Friday, February 17, 2012

A New Look at Reform Judaism

As a Maamin – I believe in the Divine origin of the Torah. I believe that it was given by God at Sinai and that Moses handed down the oral tradition to the elders of his time who followed him and continued to hand it down generationally. Ultimately resulting in Halacha as we know it today.

This – in a nutshell describes Orthodoxy. We believe that the Torah and all of its laws are mandatory. We are supposed to follow Halacha to the best of our ability. This was how Jews pretty much lived throughout the ages. The Jewish people have for the most part always lived as a community of observant Jews. They followed Halacha. Some more. Some less. But they all understood that it was Halacha that defined them.

Those who left the fold were few and far between. When they did, they left it completely. There was nowhere else to go but out. There were no denominations. At least not since early post biblical times.

Among Ashkenazim – those Jews who migrated to Europe which accounts for the vast majority of the Jews in North America - some did occasionally leave the fold. Some of them ‘converted’ to Christianity for socio-economic reasons. Some simply led their lives as completely secular without any connection to their past. But it was relatively rare to do so in Europe prior to the enlightenment because of the rampant anti-Semitism. And because of that - the relegation of the Jewish people to the ghetto. So life for most Jews was defined by the closed society in which they lived. They were - as I said - the most part observant. At least overtly.

But the enlightenment changed all that. Jews started leaving the fold in much greater numbers because of the new found freedom they were given. The Reform movement was eventually founded which at least in part was created to help eliminate the prejudice that existed and accelerate Jewish acceptance by the newly enlightened Europe. And thus improve their financial condition and their status.

In order to accomplish this Reform Judaism rejected the Torah as mandatory claiming that all of its ritual was designed only to make us live ethical lives. Now that we know those ethics - rituals were no longer needed. While that is an oversimplification -I think that pretty much describes the situation then.

The problem is that it only succeeded in eliminating the ritual. Although at first things seemed improving socially, in the end they did not succeed. Jews were hated by their European gentile neighbors – mostly because of centuries of Christian indoctrination about how the Jews collectively and for all time killed their god. And as we all know the Holocaust testifies to that inner hatred via the silence and in many cases the complicity of the citizens of Europe – with the exception of the all too few righteous gentiles.

Fast forward to now. Largely because of this history and the melting pot society that defined America of the early 20th century - the vast majority of America’s over 6 million Jews are secular. They do not observe the Mitzvos. And young people are abandoning their heritage in droves, including intermarrying with non Jews.

That is why Jewish outreach is so important. However even with all the amazing success stories, the numbers are a drop in the bucket compared to the vast numbers of Jews who will never encounter any outreach by religious Jews.

Although they lament this tragedy - many Orthodox Jews feel that at this point in time it would be impossible to bring these Jews back home to Torah and Mitzvos. To be sure they will say that we need to do all we can and that every Jewish soul is precious. But there is simply no way to do much more than we are doing now – even if we redouble our efforts at outreach. All we can do is to reach out as we are now and bring as many people closer to Torah and Mitzvos as we can… and not worry about numbers.

I am not prepared to write off so many of our people. The question is what indeed can we do about it?

This is where I think we need to re-examine our attitudes to the Reform Movement. The classic approach of the rabbinic leadership for over a century has always been to reject any ties to heterodox movements so as not to give them any recognition. I understand and even agree with that in principle. Associating with them implies acceptance of what we consider anti Torah views.

But times have changed. The need has never been greater than now. Reform Judaism is no longer the anti Torah movement that it once was. Not that it is in any way considered Halachic in an Orthodox sense. But they have definitely changed direction.

This does not mean that we have to join Reform rabbis in any joint religious ventures. But it does mean – I think – that Orthodoxy has to change its attitude to one that reflects these new realities. Halacha was once seen as an impediment to success in the new world. But after almost a century of abandoning it - they now see that paradigm as a failure. At least in terms of perpetuating Judaism. Although there are still some diehard Reform liberals who insist on that old paradigm - the current leadership has completely reversed itself.

There is ample evidence of this. I have made reference to it many times here. Reform leaders now advocate Halacha for their masses – albeit on a voluntary basis. They now see Torah and Mitzvos in a positive light. They even see learning Torah in a positive light. I have made reference to Reform Rabbi Eric Yoffie before. He was in the forefront of this change. In an article by him today in the Forward, he eulogizes Reform Rabbi Gunther Plaut who was in large part responsible for it too.

In my view we ought to take note of this change of direction and do whatever we can to encourage it. In some ways, the Reform movement as it exists today could be seen as a sort of extension of our own outreach. I think this new breed of Reform rabbi actually sees himself that way.

Bringing Jews back to observance at any level should be a goal for all of us. As it applies to the vast majority of non Orthodox Jews who would never come in contact with an Orthodox Rabbi - they may very well listen to the Reform rabbi they do come into contact with. I think there is an opportunity to reach out to more Jews than ever. I am firmly convinced that the “new Reform rabbi” does not see becoming an observant Orthodox Jew as a negative. He would consider it a success. I think we can capitalize on that. In fact Rabbi Yoffie’s own daughter is now Orthodox if I recall correctly.

I’m not sure how to go about it without seeming to partner up with them. That is a matter for people greater than I to figure out. But I am more convinced than ever that this opportunity should not be missed. We have a chance to bring a great number of the Jewish masses back to Torah and Mitzvos.

I’m not saying there wouldn’t be obstacles. There absolutely would. Many of them. Not the least of which is dealing with how to define who is a Jew. Patrilineal descent and Reform conversions would surely be a huge problem. Nonetheless it would be a crime not to try and overcome these obstacles. There are too many precious Jewish souls at stake.