The Reform Movement’s Religious Reductionism

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The reduction of Judaism to a political position roughly identical with the editorial page of the New York Times constitutes one of the greatest threats to American Jewish continuity. That reductionism was on full display at the recent convention of the American Reform Movement.

Much of the press coverage of the convention focused on passage of a resolution “against war in Iraq.” “American Jews and all Americans are profoundly critical of this war,” said Eric Yoffie, president of the Union for Reform Judaism, in a press release announcing the resolution. The press release concluded with a quotation from navy doctor Dr. Michael Rankin: “This is not a just war.” In an accompanying op-ed piece, Yoffie expressed his “outrage” over the war.

Nor was Iraq the only subject on the agenda. The delegates voted overwhelmingly to oppose Senate confirmation of Judge Samuel Alito, Jr. to the Supreme Court. While acknowledging Alito’s intelligence, integrity and judicial temperament, he was deemed too great a threat to “choice and women’s rights.” The convention also passed resolutions in support of the Millennium Development Goals to end global poverty (no resolution that the lamb lie down with the wolf was introduced), endorsed voting rights for the citizens of Washington D.C., and supported workers’ rights to organize.

In his major address, Yoffie lashed out at the Christian Right and implicitly linked those who oppose rights for homosexual couples to Nazis by pointing to the Nazi persecution of homosexuals.

All in all, the proceedings were fully consistent with the position once expressed by David Saperstein, head of the movement’s Religious Action Center. Saperstein told a friend of mine that “social justice” is the fundamental tenet of Reform Judaism. Though the definition of “social justice” evolves, he explained, in America today it primarily refers to “women’s right to choose” and “homosexual rights.”

For the record, I disagree on policy grounds with the Iraq resolution. I do not know Michael Rankin’s theory of “just war,” but I suspect an overwhelming majority of the 25 million citizens freed from Saddam Hussein’s claws would disagree with his characterization of Operation Iraqi Freedom as unjust. (The resolution glosses over the end of Saddam’s tyranny en passant.)

The resolution cites the ongoing deaths of American servicemen and Iraqi civilians as if they are by themselves a complete argument for speedy American withdrawal. But the number of Iraqis killed and the chances of Iraq dissolving into separate cantons (another of the resolution’s criticisms of the war) would only increase in the absence of American troops. The jihadists, disgruntled Baathists, and Sunnis embittered by the empowerment of the Shiite majority would be better able to go on blowing up their fellow Iraqis after an American withdrawal.

As Abu Musad al-Zarqawi made clear in his intercepted February 2004 letter to Osama bin Laden, the great enemy of these groups is democracy. Suicide bombings targeting the Shiite population and designed to trigger civil war are their chosen means of thwarting a democratic Iraq. If America forces are forced to withdraw by domestic political pressure, the big winners would be Zarqawi and his legions of suicide bombers. And his tactics will be emulated around the world.

Yet I would not maintain that the Torah dictates one clear position on the myriad policy debates over American policy in Iraq. The same cannot be said with respect to much of the Reform Movement’s “social justice” agenda. Presumably Eric Yoffie would also deem as “hateful” the Torah’s explicit condemnation of male homosexual acts as an “abomination.” And it is hard to imagine an idea more antithetical to the Torah than that women or men are the absolute owners of their bodies free to do with them what they wish. The Torah repeatedly describes how G-d took us out of the slavery of Egypt in order to become His servants and accept His laws.

The Reform movement’s resolution opposing confirmation of Judge Alito quotes a 19-year-old college freshwomen, who informs us, “Our tradition teaches us that we must not be silent.” The question, however, is where her “tradition” teaches her to look when she decides what noises to make. Not to Judaism’s sacred texts, one can surmise from the fact that only 7% of American Jews view the study of such texts as important to their Judaism. Nor to her temple, which only 2.5% of Reform Jews attend even once a month.

Rather she will be taught to look to herself. “Personal freedom of choice” is the bedrock of Reform Judaism, declares a pamphlet of the Central Council of American Rabbis (Reform). But a Judaism self-defined by each individual Jew is essentially contentless. And that void will typically be filled by the latest political orthodoxy. Shortly before his death, Jacob Petuchowksi, longtime professor of theology at Hebrew Union College (Reform), wrote, “Because American Reform Judaism no longer finds it necessary to justify itself before G-d and Jewish religious tradition, its abject submissions to any and all modern fads are boringly predictable.”

A Judaism reduced to the command to express one’s political opinions loudly offers no plausible reason why the Jewish people should continue to exist. Judaism defined as the vector sum of the individual opinions of all Jews at any given point in time leaves no room for what Jack Wertheimer calls “the distinctive commandments, beliefs and values for the sake of which Jews over the millennia . . . have willingly, and gratefully, set themselves apart.”

And a Judaism incapable of distinguishing itself from the zeitgeist can provide its young with no reason not to intermarry. That Jews are disproportionately represented on the left-wing of the Democratic Party is hardly an argument for marrying another Jew. For if liberal politics – or any particular political vision, for that matter — are the ultimate measure of virtue why not cut directly to the chase and marry someone who shares one’s politics.

And that is why the long series of political resolutions at the Reform movement’s Houston convention bodes so poorly for the future of American Jewry.

Published in the Jerusalem Post, January 5

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9 Responses

  1. mycroft says:

    Do most Orthodox Jews give 10% of their income to charity? It probably depends on how one defines charity.
    If one includes support of relatives eg children who are beyond the stage of where halachikally we’d be obligated to support them-probably a lot. If we include the percentage of taxes that go towards social welfare-probably essentailly all.
    Do we include in zedakah the amounts given for harbatza Torah-a big mitzvah but might not be zedakah.
    If we limit ourselves to amounts to paid to charities that give over their money to the poor. Probably few Orthodox Jews give anywhere near 10%. If of course we include tuition to Yeshivas given after the age when according to halacha
    parents don’t have a legal obligation to support-many give far more than 10%.
    Of course, does that mean that those who don’t have an obligation to general
    zedakah because they’ve already spent 10% on their poor adult-according to halacha-children have an obligation
    to give zedakah.

  2. DMZ says:

    “First of all, I used to be an Orthodox Jew. While that perhaps doesn’t make me an expert, it’s not like I have no idea what I’m talking about w/r/t Orthodox Judaism.”

    You sound precisely like my sister, who also used to be an Orthodox Jew. She also has no clue what she’s talking about. It’s been my personal experience that people who leave a more “intense” religion tend to get very negative about it and have a selective memory, too.

    “Many on the right are also opposed to anti-discriminatory statutes (e.g. laws that forbid firing someone due solely to sexual orientation) and civil unions. It’s not just about gay marriage.”

    Again, this doesn’t mean that Orthodox Jews in particular support those statutes – do you support everything the Democratic party does? You’re also sort of glossing over that a lot of people still believe homosexuality is a mental disorder (which has some basis, much as the LGBT community would like to deny it) – it’s sort of like laws protecting schiznophrenics. I personally don’t see the point of discriminating on homosexuality in the workplace, since it doesn’t affect your work. And my stance on marriage as a whole is too radical to discuss here – suffice it to say that I don’t think the state should regulate it, period.

    “I know that Orthodox Jews give generously to charity, but I guarantee you that active Reform Jews give at least 10% of their paycheck to charity as well. And, while of course they believe Jews in need “count” they also think non-Jews in need count. They’re vocal on the genocide in Sudan, for example, while the Orthodox are disappointingly (although not totally) silent. “Never again,” indeed.”

    The OU has been quite vocal about Sudan, and I’ve been in several Orthodox congregations that had posters and displays up asking for help. That you do not know this is hardly surprising – I’ll bet you cut yourself off from the community before Sudan really started getting sexy as a cause again.

    And you know, I want to see some numbers before I believe most Reform Jews give 10% of their post-tax salaries to charity.

    Charles B. Hall: “I also do not see why any of “end[ing] global poverty…voting rights for the citizens of Washington D.C.,…[or] workers’ rights to organize” is in conflict with traditional Jewish teachings.”

    As long as you don’t make the mistake that they replace Shabbos and kashrus, there’s nothing wrong with any of these. Just remember that the _priorities_ may not be in line with Jewish law and thought, though. There’s no doubt that helping your fellow Jew comes first, as non-PC as it may seem.

    Whether the founding fathers were Deists or Christians is somewhat irrelevant – it’s their beliefs and ethics that built our country. I think they did a reasonably good job – after all, Jews also point to history and logic as a reason to why G-d exists, right?

    -DMZ

  3. Charles B. Hall says:

    ‘this country was well founded and has become powerfull by sticking to a good and righteous belief system’

    Mr. O’Reilly should check out the beliefs of Adams, Franklin, Jefferson, and Paine — and the atrocities carried out by the Puritans of New England in the name of their righteous belief system. It is thanks to heretics such as those four, plus devout religious liberals like George Washington (see this former Anglican vestryman’s letter to the Jews of Newport, RI: http://www.tourosynagogue.org/GWLetter1.php) that we have the freedom to practice whatever religion we wish to today in this country without worrying about losing our civil rights.

    Regarding the Gay issue, just because we agree that certain sexual acts violate Jewish law does not mean we need to start witch hunts to take away peoples homes or jobs or throwing people into prison. The two most powerful Orthodox Jewish politicians in America, New York Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver, and US Senator Joseph Lieberman, both support legislation that would prohibit employment discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation. (The New York legislation that Silver supported was enacted into law a few years ago.) Yeshiva University also does not discriminate: http://www.yu.edu/policies/index.asp.

    I also do not see why any of “end[ing] global poverty…voting rights for the citizens of Washington D.C.,…[or] workers’ rights to organize” is in conflict with traditional Jewish teachings.

  4. JewishAtheist says:

    First of all, I used to be an Orthodox Jew. While that perhaps doesn’t make me an expert, it’s not like I have no idea what I’m talking about w/r/t Orthodox Judaism. Now to respond to some specifics:

    “No one’s anti-gay, they’re anti-gay-marriage because gay marriage leads to gay sex.”

    Many on the right are also opposed to anti-discriminatory statutes (e.g. laws that forbid firing someone due solely to sexual orientation) and civil unions. It’s not just about gay marriage.

    “Do remember that the party that fought for abolition and black rights was the Republican Party, not the Democatic one that American Jews seem to be so attached to.”

    They were Republicans, but they were liberal/progressive. As I’m sure you know, the southern racists (i.e. “conservatives”) deserted the Democrats when LBJ (a Democrat) signed the Civil Rights Act. Since then (and somewhat before), the progressive/liberals have been Democrats. Today’s Republican party is not the party of Lincoln.

    “Do liberal Jews make it a policy to give 10% of their paycheck to charity, every paycheck? Do liberal Jews have guidelines who to give to, how much to give? Or is it how they feel that day?”

    I know that Orthodox Jews give generously to charity, but I guarantee you that active Reform Jews give at least 10% of their paycheck to charity as well. And, while of course they believe Jews in need “count” they also think non-Jews in need count. They’re vocal on the genocide in Sudan, for example, while the Orthodox are disappointingly (although not totally) silent. “Never again,” indeed.

    “They put their sexuality up front rather than who they are and what they’re accomplished.”

    How much of that comes from being forced to hide who they were while growing up out of fear of being beaten or kicked out of their parents’ homes? I can’t blame them for wanting to finally display their sexuality openly without fear. If the rest of society treated gays as normal, they would be able to be about “who they are and what they’ve accomplished.”

    Also, the gay rights movement is about so much more than that. It’s about being able to visit your parent (e.g. your mom’s life partner who raised you) in the hospital when she’s dying, about not having your children taken away if your partner (the biological mother of your children) dies, about getting the same health benefits that the opposite-sex spouses of your partner’s coworkers get, etc.

  5. Shira says:

    Our “liberal” forefathers who believed in universal sufferage believed in a system of morals set forward by G-d. They settled in America in order to have freedom of religion and would be rolling in their graves if they knew they were being held up along side those who are “pushing for gay marriage”.

    Do remember that the party that fought for abolition and black rights was the Republican Party, not the Democatic one that American Jews seem to be so attached to.

    I think it’s funny that the comment last posted comments how the Orthodox are pick-and-choose. We love the anti-gay stuff but don’t pay attention to the helping of the poor. Let me ask this question: Do liberal Jews make it a policy to give 10% of their paycheck to charity, every paycheck? Do liberal Jews have guidelines who to give to, how much to give? Or is it how they feel that day?

    As far as the anti-gay stuff goes, The reason why there is a backlash toward gays is because being gay has become their entire identity. They put their sexuality up front rather than who they are and what they’re accomplished. Most people do not want to hear what goes on privately — but when it is forced in our faces, then of course, there is resistance and we’ll start quoting verses at you since what is going on is wrong.

    You don’t think Orthodox Jews don’t know why the Christian Right is supporting Israel, of course we do. But we also know that liberal Jews only support Israel when their political mood is right. Reform Judaism took Jerusalem out of the Siddur when they decided that Berlin was the center of their world. Then some years later they decided it was okay to reinstitute it. Now that the Arabs are making a claim on Israel, they’re re-thinking their position again. Where is the consistency? The Christian Rights has made no secret of their intentions. At least they are consistent and we know where they stand.

    Tikkun Olam, a nice vague term for fixing the world with no set responsibilities.

  6. DMZ says:

    “Their understanding of tikkun olam, justice, and charity simply coincide with the progressive movement in America.”

    You’ve got that precisely reversed. The “progressive” (lovely loaded term) movement is what’s wagging the Reform dog at the moment. If you actually believe that it’s “coincidential”, I’ve got a bridge to sell you. The overwhelming weight of evidence here points to the HUC being de facto controlled by leftists at this point – I say this as a guy who grew up Reform.

    Or, summarized: there are no coincidences in politics.

    “Right-wing Orthodox politics are just as pick-and-choose, of course. They love the anti-gay stuff in the Torah, but pay less attention to the helping of the poor.”

    You’re joking, right? I get mail EVERY DAY from some Orthodox-run organization trying to feed poor people. You have just proven (to me, at least) that you hardly have enough contact with the Orthodox community to make any of your generalizations. Do they focus on poor Jews? Sure. They’re as good a place to start as any. Or are you one of those misguided people who thinks that helping fellow Jews “doesn’t count”?

    And again, “anti-gay” is a nice loaded term to use. No one’s anti-gay, they’re anti-gay-marriage because gay marriage leads to gay sex. And, to use your own logic, “you’re not being fair to them – after all, homosexual sex is prohibited in the Torah”.

    Finally, the “jump to the Christian Right bandwagon” is not something Orthodox Jews did. It’s something that the Zionist organizations did, and it got them more than a little flack from many Orthodox Jews. If Pat Robertson wanted to lecure in Shomrei Emunah of Baltimore, he’d get a firm no, I’m guessing.

    I think you are dramatically misinform and ill-informed about Orthodoxy. Please spare them your bashing until you do get informed. A guy with the handle “JewishAtheist” doesn’t inspire much confidence in me, though. You’ve obviously made up your mind about Orthodox Jews, and Judaism in general.

    -DMZ

  7. JewishAtheist says:

    Traditionalists (orthodox jews) that this country was well founded and has become powerfull by sticking to a good and righteous belief system.

    Liberals agree, although we believe that the belief system of our founders is more akin to today’s liberals than to today’s conservatives. “All men are created equal” is a fundamentally liberal statement (especially if “men” includes “women,” as it now seems to.) The history of liberalism in this country is the history of including more and more people under the umbrella of “all men.” Liberals led the push for abolition. Then desegregation, women’s suffrage, the Black vote, an end to poll taxes, women’s rights, etc. Liberals established the mimimum wage and welfare, saying that employees and the unemployed and unemployable also fall under “all men.” Now we’re pushing for gay marriage, saying that gays are people too and should have the same rights as straights.

    I actually agree that Reform Judaism is too tightly wrapped up in politics (although I laugh at the comparison to the Times — they probably disagree more than they agree with the Reform leadership. They were gung-ho for this war, for example.) I think that their reading of Judaism as providing a focus on social justice is good if a little pick-and-choose, but I don’t agree that social justice is mostly about a woman’s right to choose. I don’t think most Reform Jews would either. Right-wing Orthodox politics are just as pick-and-choose, of course. They love the anti-gay stuff in the Torah, but pay less attention to the helping of the poor.

    You accuse the Reform movement of jumping on the latest political fads (or quote someone who does, anyway) yet they have been consistently progressive since their inception. Their understanding of tikkun olam, justice, and charity simply coincide with the progressive movement in America. It’s the Orthodox who have been switching affiliations to jump on the Christian Right bandwagon during the last 50 years. As soon as the Christian Right stopped being overtly anti-semitic and started supporting Israel (because they want to hasten the Rapture, of course) the OJs decided that was good enough and they could join the movement that now oppresses only non-Jewish groups.

    Your other criticisms of Reform Judaism are unfair. They do not oppose intermarriage, yet you criticise them for not preventing it. You criticise their lack of fidelity to each verse in the Torah, yet they don’t believe the Torah is word-for-word from God.

  8. mycroft says:

    I generally agree with Rosenblum-I would extend his comment of “I would not maintain that the Torah dictates one clear position on the myriad policy debates over American policy in Iraq.” to state the Torah does not dictate clar positions
    on most issues. To use the Alito confirmation battle -it is NOT the place for Orthodox Jewish-or any Jewish organizations to take a position one way or the other on his confirmation.

  9. T.F. says:

    This outlines the ‘CULTURE WAR’ between the traditionalists and the secular-progressives. Traditionalists (orthodox jews) that this country was well founded and has become powerfull by sticking to a good and righteous belief system. The secular progressives, who believe that the United States is in principle a flawed nation which is reaking havoc within and outside of its borders and want a drastic change for America. The traditionilists are interested in getting rid of the ‘evil’ and fighting whereas the secular progressives cannot understand why the US has a right to act unilaterallly to hunt down terrorism on their enablers.

    – Based on excerpts from Bill O’ Reilly’s article explaining the dynamics between him and David Letterman