Friday, July 14, 2017

The Demise of Jewish Denominations

Temple Shalom in Chicago
Truer words have not been said: “I’m A Reform Rabbi, And I’m Not Going Anywhere.” So said Rabbi Howard Goldsmith. Well, that’s almost right. I would just apply it to his movement, not him.  Reform Judaism is not going anywhere. It is becoming less Jewish with each passing day. If it’s going anywhere it is going toward extinction. At least as anything legitimately called Jewish… as their definition of who is and isn’t Jewish has departed from all traditional definitions. I do not say this with any sort of glee. I just see it as a fact.

That they do not require any ritual Mitzvah observance has contributed more to the secularization of Jews in America than any other single thing.  ‘Unaffiliated’ is how most American Jews answer when asked which denomination they belong to. That can be traced in major part back to the tenets of Reform’s founding fathers. It is also the reason the Reform Movement has expanded its ‘tent’ of membership to Judaism. Which makes it even less Jewish than it was before.

How ironic it is that a Reform Rabbi is so  taken by the Jewish State. One of the founding tenets of Reform Judaism is the rejection of the return to Zion (Israel). Something we Jews have prayed for since the second temple era. And something Orthodox Jews still pray for daily. Reform Judaism erased any mention of it from their liturgy - and called their synagogues ‘temples’ to show that we don’t need the temple  in Jerusalem any more.  Reform temples in America have taken its place. Israel was considered an irrelevant detail of Jewish history with little value to Jews of our day.

That Rabbi Goldsmith now loves Israel is a good thing. Times change. People change.  And the Reform Movement changed. I’m actually pleased that he has fallen in love with the country. Although I’m not in enamored with the socialist image of the Israel’s founding fathers upon which he bases his love - loving Israel in any context is progress.

Before anyone jumps all over me for my apparent intolerance and lack of understanding, that is not what is going on in my mind. I actually feel sorry for this man. He is clearly an idealistic individual with altruistic intentions. It’s not his fault that he believes that Judaism does not require any Mitzvah observance. I will even give him the benefit of the doubt that he keeps many of the Mitzvos. That has been the trend in recent years. The Reform leadership has changed direction.

 In its heyday, Mitzvah observance was practically forbidden. When I was a child, I recall my father telling me that the rabbi of the Collingwood Avenue Temple in Toledo required Jews to remove their head covering when entering the sanctuary. Reform leaders now realize that shunning all observance has left Reform Judaism - Jewish in name only and bereft of any real Jewish  meaning. It has resulted in their membership wondering what it is about their denomination that makes it different from any other altruistic group pursuing social justice.

So they have done a 180 and now support doing as many Mitzvos as possible. That is a plus. But without a mandated commitment, Reform Judaism leaves in place the ability to move easily from Reform Judaism to being unaffiliated and intermarriage.

There are those who might say that Orthodoxy does not have the exclusive right to define who is and isn’t a Jew or what Judaism actually means. They are entitled to their opinion. But the fact is that Judaism has survived throughout history precisely because it was defined basically the way Orthodoxy is defines it now.

While there  may be some legitimacy to claims that the way Orthodox rabbis rule today has in certain instances departed with how rabbis have ruled historically - there is not a scintilla of doubt about the fact that it has been Halacha and tradition that has kept us Jewish historically. Can anyone imagine what Judaism would look like today if Reform Judaism would have taken hold instead of rabbinic Judaism? You don’t have to imagine it. I’ll tell you. It would not exist at all in any - even remotely recognizable way.

Rabbi Goldsmith had the misfortune of not having been raised in an environment that sees the importance of required Halachic observance. That’s why his sermons dealt so much with supporting Israel. Israel has indeed been the main subject of heterodox sermons when they weren’t about social justice issues.

Although I’m sure he does not want my sympathy and might reject everything I say – considering it insulting, I nevertheless I actually feel bad for him (even as I understand why he would be upset). He is sincere and feels unjustly rejected by Israel. I can’t really blame him for feeling that way.

But the fact is that he is not rejected at all. Only his movement is. He is as welcome to Israel as any Jew. He is also as welcome to pray at the Kotel as as any other Jew is. That he wants to do it together with women is just a product of his indoctrination. Israel - including its Charedim - welcomes all Jews. The only thing the Charedim and most other Orthodox Jews reject is the legitimacy of his denomination.

As noted here recently be a secular columnist in Ha’aretz, most Jews could not care less about the Kotel – other than as a tourist attraction. There is no groundswell of secular Israelis clamoring to pray at the Kotel in any incarnation: Reform,  Conservative, or Orthodox. This is all political. A tactic being used by heterodox rabbis to gain some sort of recognition for their denominations.

I believe that all denominations  are all headed for demise. Including Orthodoxy. At some point in the future only observant Jews will be able to be counted upon to perpetuate our people. We will all just be Jews. Not members of a specific denimination. Just as has been the case historically. The rest will unfortunately be lost to assimilation sooner or later. This is not a good outcome at all. But it is a real one.  The sooner Rabbi Goldsmith realizes that, the sooner he may come to realize the importance of ceding control to Orthodox rabbis is the only way toward the future. I think that deep down he might even know that.