Monday, February 21, 2011

A Reform Rabbi’s Moment of Truth

Emes crosses all denominations. Emes will always rise to the top and make its own irrefutable argument. This is no less true as it applies to various Jewish denominations with respect to their own future viability.

I recently mentioned the shrinking numbers of Conservative Jews in contradistinction to what I believe to be indisputably growing numbers of Orthodox Jews – defined by commitment to Mitzvah observance rather than by synagogue affiliation. I had also mentioned that even though the number of Jews in the Reform movement has surpassed the once dominant Conservative movement – their theology which among other things redefines who is a Jew has made those numbers suspect and their future as a movement questionable.

I was pleased to see a reform rabbi make a similar statement about his own denomination. In an article in the Forward Rabbi Dana Evan Kaplan notes that Reform Judaism is in turmoil. There is a widespread belief that their numbers have peaked and they are currently in decline. The following are his observations and they are strikingly similar to what many in Orthodoxy have been saying about their movement from the very beginning. And as currently constructed the same argument can be made about Conservative Judaism:

The pluralistic theologies of Reform Judaism make it difficult to reach consensus on what we Reform Jews believe on any given issue. The liberal approach to observance makes it impossible to set and maintain high expectations in terms of communal participation. Without an omnipotent God who can compel believers to practice a prescribed pattern of behavior, religious consumerism becomes the movement’s dominant ethos. As members focus on what they want rather than what they can contribute, it becomes increasingly difficult to build committed religious communities.

As an example of what this has wrought he cites the following:

By 1975, there was so much theological disagreement that the committee responsible for putting together the movement’s official prayer book, “Gates of Prayer,” had to create 10 different Friday night services, eight of which reflected alternative and sometimes contradictory theological perspectives. For example, while Service 1 spoke of the all-powerful God who reigns in the heavens above, Service 2 described the Divine presence as the still, small voice of conscience within each human being.

He later adds:

Since a liberal theology leads to an emphasis on the autonomy of the individual, personal choice is inevitably promoted at the expense of the authority of God. In the absence of a strong theological basis for making religious demands, the members lose interest and wander off. This is what has happened in American Reform Judaism and in other non-Orthodox movements as well.

If I hadn’t read it with my own eyes, I wouldn’t believe it. But Rabbi Kaplan is obviously a seeker of truth. And he is intellectually honest in telling it like it is when he discovers it.

It’s too early to predict the demise of heterodoxy in any of its incarnations. Nor am I even sure that it is such a good thing – if one considers the consequences of a mass secular Jewish population with no realistic Jewish denomination to identify with. Especially with the current trend in Reform to embrace traditional Jewish practices. Even though Mitzvah observance at any level is still considered voluntary - it may just be the bulwark against complete assimilation to the point of shedding any last vestige of Jewish identity. That will ‘kill’ more Jews than Holocaust.

But I can’t help but feel that the harm caused by the advent of Reform and its original platform of ethical monotheism’ devoid of any Jewish practices has done more harm over the generations than it can do good now by trying re-invent themselves - as it struggles for existence.

A religion devoid of any ritual will almost certainly self destruct. I think that is in part was has happened and why they have back peddled rather fiercely in matters of Mitzvah observance. But voluntary Mitzvah observance is not enough. People crave structure in their lives – religious and otherwise. But Rabbi Kaplan says it much better than I just did:

One might think that most people would prefer a congregation that allows each member to find his or her own comfort level rather than one that requires all sorts of obligations, theological as well as ritualistic. That is not necessarily true… We are now seeing the consequences of the benign neglect that has been plaguing Reform Judaism for many years.

This is certainly not the time for triumphalism. Nor should this make us complacent about our future. We have our own very serious existential issues to deal with. But I do think I can say with a certain degree of confidence that Orthodoxy has the very elements of survival that – as pointed out by Rabbi Kaplan - is so sorely lacking in other movements: We see immutable eternal truths - Emes. We see Judaism defined by its obligations and not its rights or individual preferences. Judaism is not about serving God the way we choose to serve Him but by the way He wants us to serve Him. That is what sets us apart. And that is what insures our survival.