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What’s Eating Reform Judaism?

Rabbi takes to the ‘Forward’ with a theological explanation

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Last week, the excellent Sue Fishkoff reported on the failure of the American Reform movement’s embrace of patrilineal descent—the notion that the child of a Jewish father and a non-Jewish mother is automatically Jewish (as opposed to traditional Jewish law, which establishes only matrilineal descent)—to catch on in other countries’ Reform faiths. (And in a letter, NYU’s Steven M. Cohen confirmed that the majority of American Reform Jews support patrilineal descent.) Also last week, the also excellent Josh Nathan-Kazis reported on a nascent crisis in liberal denominations, in which dissenting rabbis are trying to shake things up.

These two trends come together in an important essay in this week’s Forward by Dana Evan Kaplan, a Reform rabbi in Albany, Georgia. To her him*, the inability of Reform Judaism’s ability to coalesce—the deluge it is potentially on the verge of—is actually a consequence of its religious substance. He argues:

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.

His solution would seem to be a return to Reform Judaism’s roots, which, though of course based on a laxer approach than what we would now call Orthodox Judaism, was in its own way as theologically rigorous.

“As the Reform movement has increasingly emphasized religious autonomy and the importance of choosing what each person finds spiritually meaningful, it has become impossible to compel members to come to services regularly, study Torah seriously and contribute to the vibrant well-being of their congregation,” he notes. “Instead, they are allowed to come twice a year and call on the rabbi whenever they need a life cycle ceremony.” There is a difference, in other words, between formal laxness and informal laxness.

What he fails, to my reading, to argue is that a more rigorous theological approach would be not only real-world practical but theologically superior. I would love to read that piece, though.

Why Is Patrilineal Descent Not Catching On in Reform Worldwide? [JTA]
Liberal Denominations Face Crisis as Rabbis Rebel, Numbers Shrink [Forward]
The Theological Roots of Reform Judaism’s Woes [Forward]

* Josh Lambert emails me to point out that Kaplan is, in fact, a man. Apologies! I suppose, though, that it is a sign of progress that a journalist had no trouble assuming a rabbi named Dana is a woman.

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The core of the problem is that whatever Reform Judaism may be theologically, its functional role in the diaspora is as a kind of parking place for Jews who are minimally interested in religion, but want to retain their ethnic, cultural and communal affiliation with the Jewish people. I say, “in the diaspora”, because Israel itself fulfills that role quite well for secular Israeli Jews, eliminating the widespread need for a Reform denomination and its theological headaches.

One possible solution would be for diaspora Judaism to shift towards the Israeli model, embracing the seemingly contradictory ideas that (a) the Jewish people’s religion is Orthodox Judaism, and (b) most Jews who belong to the religion don’t actually practice it. Indeed, without all the thorny issues of religion-state interaction that plague Israel, diaspora Jews should in principle have a much easier time than Israelis embracing this model. Of course, it would require both religious and secular Jews to grant much more tolerance and acceptance to sharply different levels of observance than either side typically displays. Oh, well–one can dream…


If I may, I’ll dream with you.

Steph F. says:

Sorry, Dan, but your dream is not mine. “[T]he Jewish people’s religion is” NOT “orthodox Judaism,” but an inherited set of contested beliefs, practices, texts, and conversations. My dream is that we all recognize that there are indeed multiple ways to live Jewishly, including religiously and Jewishly, and capitulating to the notion that one is either orthodox or not really (religiously) Jewish does not advance that end. What we call orthodox Judaism exists in history: it is not a steady-state, unchanging, monolithic set of ideas and practices (even if some of its adherents present it as such). If orthodoxy can be varied, then why not the possiblities beyond that end of the spectrum?

Marty Janner says:

Interesting catharsis among the Reform, whether it be Mom, or Dad! It looks as though Mom is winning. Good for her!

Joking aside, we do enjoy a tradition, however, at the present time so many families are of dual religions, should their children be disqualified from pursuing our faith? In my humble opinion, we must make every effort to welcome them,teach our values and beliefs.

Labeling them as not being Jews, is not the answer! We must appreciate the fact that this is not their doing and perhaps a modificattion, should take place.

I don’t pretend to have the answer, or the wisdom! Losing them is blasphemous!

Darcy Vebber says:

So happy to hear I am not a real Jew. No more bothering with trying to get along with people who scorn me and my spiritual practice. I do suggest you consider the Golden Calf, that object of certainty that brings so much trouble on the people who hunger for it.

I second Steph’s response.

In my view, liberal Jewish denominations are doing the more honest and rigorous G-d wrestling. Orthodox Judaism, after all, was a line drawn in the mud in response to the Haskalah. Prior to that attempt to create a doctrine and to agree upon orthopraxy, Judaism was always in flux, differing in theology and practice from community to community (and even within given communities).

If “the Jewish people’s religion is Orthodox Judaism,” then, the people have attached themselves to the reactionary wing of religious identity. If history is a guide, we see that the more fundamental religious movements/stances eventually stagnate and shrink, no matter how high the birthrate. (Our own religious history, no less!)

For those content to have Judaism (or, more properly, “Jewishness”) be a national identity that is contingent on the state of Israel and your parentage, the approach Dan Simon lauds is sufficient. For those of us who feel that it’s misguided to “belong to a religion” that you don’t practice, however, Conservative, Reconstructionist, and Reform Judaism have a lot to offer.

Granted, as a convert in a liberal stream, I’m biased….but my choice to convert under the auspices of the Conservative movement is an informed one; I could have chosen Orthodoxy, a choice that some of my Israeli friends and acquaintances insist is the only valid one. That’s a position they maintain, curiously, UNTIL they visit a liberal shul in the states. I’ve heard more than a few Israelis remark (I’m paraphrasing), “I didn’t know religion could be like this!”

Religion is an essential part of Jewishness. Not the only part, mind you — peoplehood is more than G-d and Torah — but I’m pleased that liberal Judaism is working to keep those two keystones in the greater structure.

It is very troubling to read the linked Sue Fishkoff article on why many non-U.S. Reform synagogues have refused to consider patrilineal descent. I had expected to read about religious objections, but many of the interviewees openly acknowledged fear of Orthodox Jews’ disapproval, trying to please a new shul rabbi, or fear of being excluded from communal funding.

Those shuls need to develop some moral backbone.

I posted a link to the article on the Half-Jewish Network message board, and my group’s members were not happy to hear that some of them had been ‘traded in’ for cash and fear.

Benjamin says:

Dan is right but his proposal is already the reality of the Jewish people outside of USA. American Jews are the only ones who lives with “denominations”.
What you call Orthodox Judaism is just regular traditional Judaism elsewhere.

Modern Jewish Voice wrote a really great article about Patrilinial Descent in Reform Judaism. It relates to your article and I think your readers would be interested. Check it out

Datan Israel says:

Dan, that was amazing achi. :)


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What’s Eating Reform Judaism?

Rabbi takes to the ‘Forward’ with a theological explanation

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