Steven Bayar

Is movement-oriented Judaism relevant anymore?


There is an old story of a rabbi, who during a flood patiently waits for God to save him, refusing the help of the police, fire department and Coast Guard. Upon his death, the rabbi complains to God: How could you have forsaken me? God’s response: I sent you the police, fire department and Coast Guard — what did you expect?

Recent changes in the curricula of the liberal rabbinical seminaries have provoked strong reactions both in favor and against. The changes reflect a reorientation of priorities within the liberal movements. These changes — accepting applications for admission from intermarried students, a move away from intensive study of traditional Jewish texts (which may no longer be relevant to the careers paths currently open to graduates), in addition to devaluing the study in Israel — have been criticized as a surrender to the forces of assimilation by lessening the more rigorous requirements that are off-putting to potential applicants.

Those in support assert the need for movement-oriented Judaism to better prepare its clergy to effectively promote Judaism in the world we live in.

While the impact of these changes is yet to be seen, I predict they will have little effect on the Jewish landscape. They reflect the knee-jerk reactive response to the current dynamics of Jewish life in the United States without considering the foundational issue at its core.

It doesn’t address the “elephant in the room” of liberal Judaism. That is, is movement-oriented Judaism relevant anymore?

Congregations are bleeding members. Of those affiliated, how many still see themselves as members of the movement to which they pay dues? It is not uncommon for affiliated and unaffiliated Jews to participate in programs they wish to attend regardless of the sponsor, and it is not unusual for a family to have attended programs at Chabad, Conservative and Reform in any given month — depending on what meets their needs. And, how many affiliated congregants can actually define what it means to be Conservative or Reform?

These are not new issues — they were identified years ago. The Cassandras of each movement were ignored and the more freethinking clergy were marginalized in favor of the “status quo.” Everything “looked fine” even though the signs were evident to all who wanted to see.

Perspective tells us that the “threat” of this dynamic is to the movements alone. The community remains involved — just not with them. But they seem to have forgotten that the movements themselves (including orthodox) are barely more than 200 years old — a moment in our historical lives, only a few links in the chain of tradition.

Perhaps the question we all should be asking is: does movement-oriented Judaism reflect a past but not a future?

To be clear, I do not believe that the Reform or Conservative movements will disappear any time soon, but it certainly seems that they will become more niche than mainstream. What will take their place?

Ironically, in my experience the areas most loyal to the idea of being Conservative or Reform are the ones least served by the movement.

Reform and Conservative would be better served by putting more resources to support the congregations they have failed, and creating a small but identifiable cadre of leadership that understands the beauty and necessity of liberal Judaism.

The police, fire department and coast Guard have all been sent, and are waiting to help. Too bad the leadership of our movements does not recognize them for what they are.

About the Author
Rabbi Steven Bayar recently served as Interim Rabbi at Congregation Agudas Achim in San Antonio, TX. Ordained by the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College, he is Rabbi Emeritus of Congregation B’nai Israel in Millburn, NJ, where he served the pulpit for 30 years, and teaches at the Golda Och Academy in West Orange, NJ. He is a member of the Rabbinical Assembly and Rabbis Without Borders, and has trained as a hospice chaplain, a Wise Aging facilitator, and a trainer for safe and respectful Jewish work spaces. He’s the co-author of “Teens & Trust: Building Bridges in Jewish Education,” “Rachel & Misha,” and “You Shall Teach Them Diligently to Your Children: Transmitting Jewish Values from Generation to Generation.”
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