The writer Michael Chabon created quite a stir with his Commencement Address call for breaking down the walls surrounding Judaism. Clifford Librach, a retired Reform rabbi writing in Tablet Magazine, chastises Cheban and his own reform congregants for having little interest in Judaism. According to Librach, conservatism is already all but dead and Reform Judaism is melting away. He only sees hope in the land of Israel.
Comments by Librach and writers in even such a valuable and otherwise wonderful publications as the Jewish Review of Books tend to dismiss Reform Judaism as a haven for a lazy Jews looking for a cut rate faith. According to such observers, Reform supposedly has no real content, no intensity – a mere 1 to 3 on a scale of 10 – no real belief system and survives only as a reaction to the anti-Semitism in past years.
These easy characterizations do a disservice to the Reform Movement and to Judaism as a whole. There are many Reform Jews who are committed to our faith. The 5000 North American Jews who attended the union for Reform Judaism biennials with a thousand more who attend the World Union Connections conferences in Jerusalem do not do so as a result of a shallow and hollow faith. Likewise, the 71 Israeli reform congregations and the 1000 people, including 120 from overseas, who attended the recent Israel Movement for Progressive Judaism biennial at Kibbutz Shefayim did not stumble into the meeting on their way to the beach. Maybe not a ten but at least an 8.
That the essence of reform is hard to define does not deprive it of content. The problem for many reform Jews, like this writer, stems from a reaction to the Torah. If you devoutly believe that there was no direct divine intervention at Sinai, that the laws in the Torah are the works of people, perhaps in reaction to the customs of surrounding nations, as suggested by Maimonides in his Guide to the Perplexed, then one really cannot accept Orthodoxy. The separation of women and men, the laws of mamzerut, the concentration on trivia, like growing of different grains in a field, do suggest human limitation, not the dictation of a righteous deity who commands a thirteen billion lightyear wide Universe. However intensely Jewish such a one may feel, and however committed to the future of the Jewish people or to the study of Jewish works,as moral guides, or to the State of Israel, such a person cannot accept the Torah as a set of divine Commandments. Anyone with a scientific bent may well be moved to agree to the conclusion rendered by Professor Richard Feynman that in the likelihood of outside intervention in human affairs is vanishingly small. Asking such people to shuck these beliefs at the Temple door is asking us to be hypocrites.
Starting with that premise, Orthodoxy becomes impossible. It demands beliefs we cannot accpt. In contrast, Reform, with its emphasis on Isra-el, the struggle with the divine in human nature, and its further emphasis on works of tikkum olam, becomes a natural expression of adherence to Judaism. Miracles as Maimonides also wrote may be expressions of human or natural phenomena. But they occur so rarely that they still have the capacity to amaze. A people who at some point perceived that the quarrelsome gods of antiquity should be replaced by a drive toward unity and righteousness — that is miraculous, even if not the result of divine intervention. In the case of Israel, the concatenation of unlikely circumstances that produced the Jewish state surely is likewise miraculous, even if not divinely so. After all, the Balfour Declaration, the original political impetus for the Zionist state, may have resulted in part from exaggerated perceptions of the ability of the small amounts of Jews in the world to influence the course of World War I.
Of course Reform Judaism may fail. Movements outside of Rabbinism have failed in the past. For example, how many Karaites are left and how many Samaritans . None the less Reform has lasted well over 150 years since its origin in Germany and 130 years since the promulgation of the Pittsburgh platform in 1885 in the United States. It has millions of adherents in every continent except Antarctica. As Justice Brandeis wrote of our constitution, it is an experiment as all life is an experiment. Yet like the U.S constitution, it is a worthy experiment giving a life in Judaism to those who adhere to it but cannot accept the dogmas of divine intervention in the creation of the written law, let alone the oral law.
It is not simply a least common denominator of feckless Jews. It does inspire people to sing, pray study and engage in social action. All told, it is more of a light unto the nations than the hermetically-sealed world of the ultra-orthodox or the rigid hierarchies of many hasidic groups. If we accept the notion that Jews have a mission, whether divinely ordained or not, to pursue knowledge, question furiously held beliefs, engage in skeptical inquiry, Reform Judaism has a lot of teach in this day and age. That part of our heritage as Jews, the endless disputation that occurs in the gemara, our questioning nature, and above all our love of law, are the gifts that we bring to the world.
Contra Rabbi Librach and its detractors, Reform Judaism, properly expressed, does demand commitment. It is not satisfied with once yearly Temple attendance or a seder without a Haggadah. It is real Judaism that challenges its adherents to engage in our faith. Most critically It provides different pathways to Judaism to persons who cannot accept the Torah as divine dictation. It allows us to combine Judaism with theological modesty. It is better than its critics, and is a path to the Jewish future.