On Reform Judaism — and this time using facts

The suggestion that Israeli Jewry would be stronger with only one brand of Judaism available is uninformed

Rabbi Pesach Lerner’s recent article, titled What Azoulay meant about Reform Jews, begins with Minister of Religious Services Azoulay’s derogatory comments against Reform Judaism, then zooms out appropriately to the current and future face of the Jewish people and the State of Israel. For this very reason, I’ve taken the time and effort to respond to Rabbi Lerner’s op-ed. As to Azoulay, Prime Minister Netanyahu was quick to dissociate himself from his misguided comments, and it was reported that the Minister was further rebuked for once again insulting and assaulting the largest movement in American Jewry and a major force in contemporary Jewry and support for the State of Israel.

Reading Lerner’s doomsday projection “no one expects the movement to hold out even another decade,” I can’t help but be reminded of Look Magazine’s 1964 article “The Vanishing American Jew.” In that analysis, author Thomas B. Morgan noted that given the low birth rates, and the corresponding increase in the rates of intermarriage, “slowly, imperceptibly, the American Jew is vanishing.” The American Jewish community is alive and thriving, but Look Magazine has since vanished! I am not suggesting that Young Israel will disappear, but, rather, suggest that more modesty is needed when making predictions about the demise of fellow Jewish movements.

In his article, Lerner mentions me in conjunction with a mission to the US of Knesset Members that the Israel Religious Action Center sponsored in order to expose them to the realities of pluralism and American Jewish life. Having accompanied them, I can attest to the fact that while MK (now President) Rivlin indeed formed negative impressions, other MKs came away with positive views of religious pluralism in general, and the vibrant liberal options in particular.

Rivlin did not wait until he returned to Israel, as the writer claims, to express his prejudice against Reform. He expressed them immediately after he witnessed a female cantor co-lead the Kabbalat Shabbat service at a Reform synagogue. His inability to embrace the active role of women in ritual religious life was apparent, and while both he and Rabbi Lerner are entitled to their negative opinions, fortunately the overwhelming majority of Jews, including growing circles within Modern Orthodoxy are welcoming the participation and growing role of women in Jewish religious life.

Occasionally, one comes across uninformed pronouncements, such as Rabbi Lerner’s, and often these authors attempt to lend credibility to their biases by manipulating statistical data and historical facts. Looking at the larger picture, we are facing a critical choice between two alternative visions: Would the Jewish people and the State of Israel fare better if there were no Reform / Conservative / Reconstructionist / Renewal Judaism, and the only religious option available for Jews were Orthodoxy? Or are the Jews of Israel better off with religious diversity and respect for pluralism, even as none of the existing religious streams may offer perfect solutions for modern day existential and identity dilemmas?

The overwhelming majority of Israelis identify themselves as non-religious — a fact — not a matter of divergent opinions between Rabbi Lerner and myself. According to Israel’s Central Bureau of Statistics, 42% of Jewish Israelis identify as secular, and 25% identify as traditional (not-religious), which in essence is similar to Israeli style secular, for only 7% among this group say they refrain from, for instance, riding a car on Shabbat.

The illusion that Jewry would somehow be stronger if there were only one brand of Judaism available throughout the world is compellingly refuted by the experience of countries in which Reform is only minimally available, such as France, the Former Soviet Union or Latin America. Anyone who knows anything about the challenge of intermarriage knows that it is greater in those countries, and that Jews who wish to intermarry do not wait for approval from Reform Judaism. Moreover, Rabbi Lerner’s anti-Reform prejudice blinds him from seeing the vibrant Jewish life of liberal communities throughout the US, and brings him to the hallucinatory assumption that should these liberal communities be uprooted, their members would flock en masse to their neighboring Young Israel congregations or the like.

The fact is, as both the NJPS and the Pew studies demonstrated, that in an atmosphere of pluralism, most American Jews choose to identify with Reform, Conservative or other liberal options. Only religious coercion, à la Israel style, would change that picture. Hopefully that will never happen in the Diaspora. We should all hope that the coercion exercised in Israel will be eradicated as well.

This is not intended to suggest that contemporary Jewry is without challenges. However, they do not result from Reform Judaism, but are part and parcel of modernity, growing secularism, the cost of Jewish life and Jewish education, the collapse of community and Jewish solidarity, etc. The main growth that Lerner alludes to in Orthodoxy rests within ultra-Orthodoxy, and the reason, which he neglects to mention, is primarily the community’s high birthrates. This also explains much of the gradual demographic shift within Israel, and the growing percentage of ultra-Orthodoxy among younger Israelis.

It is self-evident when we bear in mind the average birthrate of approximately 7 children per ultra-Orthodox family, compared to 2.1 among non-ultra-Orthodox Israeli Jews, and a lower rate yet among Diaspora Jews. Lerner quotes with pride that 32% of Israeli young adults are Orthodox. Actually, these figures are a source of much concern in Israel, not by Reform but by market leaders and the Israel Defense Forces. Almost 30% of Jewish elementary school students study in ultra-Orthodox schools, and given their low participation in the work-force, reluctance to teach their male children core-curricular studies and refusal to serve in the army, it’s no wonder that this is a terrible threat to both Israel’s security and economy. The concerns are shared by experts in the field of economics, too. In fact, these trends recently brought a senior researcher in the Ministry of Finance to sound the alarm that without drastic change — Israel is likely heading towards bankruptcy.

Rabbi Lerner not only is disdainful of Reform Judaism, but he also rejects most Israelis’ hope that Israel truly be Jewish and democratic. He never mentions that Israel’s founding promise, as stated in its Declaration of Independence, is for religious freedom and equality for all. He abhors and closes his eyes to the fact that the overwhelming majority of Israelis want these very principles to be fully realized by Israel’s Knesset and Government. Polls indicate that they adamantly oppose the inclusion of Minister Azoulay and his fellow ultra-Orthodox politicians in the Government Coalition and cabinet posts. In fact, 84% of Jewish Israelis in 2014 supported freedom of religion and conscience in Israel, and 62% in 2015 preferred a government coalition without the ultra-Orthodox parties.

In Israel, the studies bear out a continuous and quite dramatic growth of Israeli Jews who identify as Reform or Conservative. Three years ago, Shmuel Rosner analyzed a poll, which indicated that 8% of Israeli Jews identified as either Reform or Conservative. Just a few weeks ago, he revisited the subject upon the publication of updated polling: “Today we can talk about even larger numbers,” he wrote, “12% of Israelis define themselves as ‘Reform’ or ‘Conservative.'” This new data comes at a time when no Conservative or Reform rabbi in Israel can officiate at a legally recognized wedding, non-Orthodox conversions are not fully recognized, nor are their synagogues receiving anywhere near comparable support from the state to that enjoyed by Orthodoxy.

Even in the recent Guttman study, which Rabbi Lerner conveniently only partially cites, it was found that 61% of Israeli Jews believe that the Conservative and the Reform movements should enjoy equal status with the Orthodox. Lerner, not surprisingly, misrepresents Israel’s secular Jews, who increasingly seek alternatives to Orthodox standards: 80% of whom would rather marry outside the Orthodox rabbinate if given the opportunity, which, today, they do not have.

Lerner seeks validation in Ambassador Michael Oren observations about North American Judaism. It should be pointed out to him that Oren and his family have been members of a Reform Synagogue in Israel, and opted for a Reform wedding for their child, which required an additional civil ceremony in Washington, DC, officiated by Justice Elana Kagan, to give it legal standing in Israel. Rabbi Lerner should be more careful in his research. The real data belie his derogatory “assessment.”

Rabbi Lerner has demonstrated both his animosity towards Reform Judaism, and his lack of understanding of Israeli society by falsely accusing Reform Judaism of “pressuring Israel to change its religious standards to match their own”. I am not a spokesperson for Reform, but from past experience I can attest that Reform Judaism aspires to advance what is Israel’s own founding vision and raison d’être, which awaits its full realization. It labors, as part of religiously diverse coalitions of Israelis, to achieve what is supported by the overwhelming majority of Israelis. Moreover, the only reason this vision has not been realized yet is that Lerner’s political counterparts and soulmates, whether in Azoulay’s party, Shas or Ha’bayit Hayehudi are the ones that dictate that no religious progress or freedom is allowed, using political extortion, which contradicts the public will and interest.

Rabbi Lerner dreams of Israel becoming a theocracy, as do Minister Azoulay and his late supreme leader Rabbi Ovadia Yosef (z”l). It was Yosef who declared that all of Israel’s civil judiciary is in the religious category of “rasha” (evil), citing the fact that the courts admit the testimony of women as an example to justify this conclusion. I wonder how Rabbi Lerner feels about the public statement made by the former Chief Rabbi of Israel, Rabbi Amar (currently the Chief Rabbi of Jerusalem), that Israel’s Knesset laws are to be treated as “gentile laws”, and that for so long as Israel is not governed by Torah laws, it’s as if they embrace Satan.

The choice is clear: Are we going to join hands in shaping Israel as a truly Jewish and democratic state that celebrates pluralism and a free marketplace of ideas, beliefs and practices, or will we give in to the mounting theocratic pressures and political horse-trading, resulting in the alienation of the majority of world Jewry, and continued religious coercion?

About the Author
Rabbi Uri Regev is one of Israel’s most prominent advocates for religious freedom. He currently serves as president of Hiddush- Freedom of Religion for Israel.
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