to get Reform men involved in worship again, it might be an interesting thing to consider, at least on a transitional basis."
As for real attitudinal change resulting from Reform's decades-long fealty to radical feminism, leading Jewish feminist Susannah Heschel acknowledges that the "old roles of women are maintained under the guise of liberal Judaism . . . We're still marginalized even though we have supposed equality." Paradoxically, says Heschel, the view Orthodox women take of their role within traditional Judaism is that "it's not sexist but liberating for them. They feel honored and respected . . . in Orthodoxy the mechitzah [partition between the sexes in synagogue] is recognized [while] in Reform Judaism, there is . . . an invisible mechitzah. It's a feminist's work to unmask and expose this."
While it might be assumed that Reform's emphasis on women's equality would ensure a tough stance in dealing with episodes of sexual exploitation by clergy members, the movement's track record in this regard is rather checkered. On the one hand, the incidence of rabbinic abuse of congregants is high, with an informal study in the mid-1980s by Reform Rabbi Mark Winer finding that during a twenty-year span at the country's sixty largest Reform temples, allegations of sexual misconduct accounted for nearly as many pulpit changes as did deaths and retirements combined. Yet, the official response to what Winer has termed an "epidemic" has been surprisingly slow-footed. Although a movement policy on sexual harassment has been in place since 1995, there remains a great deal of "confusion and denial on the part of congregations," according to Julie Spitzer, a Reform expert in this area.
In one high-profile case, a rising Reform movement star who led Northern California's biggest congregation resigned after a dozen women came forward --- braving taunts of "harlot" and "Jezebel" from many in the temple to do so --- to expose his sexual exploitation of them. After leaving with a reported golden parachute of nearly $400,000, the rabbi was hired by, and continues to head, a major Reform cultural institution, in contravention of Reform's own current ethics guidelines. Another episode, in which a Reform temple president was murdered at the behest of her violence-prone husband after he learned of her affair with the temple's rabbi, spawned a book by long-time congregant Michele Samit entitled No Sanctuary: The True Story of a Rabbi's Deadly Affair. According to Samit, after the rabbi eulogized the victim using the language of a lover, there was no reaction at all from the members, some of whom later actually joined the rabbi in a smear campaign against Samit. The CCAR allowed the rabbi to retain his position, in which he remains, premised only on his agreement to abide by its Code of Ethics. This, in turn, prompted another congregant, TV producer Michael Hirsch, to charge in a letter to the group that "[i]f there is a [shame] here, it is not only in [the rabbi's] immoral conduct, but in your organization's complicity in covering it up."
More recently, when the dean of HUC, a major Reform figure, resigned due to unspecified past sexual improprieties, the ensuing media coverage was filled with quotes from colleagues and former students praising his wonderful leadership and other qualities and expressing empathy for the pain this situation must have caused him and his family. Nary a word was forthcoming from either the movement or any of these individuals about the importance of sending a message of zero-tolerance for sexual misconduct or how this individual's behavior betrayed some of the movement's most fundamental ideals.
What of that lodestar of Reform theology, social justice, or --- to use the vogueish Hebrew term that liberal Jewish moderns have wrenched from its classical context --- tikkun olam? Much of Reform's energy in this regard has traditionally been focused on challenging governmental social or economic policy in areas like homosexual rights or the homeless. A recent example of this sort of activism was the UAHC's campaign in 2001 to have congregants to donate their tax rebate checks of approximately $600 per household to charity as a protest against President Bush's 1.3 trillion dollar tax cut, although one Reform activist noted that "people seemed to lose interest in this almost as soon as it was announced." Rabbi Arnold Jacob Wolf, in a recent essay in Contemporary Debates in American Reform Judaism, suggests that instead of the routinized "day at the local soup kitchen" that passes for the social action component on many temple event calendars, a more meaningful initiative might be one to have Reform rabbis pool their multi-six-figure salaries and redistribute them based on need.
In a 1999 study of New York area Jews, political scientist Raymond Legge, Jr. reported that "[w]hile social justice is a concept which is stressed perhaps most heavily by the Reform denomination . . . the analyses indicate that in terms of financial contributions this group is least likely to practice it. . . . Instead, . . . social justice is most likely to be present when individuals also place a great importance on religious beliefs and practices. As a result, Legge found that "those currently Orthodox . . . surpass the other denominations by a wide margin in embracing social justice." In a similar vein, Professor Arthur Hertzberg lectured the plenum at a Reform biennial convention several years ago on its "high-sounding pronouncements about our commitments to tikkun olam" while the "peace corps that is doing it is the apparatus of [the fervently Orthodox movement] Shas and its yeshiva students and social workers," who provide a whole spectrum of social services in many of Israel's poorest neighborhoods.
A telling case in point: throughout the Orthodox world, avoidance of lashon hara, or gossip and tale-bearing, is regarded as a central ethical and religious imperative. Granted that, human frailties being what they are, communities and individuals alike have much work to do in this area. Yet, wherever Orthodox Jews reside, a great deal of attention, in the form of ongoing community- and even nation-wide inspirational gatherings, study groups and a steady stream of audio, video and published material, is devoted to eradicating the scourge of hurtful and damaging speech. Contrast all that with a recent article in Reform Judaism magazine in which a Reform rabbi and educator presents a lengthy treatment of the topic that seeks to balance the deleterious effects of lashon hara with what she regards as the many benefits of this type of speech, such as its ability to "provide an individual with a map of his social environment" and to "play a role in fostering creativity and self-expression."
Hirsch attempts to mitigate what he concedes is Orthodoxy's enviable charitable record by noting that it is due mostly to giving to Orthodox causes. Beyond the questionable relevance, in moral terms, of such an assertion, it is also, factually, not quite so. In the Legge study cited above, the percentage of Orthodox respondents contributing $5,000 or more to secular charities was double that of Reform respondents. Writing of the fervently Orthodox community in Israel, where, in fact, the religious-secular divide is at its widest, the late Jerusalem Post columnist Sam Orbaum observed that "[t]heir charity, social consciousness, good deeds, communal welfare and human kindness may be unparalleled among the communities of this country" regardless of "who [you] vote for, what [synagogue you] go to, or whether [you] write negative articles about their community."
In regard to support for Israel, the disconnect between theory and practice in Hirsch's writing is even more pronounced. When asked by Reinman to share his views on the Jewish state, Hirsch launches into a near-rapturous paean of many pages' length that could, judged by its deeply religious and nationalistic sentiment, as easily have been penned by many an Orthodox rabbi.
Ironically, however, those Diaspora Jews who have resolved to actually live Hirsch's Zionist vision come largely from the ranks of the Orthodox. Anyone with the time and inclination to spend a few hours at a New York-area airport will witness first-hand an astonishing, but little-noted, phenomenon: in this, Israel's most bloody year in decades, there exists a steady stream of immigration to Israel, comprised in large measure of hundreds of young American Orthodox families leaving behind deep roots and secure jobs for a life of unprecedented precariousness. They are joined on their flights to Tel Aviv by the many thousands of American Orthodox young men and women who, for the past many years, have spent one or more years in intensive Judaic study in Israeli seminaries, and continue to do so even as terrorist attacks grow in intensity and frequency.
The record of corresponding Reform commitment is far more dismal. This has long been true of the movement's broad constituency, where the proportion of those who have visited Israel even once has never surpassed twenty percent, but is increasingly the case, as well, among the rabbinical students who represent the next generation of Reform religious leadership. Fully one-third of those enrolled in HUC's current year-in-Israel program have elected to bow out, and while these were undoubtedly hard decisions made under trying circumstances, the contrast with the Orthodox statistics is instructive.
To some extent, these rabbinical students' quandaries are emblematic of Reform's larger difficulty in fielding a corps of committed clergy willing to forego plum positions in prosperous suburban pulpits for stints in places like the former Soviet Union, where the non-Orthodox movements are active but, according to a report in Moment magazine, "only Orthodox . . . groups have been able to provide dedicated people willing to spend years teaching and becoming part of Jewish communal life." Indeed, in 1999, Rabbi Hirsch publicly attacked a major Jewish funding body, the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee (JDC), for its "discriminatory policy against the Reform movement" under which a majority of its monies are channeled to Orthodox projects in the former Soviet Union which "exploit some of the funds in order to fight the Reform movement." The JDC's executive vice president countered that Hirsch's allegation was "patently false," and suggested that Rabbi Hirsch instead face up to his movement's "internal problem: how are they going to find people willing to go to the uncomfortable third world to start new congregations and propagate the Reform movement?"
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Even a critical reader of One People, Two Worlds, aware of its lapses in contrasting the real with the ideal in Reform life, might well miss its overarching flaw: the failure to squarely acknowledge, or at least debate the existence of, a central organizing principle for understanding the movement: that, in Rabbi David Forman's phrasing, "[s]ociology has replaced theology and history as the sole and ultimate shaper of Jewish self-identification." Another Reform figure frames this idea even more bluntly: "As long as Reform is in fact like a shelter for the religiously homeless, accessible for moments of life-cycle emergency need but essentially incapable of providing standards, guidance and discipline for the times in between, the magnetic pull of sociology will explain its behavior far more than the nuance of ideology."
It is only through a concerted avoidance of this crucial sociological truth that the book's authors can engage in earnest disputation on issues like homosexual rights, patrilineal descent and outreach to intermarried couples. Reform's official stances on these and many more matters of Jewish and general concern are nothing other than direct responses to developments within, and intense pressure from, a Jewishly unlettered, but immensely empowered, laity. Yet the authors carry on their conversation as if this or that textual interpretation or theological subtlety was somehow more germane to these issues than their demonstrable social ramifications.
But for a conscious disregard for the role of sociology as the engine of Reform policymaking, Ammiel Hirsch could not possibly assert that his movement is a bulwark against, rather than a contributing factor in, the accelerating assimilation of American Jewry. In earlier eras of both German and American Reform, these assimilationist tendencies found expression through adoption of the trappings of bourgeois Protestantism --- the mixed pews, the organ, the switch to Sunday services, the berobed, hatless "minister" and all the rest --- which, to employ David Mamet's description of his Reform upbringing, allowed Jews "to slip unnoticed into the non-Jewish community, to do nothing which would attract the notice, and so, the wrath of mainstream America." Characteristic of this period was the boast by the rabbi of New York's Temple Emanu-El that "a prominent Christian lawyer . . . has told me that he entered this building at the beginning of a service on Sunday morning and did not discover that he was in a synagogue until a chance remark of the preacher betrayed it."
The sorry demographic returns on this incipient stage of the Reform project are, of course, long in. Well over one-quarter of the nineteenth-century German Jewish community actually converted to Christianity. As for the American Jewish experience in the same period, a study by Arthur Hertzberg found it virtually impossible to locate any present-day Jewishly-identifying descendants of the charter families of American Reform's flagship institutions.
Reform's dalliance with Protestantism is, for the most part, a thing of the past; the rise of multiculturalism and other factors have seen to that. As is true for the whole of the Jewish community, the Reform pendulum has been swinging of late in the direction of Jewish tradition, as evidenced by the aborted "Ten Principles" effort to reintroduce notions of commanded ritual practice.
Instructively, however, a prime mover in that effort, then-CCAR president Rabbi Richard Levy, is an ardent supporter of same-sex Jewish commitment ceremonies. And, even as Eric Yoffie calls for increased involvement in "Torah! Torah! Torah!," he continues to believe that "[i]ntermarriage, depending on how we respond to it, . . . need not mean the death knell for American Judaism." With the phrase "depending on how we respond to it," Rabbi Yoffie means, of course, that his movement will, as he has repeatedly made clear, not retract its fateful decision to recognize patrilineal descent as determinative of Jewish status, and will intensify both its outreach to intermarried couples and to unchurched non-Jews. That these leaders could urge a return to tradition and, at the same time, variously support homosexual marriage and radical revisions of Jewish personal status and soft-pedal the threat that intermarriage poses to Jewry's future, need not be seen as inconsistent --- so long as sociology, not theology, is properly seen as the movement's guiding principle.
Traditionalism is in among Jews, but not nearly as much as intermarriage and societal acceptance of "alternative" lifestyles, which are now ubiquitous in Jewish America, and so, the movement's leadership knows in which direction it must go in order to lead. The rank-and-file Reform rabbinate --- 40% of which, by 1972, was amenable to performing intermarriages --- follows suit, particularly since, as the Forward reports, those who don't so oblige their congregants have difficulty landing positions, and once in a pulpit, "are no match," in Rabbi Marc Gellman's words, "for powerhouse intermarried couples who do not want to hear nuanced reservations based on Jewish law from someone who drives on the Sabbath and eats shrimp."
Apart from the need to accommodate its laity, the movement has an institutional incentive for staying its current policy course: it enables the movement to mask its internal hemorrhaging and continue asserting its status as the largest, and fastest growing, Jewish denomination. Reform's claims of numerical supremacy have long been suspect since, as Rabbi David Eliezrie observes, "[v]irtually any rabbi specializing in outreach will confirm that Jews who have led completely secular and unaffiliated lifestyles for several generations will usually call themselves Reform . . . [although] they never enter into a Reform synagogue or . . . know a Reform rabbi."
The movement's policies on conversion, patrilineal descent and intermarriage, however, have opened entirely new demographic opportunities. Thus, while the recent American Jewish Identity Survey held ostensibly good news for Reform, which claimed 41% of all affiliated households, up from 35% in 1990, prominent demographer Steven Cohen noted that by counting households rather than individual Jews, the survey is "artificially boosting the Reform movement by adding non-Jews to their memberships." And, in fact, many of that survey's other findings --- a decrease in the core Jewish population, an increase in the number of people of Jewish origin who now identify with another religion, 81% of partners of unmarried Jews are not Jewish --- support Cohen's pessimistic view. Rabbi Gellman, again, confirms Reform's unspoken profit motive: "Even Reform rabbis like myself, who do not perform intermarriages, have benefited from a huge influx of intermarried couples who have nowhere else to go."
Whether, in an earlier time, Reform indeed played some constructive role in keeping Jews from disappearing completely into the religious abyss is a valid question. What is not debatable, however, is that current Reform positions and attitudes have greased the skids for the Jewish community's current headlong slide into ever more pervasive assimilation and, ultimately, virtual disappearance. The statistics could not be plainer. Intermarriage among Reform Jews stands at between sixty and seventy percent. A majority of children in intermarried homes are raised in another religion or none at all. Even in intermarried households that are self-descriptively Jewish, a recent American Jewish Committee study found that 82% incorporate Christian activities of some sort. Perhaps most ominously of all, 90% of children of mixed marriages themselves marry non-Jews.
Had Rabbis Hirsch and Reinman debated the merits of Reform as a sociological phenomenon, or, alternatively, undertaken a purely academic exploration of the religious philosophy of a Reform theologian like Kaufmann Kohler or Eugene Borowitz, they might have produced a genuinely edifying book, albeit a much thinner one, too. And, had they accurately depicted the contemporary state of Reform, their honest appraisal might have sparked some serious reconsideration of the continued relevance of the movement as a whole.
In Commentary's 1996 symposium on American Jewish belief, David Gelernter addressed precisely that issue, writing that "Reform and Conservative Judaism (although we ought to acknowledge with respect and gratitude that they were serious attacks on a hard problem) have failed; we ought to admit it and move on." Interestingly, in that same forum, liberal theologian Arthur Green expressed the similar hope ---albeit for vastly different reasons --- that "all the denominational divisions outside Orthodoxy will soon disappear." Green is quick to point out, though, that while "many rabbis agree with this view," it will not soon come to pass, if only because of "denominational control of placement lists and pension plans." Contemplating Reform's passing from the Jewish scene is not all that different from imagining the dismantling of any entrenched, sprawling corporate entity serving as the source of livelihood, power and prestige for large numbers of people --- but, then, there was Enron.
Despite Reform's wholesale jettisoning of Jewish tradition in favor of a spiritually anemic, near-anarchic substitute, however, traditionalists and, indeed, anyone to whom a vibrant Jewish future matters, ought not despair. The fact remains that the formulation of the Ten Principles was not the result of an epiphany on the part of the movement's leadership, but a response, however tepid, to a genuine, spiritually oriented ferment within the membership, as evidenced by the positive feedback expressed by a very significant per
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