Reform Judaism and audacious superficiality

The cri de coeur of the recent Union for Reform Judaism convention was “Audacious Hospitality.” Audacity sounds so appealing, as it connotes “inventive” and “courageous” action. But “audacious” may also be defined as “without restriction to prior ideas,” “rash and reckless,” and “contemptuous of law and religion.” The latter negative associations have defined Reform Judaism in its jettisoning of Judaism’s substance.

My friend, Harold Berman, wrote this week in a Times of Israel essay, titled, “Is The Reform Movement Finished?” that his experience in being welcomed by Orthodox Jews contrasted sharply with his earlier life as a Reform Jew. Indeed, it is my observation that many Orthodox Jews instinctively practice hospitality, while many Reform Jews have to be exhorted to be welcoming.

The neologism “Audacious Hospitality” joins the ranks of “informed choice,” “ongoing revelation,” and “the integrity of personal autonomy” as shibboleths of the Reform movement. Every Reform congregation I know struggles with projecting warmth and friendliness. Countless meetings and seminars are conducted to explore strategies and develop tactics on how to be welcoming. What is not understood is that the matter is simple: be welcoming! If you have to be taught how to do it, there is something artificial and short-term about it. A welcoming spirit cannot be legislated by a Temple committee.

And then, after the audacious welcome, what is offered to the newcomer? While the Reform movement basks in its self-image as a burgeoning movement, we ought not to confuse breadth with depth or triumphalism with reality. While I have known a number of Reform Jews who are G-dly people, serious about their identity, and committed to learning and practice, Reform Judaism in general features no commitment to covenant, no sense of obligation to mitzvot, no emphasis on consistent observance, and no imposition of challenging beliefs. The foremost desideratum of all too many Reform Rabbis is how to accommodate an increasingly attenuated constituency. How many Reform Jews can say to a newcomer, “Please join us at our Shabbat table?” That invitation, proffered sincerely and spontaneously by so many traditional Jews, cannot be extended by most Reform Jews to new arrivals, for their own homes are not set for Shabbat and they consider the seventh day to be simply Saturday. The one who is welcomed audaciously is greeted by all too many Reform Jews who are content with sporadic Jewish gestures that are casual in their rejection of law and tradition.

URJ President, Rabbi Rick Jacobs, spoke of his recent meeting with Rabbi Yehuda Krinsky of Chabad, who charged that the Reform Movement does not care about kashrut, Shabbat, or mitzvot. Rabbi Jacobs responded, “Rabbi Krinsky, we care about kashrut, we care about Shabbat, we care about mitzvot; we just care differently. My job is exactly the same as yours: to try and bring more and more people close to the sacred core of Jewish life.”

The key word is “differently.” What does that mean? Is Rabbi Jacobs really saying that the Reform Movement’s commitment to kashrut, Shabbat, and mitzvot is equal to Chabad’s commitment, albeit with some legitimate tinkering in observance? How can there be allegiance to mitzvot if there is no belief in a commanding G-d and a refusal to see oneself as commanded?

The convention attendees were told that

…our Movement going forward is to bring more and more people close to the sacred core of Jewish life.”  What is defined as the core of Jewish life? The President of the URJ hailed Reform Judaism as “inclusive, egalitarian, intellectually rigorous, joyful, passionate, spiritual, pluralistic, constantly evolving and relevant. Soul elevating spiritual practice, life-altering Torah study, courageous practice of tikkun olam, loving care for our community, especially the most vulnerable–that’s what we are.

Is the sacred core of Judaism really intellectual rigor and pluralism? I note that he highlights “life-altering Torah study,” but where is the transformational practice of Torah that our Sages said must be the result of such study?

The “sacred core” of the Reform Movement is personal sovereignty. In defining Judaism as a set of options from which Reform Jews are free to draw selectively, its adherents are ruled by what Rabbi Heschel called the “tyranny of the ego.” The center of religion becomes not G-d, but man. As we gyrate around ourselves, we cry, Vox populi vox dei.

The relativizing of the absolute is absolute in the Reform movement.  Many Reform Jews think that G-d endorses what they do so long as it is “nice.” The response to intermarriage is, “It is not of great importance who they marry as long as the kids are happy.” The zone of self-regard has expanded so far as to crowd out G-d. Where is the “Thou Shalt” and the “Thou Shalt Not?” Is the summum bonum of Jewish life self-referential? Is the Torah infinitely elastic?

A man underwent a physical exam. It was discovered that he was in a serious condition. “The best thing you can do,” the doctor warned, “is to give up drinking, smoking, and carousing.” After a moment’s thought, the man asked, “What is the next best thing?”

Well, the next best thing is useless. The commandments of the Torah are the “best thing you can do.”

About the Author
Rabbi Mark S Miller served as Senior Rabbi of Temple Bat Yahm in Newport Beach, California, for thirty-five years. He is now Rabbi Emeritus of the Reform congregation. He has long supported Israel's right to determine its own destiny, free of interference by Diaspora Jews.
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