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The Zionizing of Reform Judaism

Wolfgang Hamburger
Fall 1998

Words and phrases take on a meaning of their own when they are used as simplified conveyors of difficult ideas and disputed facts. "The unity of the Jewish people" is such a simplified phrase; it needs to be examined, because it has appeal though it is devoid of substance. It appeared in print about a year and a half ago. What would readers, not familiar with current Jewish matters, have made of it? Its impressive elegance may have persuaded Jews to strengthen their flimsily emotional attachment to the Jewish people. Therefore a detailed explanation of the phrase and its background is necessary.  

"The unity of the Jewish people" is a phrase of recent coinage, which grew out of the intense argument between non-Orthodox and Orthodox rabbinic leaders about official recognition of non-Orthodox religious officiation in the State of Israel. These officiations or functions relate to events marking personal status - birth, marriage, divorce, death, and, in the very recent past, conversion to Judaism. The administration of the laws regulating those events has been entrusted to the rabbinate ever since Palestine was part of the Ottoman Empire. At that time, only Orthodoxy existed in Palestine and was practiced by its small Jewish community. Its chief rabbi was recognized as its official representative by the Ottoman authorities. This arrangement was continued when, after the First World War, the League of Nations entrusted Great Britain with Palestine’s political stewardship; it was not changed when the State of Israel was established in 1948.  

Jewish Migration  

Jewish migration to Palestine began at the end of the last century even before Zionism had been organized as a political movement. The number of those and later immigrants was small; almost all of them left the oppressively restricted and uncertain ghetto life in czarist lands in order to earn their livelihood with dignity and self-respect as farmers and laborers, and to build a community based on their socialist ideals. Many of them were committed not to Judaism as a religion but to the Jewish people. They were secularists, familiar with the function of the rabbinate as the registry of the ghetto, and therefore they could accept the role of the Palestinian rabbinate without compromising their irreligious stance.  

Those who came from Central Europe during the years of the Nazi regime had to recognize the unfamiliar authority of the rabbinate. If they wanted to continue their kind of non-Orthodox worship service, they had to make arrangements at their own expense, although institutions of Orthodoxy, as the only recognized branch of Judaism, were financed with public funds. As time went on, after 1948, the World Union for Progressive Judaism was able to give some financial support to the few liberal congregations in the State of Israel. Naturally, the personal status of their members was administered by the Orthodox rabbinate in the name of the secular authorities.  

Soviet Emigration  

This condition continued until the political disintegration of the Soviet Union when the barriers to emigration were removed. Waves of immigrants arrived in the State of Israel; many of them brought along a bag filled with problems of which they could not have been aware. After seventy years of atheistic propaganda and inter-marriages, it was difficult to say who was a Jew according to the religious law, which is Orthodoxy’s reason for being and empowers it to determine who is a Jew. Converting to Judaism was considered in many cases of parents and children the only way to integrate the Russian newcomers into Israeli society. By that time, the non-Orthodox rabbis had gathered the courage to offer their preparation for, and their ritual of, conversion - less cumbersome than, and different from, the Orthodox instruction and ritual - as their contribution to the solution of the unexpected Problem.  

But the Orthodox rabbis, considering themselves the only qualified interpreters and the only legitimate keepers of Judaism and dismissing non-Orthodox Jews as heretics and destroyers of Judaism, refused even to consider the offer. Without Orthodox consent and recognition, no Reform or Conservative conversion has legal standing in the State of Israel. Orthodoxy’s stubborn insistence on exclusive rights and privileges persuaded some Reform Jew to state that fundamentalist intransigence was destroying "the unity of the Jewish people."  

Political Stance  

Frustration brought forth this phrase, and therefore it must be taken as a reaction to the disappointment caused by Israeli Orthodoxy and not as an opinion of Reform Judaism. It relates to a political stance and does not describe any aspect of the Jewish religion. It serves the purpose of publicity rather than that of enlightenment or inspiration. Although a catchy phrase, it is meaningless, for does it make sense to blame Israeli Orthodoxy for acting against a unity which in its judgment does not exist? Unity is an admirable ideal which is rarely realized; the nobler its goal the fewer the people it can embrace. Not even Orthodoxy can lay claim to unity; it is divided into two major branches, that of extreme stringency or ultra-Orthodoxy and that of reasonable moderation or neo-Orthodoxy. The unity of the Jewish people has been as non-existent during the three thousand years of its history as it is now in contemporary life.  

Thus the question arises why some Reform spokesperson should now advocate this ideal in a hopeless and useless dispute with religious extremists who have branded Reform Judaism to be a sham? The answer is that unity in this context is a euphemism for ambition. Non-Orthodox Judaism has not been able to arouse significant interest in its approach to life among Israeli society, although Orthodoxy would not have been in a position to prevent the dissemination of non-Orthodox thought, belief, and custom. To be sure, funds have been raised in this country for a number of years to help these non-Orthodox efforts in the State of Israel, but the success has been modest. It is not likely that the effect of the efforts would have been any more impressive had the funding been more generous, for Israelis have not been interested in the Jewish religion. Why there should be little interest in Judaism as a religion is a question the answer to which sheds light on Jewish/Israeli self-awareness.  


Our self-awareness depends on the place of residence. Everywhere, except in the State of Israel, Jews live as a minority, often as a numerically negligible minority. Therefore their identification as Jews, if they want to be identified as such, must be expressed in some recognizable way. The usual way is the affiliation with a congregation, even if the religious sentiment is not strong. But some people do not care for a religious affiliation; they satisfy their sense of being Jewish by making financial contributions to the local Jewish federation or some other Jewish organization which serves charitable, social or educational purposes. In the State of Israel, however, Jewish self-awareness is not an issue. Israeli citizenship is the mark of Jewish identity. Whatever is required everywhere else to maintain and continue Jewish life is not needed in the State of Israel.  

The difference between that place of residence and all other places is evident: in all countries around the globe, Jews, in order to be and remain Jews, must take Judaism as their religion seriously, but in the State of Israel Jewish nationalism, which cannot flourish in other countries for any length of time, is the creative force of Jewish existence. That difference is unbridgeable, because it is determined by life’s reality, by the facts of here and the facts of there. This bifurcation of Jewish existence is the natural consequence of the establishment of the State of Israel; and so it will always be.  

The efforts of Zionist ideologists in the North American Reform rabbinate to diminish the human distance between here and there have not been successful; American Reform Jews showed little interest in the urgings and appeals of their rabbinic leaders. A rabbinic activist on behalf of Zionism recently admitted: "The overwhelming majority of our people — i.e., Reform Jews - voted to be uninvolved" (Central Conference of American Rabbis Journal. Spring 1998, p. l9).  

Lack of Interest  

The lack of interest became obvious when the numerous membership campaigns of the Association of Reform Zionists of America (ARZA), its modest success in advocating Reform interests in the State of Israel notwithstanding, could attract only a small fraction of the affiliated Reform Jews. Then the idea presented itself that Reform Judaism might be able to exert some measure of influence in the State of Israel by way of the World Zionist Congress. A slate of Reform delegates had been prepared for the world-wide election to the Congress in 1997. A simple registration was required in order to cast a vote by mail. The members of Reform congregations were urged, well in advance of the election, to register and cast their votes in favor of the Reform delegation in order to attain, with a visible presence, undeniable influence in Zionism’s parliament. Less than 5% of the membership of the Union of American Hebrew Congregations (Reform) participated in the election to the World Zionist Congress.  

The visionary power of dreamers is nigh inexhaustible; with their visions, they reach for goals that are beyond the realm of the possible and, very likely, not generally desirable. The grandiose vision of the Zionist dreamers in the Reform rabbinate, as recently formulated by one of their representatives, aims at Judaizing Israeli Jewry and Zionizing North American Reform Jewry. Dreamers do not hesitate to reveal what is on their minds even if it does not make sense, for they are sure of themselves whether rationalists are astonished or not. The obstacles which should disenchant the Zionist dreamers are the wide-spread secularization of Israeli society and the apparent resistance of American Reform Jews to being drafted for more organizational involvements and obligations.  

Jewish Estrangement  

Such dreams usually arise from the wish to remedy a situation which, in the view of the visionaries, should not be tolerated. Zionist activists cannot help but deplore the ongoing estrangement of the two Jewries from each other. That estrangement is part of the flow of history which takes both Jewries on a path of their own - there a nationalism forged on the anvil of wars and sacrifices, here a religion as a way of life to integrate Jews into society yet help them to preserve their religious identity. This is natural, but some Jews want to construct Zionism as the overarching unifier.  

The dream was formalized when, at the convention in Miami in 1997, the Central Conference of American Rabbis adopted a new platform or program for the future. Formulated in commemoration of the hundredth anniversary of the first World Zionist Congress which met in Basel, Switzerland in 1897, it purposes the intertwining of Reform Judaism and Zionism. As a matter of course, clichés are adduced to present the intertwining as the necessity that flows from established facts, such as that the Jews constitute a people with "innumerable religious and ethnic ties" to the State of Israel, or that the State of Israel "serves uniquely as the spiritual and cultural focal point of World Jewry." Clichés, when analyzed, reveal that they stand on feet of clay, that they have little, if anything, to do with reality, but rather that they are fabricated for propagandistic purposes. Propaganda is the deliberate spreading of information of a questionable nature, in this case the assertion that Jews have many religious and ethnic ties to the State of Israel and that World Jewry looks to the State of Israel as its spiritual and cultural focal point. Of course, this is the hope of the authors of the platform, yet their hope is far removed from the tasks and needs of daily living as a Jew.  

Planning and Organization  

The vision of Judaizing Israeli society and Zionizing American Reform Jews would not be complete without a practical consideration. Such an effort requires planning and organization. Thus the authors of the platform urge Reform Jews, even those who live in other countries, "to dedicate their energies and resources" to the realization of their grandiose vision for two geographically distant and experientally disparate societies. Energies and resources are so often requested that being Jewish seems primarily to be a monetary obligation. The distressing aspect of this trend is the fact that fund raising is often suggested by persons who themselves work for organizations and thus depend on the generosity of others for their livelihood.  

At first blush, one is astonished at the concurrence of the admission that the vast majority of American Reform Jews showed no interest in helping to advance a more visible presence of Reform Judaism in the State of Israel and the publication of the platform on Reform Judaism and Zionism (Central Conference of American Rabbis Yearbook 1997, p. 54-57). On second thought, however, the astonishment ceases because one recalls that Zionism, as represented by its advocates and propagandists, has been aggressively insistent on its validity all along and has treated those who have disagreed with its claim to speak for all the Jewish people with contempt and hostility. Although it is a political movement, founded by Jewish secularists in Europe, the leaders of Zionism act like religious fanatics when encountering rejection of, or opposition to, their ideology. Zionists, though a minority, act as if they were the majority.  

Religion and Politics  

Reform Judaism as a religion is concerned with the individual’s life, with its singularity and preciousness, with honesty, decency, and charitableness of thought and deed. Zionism as a political movement is based upon the notion of Jewish ethnicity. But the notion is senseless. "Ethnicity" is a term which sociologists coined and used. Its definition - common race, common nationality, and distinctive culture - needs no elaboration to make it obvious that Jews cannot be considered an ethnic group. Nowadays definitions must yield precedence to impressive and elegant phrases which are dazzling but in fact have no connection with reality. Persons who are endowed with a common sense and who have cultivated it are capable of distinguishing between the authentic and the fabricated. They cannot be enticed to blend the two for the sake of ethnic fancy.  

Reform Judaism is an authentic outreach for God, Zionism today a fabrication of nationalist Jews. The opinion that the two should be merged is the fabrication of ideologues.

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