Reform heretics

We are currently witnessing the beginning of the end of the failed experiment called Reform Judaism

The Reform Movement is in the midst of an identity crisis. According to a Jewish Week article last week, this summer guest musicians came to Kutz Camp, the Reform movement’s teen leadership camp and led a jazzed-up version of the evening prayers. One by one, 40 campers in their mid-teens got up and walked out. They wanted a more traditional service, they later explained.


It seems that this is a culmination of much change that has taken pace in Kutz Camp. Everything about the camp reflects the Reform Movement’s irreverence for tradition: the food is “kosher style” rather than kosher proper, rituals are sidelined and prayers are jazzed up.


However, according to the Jewish Week, camp director Reform Rabbi Eve Rudin said that some Reform youth attending the camp are interested in making it really kosher. “We first started seeing kids lay tefillin two or three years ago,” she said. “Certainly we saw it last summer. It’s a handful of kids. Tzitzit are more widespread; quite a few kids are wearing them.”


So the elite Reform youth are getting interested in religious ritual, demanding kosher and turning their back on “innovative” types of prayer services. This growth from within the Reform Movement removes the raison d’être of Reform Judaism. Abraham Geiger (1810-1874) and Samuel Holdheim (1806-1860), who founded Reform Judaism, had one major concern in mind: how can Judaism remain relevant in the modern world, where Jews have been emancipated from the ghetto and shtetl? Their response was that Judaism needed to be modernized if it was to survive.


They thus changed around the synagogue: they took away the mechitzah (separation between men’s and women’s seating), moved the bimah to the front and brought in the organ. They felt that this made Judaism less distinct and more modern – in fact, they modeled their synagogues on Protestant churches. In addition they did away with most rituals, and prayer services were held in German rather than the traditional Hebrew. By modernizing Judaism in this way they hoped to make it relevant to the modern, emancipated Jew and thus salvage it from certain demise.


Judaism's peaceful death  

So in fact Reform Judaism was not meant to be an ideology; it was a response to a perceived problem that modern societies posed to traditional Judaism. Unfortunately that response has failed on a number of levels. Statistics show that, instead of saving Judaism, Reform just allows it a more peaceful death — this has been proven in a study by Antony Gordon and Richard Horowitz, which shows that where there are 100 Reform Jews today, there will be only 10 within four generations.


The premise that traditional Judaism could not survive modern, open-minded ideas and philosophy turns out to be incorrect too. The biggest proof of this comes from within the Reform community itself. The fact that members of the Reform Movement’s teen leadership group, brought up in the midst of liberal American culture, are returning to tradition is testament to the fact that traditional, ritualized Judaism is compatible with modernity.


Perhaps most surprising, however, is that at the end of the Jewish Week article, Eric Yoffie, president of the Union for Reform Judaism, was quoted as saying, “If you take it all (rituals) upon yourself as an obligation rather than as a choice, you’ve reached the point at which you’re no longer a Reform Jew.” It is strange that the higher echelons of the Reform Movement are now feeling the need to define people out of its ranks. For the first time we have people defined by the leadership of the movement as Reform heretics, who can no longer be considered Reform Jews.


Beginning of the end  

This was not how the founders of Reform envisioned it. In order to preserve Judaism, they wanted to be as inclusive as possible. We have now come full circle and Reform Judaism itself is losing some of its finest members to traditional Judaism. Now they feel the need to define their boundaries. To quote Kutz Camp director Eve Rudin, “This is about the Reform Movement coming to terms with the fact that there are boundaries, and what those boundaries may be.”


Incredibly, instead of being happy that traditional Judaism can in fact thrive in a modern, liberal culture, the Reform leadership is working to stop its members from joining traditional Judaism by threatening to exclude them from the movement they were born into. Clearly, Reform Judaism has lost its very reason for existing.


Undoubtedly, what we are witnessing is the beginning of the end of a failed experiment called Reform Judaism. The leaders of the movement have realized this and are thus taking desperate measures to save what is, in fact, a sinking ship.


Rabbi Levi Brackman is executive director of Judaism in the Foothills and the author of numerous articles on a whole range of topics and issues, many of which can be found on his website


פרסום ראשון: 08.19.07, 16:16
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