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Changes in Reform Judaism: Ethnic Separation or Spiritual Renewal?

Paul Gottfrled
Summer 1999

Having read the responses printed in Issues to the revised principles of American Reform Judaism, it may be allowable to add my own thoughts, once again.  

The interview with an enthusiastic supporter of the new Reform Judaism, Rabbi Charles Kroloff, published in The Washington Post, took place with the leader of a congregation to which I belonged in the early seventies. Though that congregation in Westfield, New Jersey may have changed since then, what I recall of its membership were certain pronounced attitudes, radical New Leftist views on most American social issues combined with extreme touchiness about anything relating to the Jewish identities of its members. It was not at all unusual for my fellow-congregants to say, with obvious conviction, that Jews had been persecuted in American society and that, like blacks and Hispanics, they remained professionally at a disadvantage. Perhaps the sense of alienation from gentile America reflected in such statements goes a long way toward explaining the receptiveness of some of our fellow-Jews to the Ten Principles.  

Ethnic Separatism  

Fueling this attempt at redefining Reform Jewish identity is not, from what I can see, a renewed spirituality but a concern about ethnic separation. In American society such a concern, linked as it is to endless wailing about intermarriage, may seem unappetizing, particularly coming from a group that is always criticizing the same quirks in other white Americans. Thus Jews who wish to practice ethnic hygiene have had to proclaim a religious awakening, one that will require a very different social and cultural existence from that of gentiles. This alleged awakening also involves moving to Israel, or at least urging one’s children to make alivah.  

Needless to say, the selling of this project as a nonethnic, religious activity reeks of hypocrisy. It is also dishonest, as Professor Leonard Glick trenchantly remarks in the Forward (June 11): To "perpetuate the self-deprecating concept of America as just another part of the ‘Diaspora,’ "to think of Israel as the proper focus of their loyalty and attention," and to view themselves as presentday Israelis and not as "the principal heirs of a 1,500-year European Jewish history and legacy" indicates the tortured reasoning of American Jews driven by nationalist ideology. This quest for Jewish authenticity calls to mind a debate I had with a Chinese-American German scholar, who thought that Franz Kafka was right to condemn his own group, the German Jewish middle class, as insufficiently Jewish. This Kafka-commentator, who felt guilty about his own lost Asian identity, believed that only Eastern European Jews, because of their perceived isolation from other people, could be authentically Jewish. Such fortunate embodiments of authenticity were not corrupted by foreign nations and could therefore be true to their collective self.  

Jewish Authenticity  

The problem was that the people being glorified dressed in the clothes of seventeenth-century Russian boyars, celebrated Babylonian months, preached Hellenistic gnostic doctrines in the case of Hasidim, and spoke what was identifiably a medieval German dialect. Moreover, there was nothing culturally less authentic about German Jews than there was about Jewish ghetto-dwellers. The predominantly German Jewish adherents of Reform Judaism now reestablishing ties to Central Europe and founding centers of learning there are certainly not people living in bad faith. They are trying to restore what their parents and grandparents had actually been. The American Friends of the Union of Progressive Jews in Germany, Austria, and Switzerland include descendants of some of the most illustrious families in Central European Jewry, and most of them had been affiliated with the German Reform movement. Why were the Jews scorned by Kafka in his letters (written naturally in German) unecht, because they attended universities, studied philosophy, entered professions, and identified themselves with a country and culture in which they had lived in close contact for centuries? Or, why should one think that Jews become less of what they are when they dress in a frock coat and cylinder hat, instead of the attire abandoned by Russian nobility?  

"Fundamentalism" and "Medievalism"  

But equally noticeable is the insistence by classical Reform Jews that not having a bar mitzvah, and keeping away from what Ralph Dombrower calls "the use of medieval clothing and ritual" represents an improved Jewish life. Because Reform Jews look upon universal ethical principles as being more valuable than Rabbinic minutiae, it therefore is thought to follow that one should be free to disregard the latter. Another opinion that can be inferred from classical Reform responses to the Ten Principles is that we are falling away, from science and modernity into "fundamentalism" and "medievalism." The new, revised Reform Judaism is bad for not being "progressive"—or for not being in sync with what progressives judge to be "modern" and hence to be good. Such unexamined assumptions equating religious truth with a particular view of Progress trouble me deeply, because they obscure what is really at stake in the current Jewish confrontation. I for one see no harm in Reform or other types of Jews keeping at least the more meaningful rituals that have characterized Jewish life over the centuries.  

Such practices do sustain religious community and can lead those who would take offense at what is culturally alien into identifying more closely with the ethical universalism of the classical Reform movement. As a young man raised in a highly observant Austrian Jewish refugee family, I agreed with the moral intentions of the original Reform Judaism but was put off by the lengths to which it subsequently went in disavowing ritual traditions. Such things create religious fellowship and are links for many of us to a shared past. Personally I find nothing wrong and everything right about serving kosher food at temple functions, covering one’s head at a religious service, and reciting Hebrew liturgy. None of this contradicts the idea that a universally valid ethical code, anchored in the bible, should be the keystone of Jewish life; nor does it represent a retreat into either the Rabbinic legalism or ethnic nationalism challenged by the ACJ.  

Spirit Of The Times  

It may also be useful to pin down the kind of Progress we have in mind, lest we fall into idolizing the spirit of the times. In a certain sense the authors of the Ten Principles are more "progressive" than are their critics, inasmuch as ethnic selfexpressiveness seems to be widespread in the contemporary world. My college is awash in tributes to multiculturalism, and as long as a particular ethnic group is imagined to have suffered a great deal at the hands of white Christians, universities but also the surrounding society allow it to affirm a group identity. In this respect, devotees,not opponents, of the Ten Principles are the ones behaving progressively. Nor is it entirely clear whether all Reform Jews who celebrate Progress are talking about the same things. Those who make Progress the same as "social justice," which they claim to locate in the prophetic texts, are not pushing in the same direction as those wish to preserve the Euro-American middle-class Progressive Jewish tradition. While one group is likely to be composed of social radicals, the other are essentially nineteenth-century religious liberals, who have become dye-in-the wool social conservatives.  

Equally obfuscating is the talk about progressing toward an ethical form of Judaism from some primitive point in time. Among the difficulties attached to this view is the lack of consensus about what the various travelers are supposed to be moving toward. My own preference would be the widespread acceptance, certainly in our own civilization, of the Ten Commandments—or of something quite close to these teachings. Though understandably reluctant to inflict biblical penalties on all transgressors, I do believe in the binding nature of the ethical precepts of the Old Testament. These precepts profoundly influenced the Prophets and, to a large extent, the moral content of Judeo-Christian civilization.  

Ideal Of Moral Purity  

To me they are right and just not only because of their source but because they are necessary for any civilized social life. I have absolutely no problem thinking that homosexuality and adultery are "sinful" and, furthermore, believe that what is best in the biblical Jewish tradition is the ideal of a widely shared moral purity. But I also suspect that most of the present generation of American Reform Jews want no part of this understanding of biblical morality. What they and I may be doing is hiding behind speeches about Hebraic ethics in history without engaging our real differences. Perhaps it is best to throw away the rhetoric of Progress and to find a less confusing way to define theological essentials.  

While I happily applaud "biblical morality," I cringe when the topic is "social justice." Undoubtedly many in the Reform movement react in exactly the opposite way. While there seems nothing wrong about debating these attitudinal differences, there is no good reason to cover them up. The starting point for a discussion of our differences may be to get beyond the idle issue of who stands in the way of Progress. More important is who stands for what is right.

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