Ofer Bavly

Reform Judaism – Time for Unity

The Jewish people has survived and outlived all the ancient and less-ancient peoples who wanted to put an end to Judaism for whatever reason – basic anti-Semitism, religious animosity, territorial interests or pure jealousy. The ancient Egyptians, Greeks, Romans, Babylonians, Assyrians, Persians and Mongols, to name but a few, have come and gone, while the Jewish people was conquered, beaten and persecuted – but outlived them. The pogroms and the Holocaust in modern times attempted to eradicate Judaism off the face of the earth – and we survived them as a people and as a nation. Our resilience and inner strength, the power to withstand an almost incessant onslaught lasting millennia, came from our unity and our belief in our right to exist as a people and as a religion. While not all were devout, practicing Jews, and while dissent and inner debates and even open conflicts were frequent, Jews nevertheless stood shoulder to shoulder in order to face external threats and attacks. For King Ferdinand and Queen Isabel of Spain, all Jews were “Jewish enough” to be forcibly converted or put to the death during the Spanish Inquisition of 1492. For the Nazis in Germany, all Jews were “Jewish enough” to be exterminated in the gas chambers. Anti-Semites have never made the distinction between Orthodox and Reform, between religious and secular Jew. Just as the Halacha has grouped us all together as members of one people regardless of the number of times we visit a synagogue or the level of kashrut on our table, so we must consider each other as brothers and sisters of the same faith.
In an interview he recently gave to IDF Radio, Israeli Minister for Religious Affairs David Azulay said that Reform Jews cannot call themselves Jews because they “do not follow the Jewish faith”. Prime Minister Netanyahu quickly disavowed Minister Azulay, saying that his comments were not representative of the view of the Israeli Government. Azulaylater clarified his statement, saying that while even a sinning Jew is Jewish, “we see with great pain the danger of the Reformation in Judaism, which brought the greatest danger to the Jewish nation: assimilation”.

There is more than one problem with this story. The most disconcerting, of course, is that a Minister in the Israeli Government, an elected official and the person in charge of religious affairs should view Reform Jews as being somehow lesser than other Jews, be they sinners or simply “people led astray”. As if one Jew is better than another simply by virtue of how they choose to practice their Judaism (or not practice it at all). Azulay’s statement alienates with one fell swoop hundreds of thousands – even millions – of Jews who view themselves as Reform.
The Prime Minister’s statement is, of course, important – but not enough. Saying that Azulay does not represent the government is only one step in the right direction. Netanyahu should have taken steps to ensure that a person who thinks like Azulay will not serve on the government of the Jewish State.
No less disconcerting is the fact that the vast majority of Israelis either have not heard Azulay or – worse – paid no attention to his statement. Israelis, most of whom are relatively unfamiliar with the concept of Reform Judaism, either do not understand how degrading and damaging Azulay’s statement is, or do not care.
One must also ask – where is the voice of religious leaders in Israel? Where are the Rabbis who will stand up to Azulay and put him in his place? Why are they silent as this politician does away with millions of our own people, relegating them to second-class Jews?
Education Minister Naftali Bennett rightly said, in response to Azulay, that all Jews are Jews whether Orthodox, Conservative or Reform. Reform Judaism is not any better or any worse than any other stream in Judaism. Our strength is in our unity as a people, but also in our diversity of thought and opinion – and yes, practices. It is precisely the discussion, the debate, the argument that gave us the best teachings of our religious scholars and leaders throughout history. We are not all the same, and that is what makes us vibrant and gives our people its energy. Reform Judaism does not bring about assimilation. Assimilation is a problem that the whole Jewish world is grappling with and blaming one stream of Judaism for it serves no purpose other than to identify a scapegoat instead of looking for the true root of the problem.
Secular Jews and Jews of all hues and colors were deemed Jewish enough to be butchered by the Nazis, by the Inquisition and by a myriad others. Surely it is time for them to finally be accepted as Jewish enough and as equals by Orthodox Jewry in Israel and abroad. Jewish unity is not only a Jewish value; today, faced with growing threats and attacks, unity is of value to Jews.

About the Author
Ofer Bavly was a diplomat with the Israeli Foreign Service from 1991 to 2014, serving in Israel's Embassies in Madrid and Rome. He was Policy Advisor to two Foreign Ministers and was Israel's Consul General to Florida and Puerto Rico. He currently heads the Israel office of the Jewish Federation of Chicago / Jewish United Fund