Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Reform's New Direction and Orthodoxy

First it was the Siddur. Now it is Kashrus.

An amazing thing is happening with the Reform Movement. They are returning to Mitzvah observance. This is not to say that they are anywhere near becoming Orthodox. Far from it. But they are returning to an increasing number of traditional practices. The latest example of that is in the form of a book: The Sacred Table: Creating a Jewish Food Ethic”. As reported in a JTA article it promotes the idea of keeping Kosher.

Not that they say keeping Kosher is a binding Mitzvah nor that Kashrus is the only way to observe this ethic. That would undermine the very foundation of their theology. But they now see keeping Kosher as a strong means of identifying oneself as a Jew. Make no mistake about it. Traditional observace is re-entering the way Reform leaders look at their movement.

There are of course countervailing developments in Reform Judaism that are far more significant and problematic. Like patrilineal descent. This means that one can be a Jew in good standing by simply being born of a Jewish father even if the mother is not Jewish. According to Halacha this doesn’t work. If the mother is not Jewish the child born to her won’t be either – even if the father is the Gadol HaDor.

That makes the issue of how to deal with Reform Jews very complicated. But it doesn’t make it impossible. My guess is that - at least for now -the vast number o Reform Jews are Jewish. Most alive today were born of a Jewish mother. And it is a sad fact of reality that the largest denomination in Judaism is Reform.

Reform Judaism is rooted the rejection of all ritual – considering it incompatible with modern existence. They have always insisted the Judaism is not about ritual but about the underlying ethics that the Torah inspires.

But as they have now seen – after over a century of preaching this principle Reform Jews have all but disappeared as an identifiable entity. There is absolutely no practical difference between a Reform Jew and a non Jew. Not in any aspect of their lives. Assimilation at that level has practically made a virtue of intermarriage. That’s why Reform leaders now accept patrilineal descent.

This lack of Jewish identity has caused them to re-think the idea of ritual observance. They have finally come to realize that which most Orthodox Jews innately understand. That Mitzvah observance is what has kept us alive throughout millennia of persecution.

We are - as the Torah tells us - a Mamleches Kohanim V’Goy Kodosh – a kingdom of priests and a holy nation. We are chosen by God to be different. To obey His commandments. Commandments that are specifically designed for Jews and no one else. Although Reform leaders do not accept this idea - at least they are beginning to understand the mechanics of our long survival in the Diaspora. Without Mitzvah observance we would have disappeared pretty quickly into assimilationist oblivion. So they now encourage it.

This new track by Reform Judaism is a positive development and hopefully - yet another step in the ultimate return of many Reform Jews to the authentic Judaism of the Torah and Halacha.

It is true that there is ‘pushback’ by some reform rabbis and laity as the JTA article points out. That is understandable. Those who enjoy the freedom of ignoring all Mitzvah observance do not want to give that up. They continue to insist that Judaism is all about ethics – not ritual. But many Reform Jews who seek to embrace their Judaism are looking for better – more identifiable ways to do that. I think that helps drive their push to the right. And it seems to be taking hold.

I am reminded of a speech I heard from an older l Reform Rabbi who was from the old ‘liberal’ guard lamenting this move to the right - away from the liberal Judaism espoused by Reform’s founding fathers. He has since retired, is now in a nursing home. I have been told by someone who knows him that he has become observant himself. If I recall correctly he even leads the Orthodox religious services in that nursing home! And at least one of his children have become Orthodox and made Aliyah to Israel.

Why should any of us care what is happening in Reform Judaism? They comprise the largest segment of all Jews in America. And unlike their founding fathers who rebelled - most of them are Tinokos SheNishbu – captured children. They have no clue what Judaism really is. Many of them hunger for it - and yet have very little exposure or contact with Orthodoxy – other than the occasional negative story about us in the media.

Attempts at making inroads with them have been thwarted by some of our rabbinic leaders. Witness what happened to Rabbi Yosef Reinman. He collaborated with a prominent Reform rabbi on a book. After making one joint appearance together, Rabbi Reinman was censured by his right wing rabbinic leaders. He was ‘ordered’ to cease and desist from any further promotion of his book and to refrain from any further joint appearances with that Reform rabbi. He agreed.

Ultimately Rabbi Reinman took the same position as those leaders and publicly thanked them for ‘setting him straight’. But he admitted regretting not being able to interact and influence a segment of Jewry (Reform) with which he would otherwise never have had any contact. He felt that he had actually made inroads with them from just that one joint appearance. Imagine the influence he might have had if he continued doing it. And others had joined him in similar projects.

I believe it was a mistake for the rabbinic leadership to pull him out of that project and said so at the time. But although avoiding contact like this slows down the process. It is still taking place. Many Reform Jews are moving to the right and are slowly becoming educated about what Judaism really is. Some have even made the leap to Orthodoxy. I have no statistics but my guess is that this is happening in greater number than ever. I just hope the slow pace of it is not over ridden by the increasing damage of patrilineal descent.

Of course the rejectionists among them will over the next few generations probably marry out and their children will in many cases not even be Jewish. But the trend is not with the rejectionists.

Who knows? Someday maybe – just maybe - there will be a massive return to Torah by vast numbers of Jews who will see the value of observance as more than just a means of self identification. Maybe they will embrace Judaism the way it should be embraced with complete observance to Torah and Mitzvos.