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Has Reform Judaism jumped the shark?

At some point, the priority of complete personal autonomy in matters of religion stopped working for me
Illustrative: A group meeting for a 'P'sukei D'zimra' morning service before the main Shabbat worship service at the Reform biennial in San Diego, December 14, 2013. (URJ via JTA/File)
Illustrative: A group meeting for a 'P'sukei D'zimra' morning service before the main Shabbat worship service at the Reform biennial in San Diego, December 14, 2013. (URJ via JTA/File)

On May 16, 2018, Reform Judaism may have officially “jumped the shark”. The expression comes from the old TV show “Happy Days,” when they aired an episode — involving jumping over a shark — that was so bad that it became obvious the end was nigh. On May 16, a group of Reform (or Progressive) Jews in London said kaddish for the 62 Gazans who were killed trying to break into Israel. This wasn’t the first time, but it was the first time that a British cab driver told them off, on what became a viral video.

I left the Reform movement in the early 1990s, because up until then, I thought Reform was something it wasn’t. I and my family believed that Reform Judaism was a religion, a competitor to the “correct” interpretation of Judaism. Therefore, there were certain “do’s” and “don’ts”. For instance, we fasted on Yom Kippur, because that was something G-d said you had to do. We had a Passover seder and didn’t eat chametz products for the whole week, because that was also something G-d said you had to do (We even had the horrible cereal I still refer to as “Nasty-O’s”!) Eating pork, on the other hand, was something that G-d didn’t say we still had to do, because it was only applicable when pork was dangerous. This is the way we understood Torah from a Reform perspective, and we stuck to it.

What I didn’t understand was that Reform Judaism is built on the idea of complete personal autonomy in matters of religion. Everyone has the freedom to decide what to believe. In particular, to decide what they believe Judaism *is.* This is not a matter of practicality, as it is in Orthodoxy, where we welcome Jews even though they do not believe in our beliefs, with the understanding that the beliefs don’t change just because individuals may not adhere to them or practice them. Rather, this is their fundamental belief, such that one who is agnostic, or even atheist, is actually practicing, and “believing in,” Reform Judaism. When we thought that Reform Judaism “believed in” having a seder and not eating chametz on Passover, nothing could have been further from the truth. Reform Judaism, per se, doesn’t believe anything except autonomy. To espouse anything else as dogma would impinge on that autonomy.

This does not mean that individual Reform Jews don’t believe anything. They are free to believe whatever they like. They can believe in G-d… or not. They can believe in Zionism or that Israelis are colonists. Reform as an ideology certainly doesn’t believe there is any need to perform the Passover seder – even the first one — but it also doesn’t believe you shouldn’t.

On top of this idea of personal autonoomy, they’ve tried to “make it Jewish” by adding Jewish symbols, like kaddish. This is where cognitive dissonance enters and where the craziness that leads to saying kaddish for terrorists gains a foothold. I noticed something was wrong early on, because any “why” question can’t really be answered. At a NFTY youth group retreat, as a young teen, we were told that intermarriage was bad — yet I knew that Reform rabbis officiate at intermarriages. When we asked why we shouldn’t intermarry, their reasons were either silly or racist. That was because they couldn’t give us the religious answer (and the only one I believe makes any sense), “G-d says so,” because they couldn’t tell you what to believe. If G-d had commandments, we wouldn’t have autonomy.

I finally left Reform Judaism for good one Yom Kippur in college. Emory University holds a Yom Kippur service that caters to students from all over the Atlanta area, in addition to a large number of other unaffiliated people. For space reasons they held it at the Glenn Memorial Church (I assume this is still true). In the early 1990s, I was a student at Georgia Tech and would go to Yom Kippur services there. This year, the A/C went out on Erev Yom Kippur. It’s still hot in the South in October, but, truth be told, Reform services are not that long – an hour, maybe an hour and a half. I was surprised to hear the rabbi say, “If anyone feels the need to eat or drink, let the sin be on me.” Despite being baffled, I came back the next day.

Due to the A/C problem, they moved it to a gym. I wondered aloud, “If you could get the gym, why choose the church?” But so be it. They had a female chazanit, but I was not Orthodox at the time, so no problem. Then came the time for the sermon and there was a guest speaker. He was a representative of a “Humanist Congregation.” He was there to tell us why he was in temple on Yom Kippur when he didn’t believe in G-d. Disappointed, I looked around at the large crowd gathered in the gym. Hundreds of people who, like me, only came to anything G-d-related a couple times a year. If the rabbi had stood up and said, “Yay, G-d!” it would’ve been sufficient. But this was the opposite.

That’s when I got it. An atheist sermon is not an aberration to them; it is par for the course. It may even be “lemehadrin min hamehadrin” (the highest level).

As long as this self-contradiction of the Reform movement was confined to those who stayed awake for the sermon, who would notice? As long as the debate was whether other Jewish movements should recognize converts to, what amounts to, a non-belief system, it wasn’t a pressing issue for the rank and file. More recently, the ad absurdum of the Reform movement has become more public. The Jewish veneer has given way in the face of the beliefs its members have chosen — through their autonomy. Those members have learned the lesson Reform has taught for years: to take one’s own beliefs and add Jewish symbols. Thus, we get kaddish to support the destruction of Jews.

Many in the Orthodox and more traditional worlds believe that somehow this is being led from the top down. People have a hard time accepting that something so incongruous and disgusting as kaddish for terrorists could be anything other than a plot. They should know it is not. Reform is just living out its own ideals to their logical conclusion. This is not a conspiracy; this is consequences.

Therefore, what? There are Jews still left in Reform like I was, who are seeking a truth and just assume it is a contender for that truth. Attacking Reform per se, just puts them on the defensive and ostracizes them from other Jews and Judaism. Publicizing outrageous behavior like this kaddish, on the other hand, and every time that Reform leaders come out against Israel helps these Jews realize there’s something wrong with their movement. Explaining, as I have tried here, what Reform really is, I hope helps too. Those of us in the Orthodox and pro-Israel camp(s) have to be ready to accept all Jews, but with the understanding that our beliefs won’t change, so that, if they decide to drive away from a Reform Yom Kippur, there’ll be somewhere to drive to.

About the Author
Reuven (sometimes Bobby) came from a mixed Jewish-Christian background. He became ba'al teshuva (Jewishly observant) in his 20s with the intention of making aliyah, which didn't happen until his 40s. His daughter, Shani, also blogs and serves in the IDF as a medic. She was a lone soldier until her parents made aliyah in 2017.
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