Regarding the rift
by Jonathan Rosenblum
March 19, 1999
Did anyone ever notice that the kid in The Emperor's New Clothes did something really nasty? After all, who gained from his pointing out that the king was naked?And think how it made the king feel!
What purpose, I ask myself, could be served by an article detailing the absolute chasm of theology and practice between the Reform movement and Torah Judaism? Will one Jew be thereby brought closer to Torah? Moreover, such an article is guaranteed to generate anger, since any account of modern Reform practice and belief is bound to sound like a parody.
Only the obfuscation of Reform practice and belief in the ongoing debates over religious pluralism in Israel justifies discussing the subject at all.
The lengthy puff piece on the brother-sister team of Reform rabbis, the Kelmans, in last week's Jerusalem Post Magazine was typical. Naturally, we learned that the duo are tolerant, egalitarian, and politically left-wing, and that the brother was not sufficiently observant to follow his father into the Conservative rabbinate.
But on their theology and practice we heard next to nothing: Only that prayers at the Kelmans's Kol Haneshama synagogue may be punctuated by meditative deep-breathing exercises and chanting - an example of what Hebrew Union College (Reform) liturgist Lawrence Hoffman terms 'impostors' of prayer - and that they consider it permissible to answer the telephone and make Purim shtick during the megillah reading.
The Reform (or Progressive as it is known in Israel) movement has been content, for the most part, to present its case in Israel as a civil rights issue, and to concentrate almost exclusively on suits to the High Court of Justice rather than grass roots organizing.
Thus, more than 40 years after prominent American Reform leader Julius Mark declared Israel ripe for Reform, the movement claims, at most, 5,000 members in Israel, according to a 1998 American Jewish Committee study.
EVEN if we were to concede for purposes of argument the dubious proposition that Reform congregations receive less public financial support per capita than Orthodox congregations, money clearly is not the problem.
With the tens of millions of dollars raised by the New Israel Fund and the federations for religious pluralism this last year alone, a beautiful temple could have been built for every 50 Reform members in Israel.
Recently, Michael Marmur, whose civility and wit always inspire admiration, complained in these pages that Reform is accused of copyright infringement on the name Judaism. I confess to having used the analogy myself.
Unfortunately, Marmur did not devote one word to disproving the charge.
Yet Torah Jews are not the only ones to think that Reform is a separate religion. Professor Paul Gottfried, in Issues, the publication of the American Council of Judaism (Reform), wonders why Reform Jews reject the idea that they are a separate religion given the 'theological gulf' separating them from traditional Judaism.
Can one religion encompass both the belief that the Creator of the Universe categorically forbids the eating of pork and the belief that dietary laws are a matter of indifference to God? Can one religion both command us to refrain from creative activity on Shabbat and permit it?
Could the same God have both termed male homosexual acts an abomination and condoned their sanctification in religious commitment ceremonies?
Did He speak at Sinai or not?
THE impossibility of reconciling Reform with the traditional understanding of Judaism goes far beyond any particular mitzva to the foundations of the entire theological system. Traditional Judaism is founded on a sense of obligation, upon the belief in a Law commanded at Sinai governing every aspect of life.
Reform rejects the idea of a binding command, and with it Sinai as the defining moment in Jewish history. 'Personal freedom of choice,' declares a pamphlet of the Central Council of American Rabbis, is the bedrock of Reform Judaism.
Even the mention of the term mitzva in a draft statement of Reform principles this year sent alarms ringing in the movement and forced the statement's withdrawal.
Professor Steven Katz notes that Reform is the first 'heresy' of Jewish origin to reject not just the Oral Law but the Written Law as well. When the American Reform rabbinate voted to admit active homosexuals to membership, one of the proponents candidly remarked that Leviticus posed no problems because 'we haven't been afraid to dissent from Leviticus before.'
By elevating individual autonomy to the supreme religious value, Reform is ultimately incapable of setting any boundaries at all. All opinions are equally valid, equally 'Jewish.'
Shortly before his death, Jacob Petuchowski, longtime professor of theology at Hebrew Union College, wrote: 'Because American Reform Judaism no longer finds it necessary to justify itself before God and Jewish religious tradition, its abject submissions to any and all modern fads are boringly predictable.'
AN exhibit last week at the movement's biennial convention in Jerusalem illustrates the point. The Binding of Isaac was portrayed as a case of parental rape - homosexuality, incest and child abuse all rolled into one.
No doubt most Reform Jews were disgusted by the depiction of Abraham as a child molester, but they had no standard by which to reject these fevered imaginings of a high school student, obviously more familiar with Oprah Winfrey than the Bible.
David Ariel-Yoel, a leading Reform rabbi in Israel, who last year announced on Channel 1's Mabat news his intention to continue performing same-sex commitment ceremonies with the support of his colleagues in Israel, described the depiction as a 'bold attempt at explaining the story.'
A New Israel Fund ad proclaiming that Israel recognizes 16 forms of Christianity but only one form of Judaism misses the point. Each of those 16 forms of Christianity views itself as a separate faith community and is recognized as such by the state.
Yet the theological differences between those 16 Christian denominations pale by comparison to those between Reform and Torah Judaism. Were Reform to proclaim itself a new religion, no one would object to Reform religious councils or any other form of state recognition.
But, of course, if they did that, those fueling the religious wars in Israel would be denied what they seek. American Reform rabbis would not receive legitimation from the State of Israel. And Meretz could not use Reform as a Trojan horse to banish Judaism entirely from the public square.
Related Topics: Pluralism
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