Can Reform Judaism Get Its Mojo Back?
Reform Judaism is the largest movement in American Jewry. The Union for Reform Judaism represents 900 congregations with 1.5 million members. It recently chose a dynamic new president, Richard Jacobs. True, Rabbi Jacobs’ election caused an uproar: he drew criticism from the right for his support of J Street and the New Israel Fund and charges from the left that the people he brought to URJ did not include enough women. Still, the fact that a URJ leadership change could stir such controversy is a sign that people care about the movement’s future.
But the Reform movement faces problems far deeper than the distractions of political correctness and ideological minefields. The recent UJA-Federation study of the New York area’s Jewish population provides a sense of where those problems lie. The number of Reform Jews in New York has declined both in absolute numbers and as a percentage of the Jewish community. A startling 74 percent of Jewish children in New York can be identified as Orthodox. True, New York’s Jewish community has certain unique characteristics; but New York’s trends are apparent in other population centers as well, especially the decline in synagogue affiliation and the growing numbers of interfaith families.
The American Jewish community as a whole cannot survive if there is no non-Orthodox movement to which American Jews can belong; in other words, survival depends on a strong Reform movement. But in light of current trends, is that possible? Some have already answered in the negative. In 2009, Rabbi Norman Lamm, Chancellor of Yeshiva University, declared, "We will soon say kaddish on the Reform and Conservative movements." Even within the Reform movement, Rabbi Dana Evan Kaplan recently wrote that without a serious revision in basic structure and heightened expectations of Jewish living, Reform Judaism is doomed.
I am not so pessimistic. But, if the survival of a strong Reform movement is indeed possible, what will it require? Is current leadership up to the task?
The first indicator of the movement’s problem—the decline in synagogue affiliation—is not hard to understand. Increasingly, American Jews simply choose not to join synagogues. People see synagogues as too expensive, boring, or irrelevant. This trend is most pronounced in precisely those parts of our country, like the West and Southwest, where the Jewish population is growing most rapidly. The recent economic downturn has merely accelerated an already-existing trend.
Thus, if Reform Judaism is to survive, the primary task of its leaders is to focus steadily on promoting synagogue affiliation. Synagogue membership is the citizenship card of Jewish life. It provides the resources needed to create places in which the growing intermarried population can raise Jewish children and Jewish learning can be transmitted to the vast majority of Jewish children, those who do not attend Jewish day schools. Synagogue membership provides funding for the URJ and social capital for other Jewish organizations.
This task does not require us to “reimagine” synagogues or transform the ways in which they are funded; the challenge must be not redefined but met. Reform synagogues simply need to do what synagogues have done for the last 2500 years: serve as centers of Jewish living and community. And Reform synagogues, in particular, must maintain an open door for anyone who wishes to walk through it.
But if that is the central task, is Reform leadership up to it? The movement needs high-quality clergy, of course; it also needs committed lay leadership.
The Reform movement was built on the basis of lay-rabbinic partnerships. We need to attract strong dynamic lay leaders who see and feel that the future of the Jewish people depends on them. Too often we reward people simply for showing up. We need to find ways to draw serious people to address the serious challenges of Jewish life.
The kind of organizational dysfunction we too often see does not have to be accepted; it does not exist everywhere in Jewish life. The community Federation in my hometown of Chicago (Jewish United Fund of Chicago is the technical title), for example, while it employs skilled and forceful professionals, also engages lay leaders. More than financial resources, board membership demands a serious commitment of time. In spite of these demands, or because of them, individuals actually compete to be on the board.
When lay leaders see that their communities’ future rests in their hands and not just those of professionals, they become energized and active. Some rabbis seem to fear that engaged lay leadership will weaken the authority of the professionals who run communal organizations, but it is more likely that skilled lay leaders will recognize and respect the professionals’ skills. True, respect will not always mean acquiescence; but the disagreements that arise are more likely to be serious and constructive.
Moreover, if lay leadership is stronger, rabbis will be freed to do what they are most qualified to do: articulating a compelling case for Jewish meaning in 21st-century America. Despite American Jews’ extensive achievements in secular learning, they have produced no significant Jewish theology since Mordecai Kaplan’s 1935 Judaism as a Civilization. Judaism needs a view of God incorporating advances in neuroscience, an understanding of Jewish identity that includes the many interfaith families who raise Jewish children while incorporating references to other faiths, and an understanding of Zionism that goes beyond boiler-plate affirmation. This enterprise will strike some as syncretism, capitulation, or assimilation. Yet, if the Reform movement does not address these matters, who will? The job is fully large enough to occupy the time and energies of the Reform rabbinate; strong lay leadership will give Reform rabbis a better chance to succeed at it.
In 1969 Rabbi Richard Levy, later to become president of the Central Conference of American Rabbis, wrote that the American Reform synagogue has “defaulted” on all three of its traditional functions: building community, nurturing study, and engaging in meaningful worship. Since he wrote, the default has only deepened. If it is not addressed now, there may be no future opportunity for repair.
Rabbi Evan Moffic is the spiritual leader of Reform Congregation Solel in Highland Park, Illinois. He writes frequently on Jewish thought and American Jewish life. Thousands read his blog at www.rabbimoffic.com.
We are those whom the Enlightenment freed from what we then saw as sterile and confining traditions. How are we to define and distinguish ourselves before others without them?
The Shema and Science both tell us the laws of Physics are the same for everyone, everywhere. Do we need superstition to lend meaning to that sublime statement? Awe, we have. "When I behold the glory of Thy works..." resonates no less for the secularist that the orthodox, and perhaps across a broader range; there are no limits on scrolls written on the world. Or, moment by moment, on our selves.
Might we expand our presentation?
Study tells us from whence we came and who we were. Do we have any plan for where we shall go, and who we will become? The place we shall be shown??
Would it help? What place are we being shown?
Secondly Reform is an American movement. It's very weak in other countries. Jews in Australia, Europe, and Israel, while not fully observant attend orthodox synagogues. In fact in most countries, in particular israel the level of observance (see the Guttman Study) is higher where Reform is weak. The city with the highest intermarriage rate in the US is San Francisco, which is the city where Reform is strongest and Orthodox the weakest.
My parents' many friends have produced only two other grandchildren that are not the product of intermarriage. Reform cannot survive without a soul.
What a silly question, why of course not!
passion to pass on to their children why the latter should care about being Jewish. There are too many intermarriages as well and it is well known that most of the children of these marriages do not bring up their children as Jews. To me the whole matter is rather hopeless.
Eugene Trainin, M.D.
However, my knowledge of the sociology of the Jewish community in America tells me that, at least since 2000 when we have the last reliable data nationally, the Reform movement is in growth mode. This is so, I think, because it provides an easy space to exercise some degree of Jewishness, without expecting much or making significant demands. I am not worried about Reform's presence in NYC due to that survey. There, of course, the surprising statistic are the numbers and the dismal economic status of the Orthodox community. The survey does not include the suburbs, so to claim that there is a decline in Reform is uncertain as we lack those numbers.
Thus, my concern for Reform, numbers or no, is what I perceive to be an increasing lack of substance, symbolized, by the way, by the 2000 Pittsburgh Platform, the first of these (dating back to 1885) lacking any philosophical/theological vision.
In fact, what you call "Orthodox" is just called "Judaism" everywhere but in the USA.
In fact, what you call "Orthodox" is just called "Judaism" everywhere but in the USA."
This probably would have been an accurate statement if made in 1990, but things have changed since then.
In Israel, the Progressive and Masorti movements, while still tiny, have the sympathy of the overwhelming majority of secular Israelis, who desire to see these movements, along with the Karaites and Ethiopian kessim, gain full equality with Orthodoxy in law. Also, there is a secular spiritual movement in Israel that has emerged in the past two decades as a powerful alternative to Orthodoxy. I have no doubt that future generations of secular Israelis will gravitate toward it for their Judaism and spiritual needs, not toward the Orthodox.
In Latin America, Masorti is extremely strong, due to the presence of the Seminario Rabbinico there. Orthodoxy may have the majority, but it's a bland Orthodoxy that doesn't have the same attraction or devotion that the Masorti have engendered in their communities. In the last decade, Progressive Judaism has grown in leaps and bounds in Latin America. Already, the largest shul in Sao Paulo is a Progressive one (I think it also has a Masorti minyan.).
Progressive Judaism is holding its own in Europe and is growing in the former Soviert Union, where it has contributed mightily along with the Orthodox, to the revival of Judaism there. Masorti is the fastest growing movement in Britain, having tripled in size since the early 90s, and is making inroads in continental Europe as well.
There are strong, active Progressive and Masorti communities in Australia, New Zealand, and various Far Eastern communities. People who live there tell me that the rabbis of those communities are particularly dynamic. In South Africa, after a period of decline, Progressive Judaism is making a modest comeback.
And in Canada, Conservative Judaism now outstrips Orthodoxy in membership, and has recently created a new rabbinic seminary there, in tandem with liberal elements within Orthodoxy.
I see the opposite. Liberal Judaism may be growing in some tiny Jewish communities, but it is not growing in Israel. It was nothing in 1990 and it's still nothing today. Most seculars don't like or even care about them (I know, I live in Tel Aviv), some just "use" them to enrage the Rabanut, not because they identify with Reform. The membership is still very low and mostly made of US immigrants.
The trends in Israel, as you know, are Jews becoming more religious, not less. And in the USA Reform is also shrinking very fast.
The Conservative Movement claimed it had 2 million members long after it went into its probably terminal decline. But the decay was visible and the apparent dishonesty of the movement about its own lack of vitality only made its youth more inclined to leave it.
The Orthodox pursued the opposite strategy and are now reaping the benefits. They never claimed in the 50'-70's to be a large mass movement. Rather, they claimed to be a small movement of committed people, with a devotion to large families, that would eventually grow and attract an influx of new people through the quality of its religious and communal life, not the quantity of years ago.
In fact, that is exactly what has happened over the last 40 years. This should be a lesson to liberal Jews. You shouldn't be focused on paper membership, but rather on quality membership. Quality begets quantity.
Furthermore, the conclusion of the author that a Jewish community with no or little nonOrthodox community would be unviable is groundless. For most of Jewish history in almost all places where Jews lived, there was nothing but an established Orthodox community. Lapsed Jews typically left the community, intermarried and converted. Why should contemporary America be any different?
Secondly, regarding intermarriage, the Reform has been accepting interfaith relationships and marriages for long enough to realize that this pursuit is largely a dead end, as evidenced by their falling membership levels. It is clear that Jews who intermarry do so because their Jewish indentity is not sufficiently strong to intra marry. As the 2011 Jewish community study shows, their synagogue membership rates are among the lowest, as is their participation in Jewish life. Maybe it's time to raise the bar, instead of constantly lowering it.
Most members of Reform synagogues do not take the Reform seriously and are usually not even aware of its professed ideas and ideals. It is merely a place where some sort of simple religious rituals can be conducted in a bourgeoise social framework. Nothing more and potentially less than that.
People who grown up in such a religious framework soon turn their backs on it and as far as they are concerned, it is empty and contentless. Jews are very sensitive to that.
Having read the other comments in this section, I have to say that I see stereotypes, prejudices and misunderstanding of Reform. From its inception until recently the Reform movement has always stood for principles and made significant contributions to the Jewish world. I suggest any skeptical reader have a look at the 1976 Centenary Perspective in which the elan of Reform is briefly but effectively parsed.
Issues of culture, intermarriage, education, practice, and so many other topics are enormously serious to be sure, and Reform, as I have said in my earlier comment, has its share in these issues. But Jewish ignorance abounds and not just among Reform laity and even clergy. Low affiliation rates are not to be blamed on the failure of the synagogue to attract as much as on the pull of American secular culture.
American Judaism and Jewry face a raft of serious challenges. But it strikes me as seriously unfair to lay the blame exclusively on Reform when so many other forces press hard upon American Jews.
In addition, Rabbis Barr & Baum from Ohio have been doing online services for Shabbat and all the High Holy Days. You don't have to be a member to participate in the live services or to watch the services stream online. www.ourjewishcomminity.org and then there's the Central Synagogue in NYC which is just beginning to reach out to folks not necessarily in NYC. The differences between both temples is evident but there are similarities.
In closing, to say the Reform movement is headed for kaddish is both saddening and epitomizes the blatant separatism amongst the different sects of Judaism. It's the AFTERWIT of ZEMBLANITY! I love that I am Jewish. I love that I am an American. And I love my blended families regardless if they're Jewish, Christian or whatever.
"Wow, that's a lot of hate coming from folks." In a world wherein politics often trumps religion and the first words of Bereishit are so easily dismissed or rejected by those espousing atheism and secular humanism as fine equivalents to scriptural texts, it seems that having a second and perhaps negative view of Reform Judaisma and especially that reform which so easily wants to dismiss Torah as foundational is now the new definition of hatred. If the quote I cite is examined in terms of a simple English dictionary definition, then hatred is most properly defined as "intense hostility and aversion usually deriving from fear, anger, or sense of injury." [ Merriam-Webster ] Those who do not either 1) espouse and validate the American Reform movement and do not fear its shrinkage, and 2) espouse some other view and practice of Judaism therefore cannot "hate" per the terms of the article and comments. Why? They do not fear or exhibit a sense of injury from the demographic shrinkage of Reform Judaism in its several modes. Rather they do not fear for their own non-Reform views, though this now this seems defined as hatred. Silly. It is the Reform movement which evidences fear now. To paper this over with claims of "hatred" assessed against the Orthodox and most of worldwide Jewry is fallacious at best, inexact in word meanings, and itself a form of "hatred" per literal definitions directed outward from the Reform to those who would not uphold Reform Judaism.
If Reform Judaism has within its theological and organizational abilities the possiblity to turn around its own demographic decline, then accusing other Jews of hatred is a limp attempt to avoid the basic premise. Simply observing decline and speculating on its reasons are not evidence of hatred. One who accuses others of hatred oddly signs off with "peace." A contradiction in terms, it seems. "Blended" perhaps but a contradiction nonethelesss.
The numbers the author uses are based on the percentage of Reform Jewish kids in New York. That doesn't mean Reform Judaism is on the decline. It means he Orthodox, on average, have many more kids than the Reform. So, even with Reform staying the same in terms of numbers of people, the percentage would continue to drop. That doesn't mean there is anything wrong with Reform.
If he doesn't inspire you to do better, no one will.
And no...he's not even my Rabbi, but I wish he was!
Their embrace of intermarriage and patralinial descent has reduced the percentage of Jewish members of their congregation to less than half. When the father of the bar mitzvah boy is called up as Christopher jr ben Christopher the state of reform Judaism is clear. Of the founders of Temple Emanuel in NY, there are no Jewish descendants.
Why bother with a faith where one needs no faith?
These types of tirades have served for decades as a substitute for saying something positive about their own movements, because there was little positive to say. I recently heard a Conservative rabbi give a nice dvar Torah one Shabbat in which he attacked the intellectual decrepitude of leftist professors who tell their students that all the answers to the deepest philosophical questions can be found from the scientific method. This is manifestly false, as Stephen Jay Gould has eloquently written about, although being an agnostic himself. Why haven't more liberal rabbis addressed this issue - the void at the heart of contemporary secularism that drives so many secular Jews into the waiting arms of Orthodox outreach yeshivas and Chabad centers?
They refuse to address this issue because they find the whole subject of faith embarassing to talk about with their highly assimilated audiences. This particular rabbi, after giving such an illuminating talk about the intellectual deficits in our academic elites, then concluded his sermon with a tirade about Orthodox extremists. How sad that even he couldn't resist that pitiful temptation.
There is a bare minimum level of regular observance which is required in order for people to self-identify as Jews:
1) Kashrut. The daily Jewish practice reminding oneself of one's Judaism; and
2) Shabbat observance and Saturday shul attendance. Shabbat observance means time with family and friends NOT DOING the things one does during the week. The more 'Shomer Shabbat' the better. So not traveling, driving, handling money, computers, lights, cooking, etc. but rather talking, eating, picnicking after shul, reading.
Orthodox Jews will list other things such as sexual purity, but to me these are the two essentials.
Those who think they can pass on Jewishness thru bagel, yiddish words, holiday seders are fooling themselves. You can't have it both ways....that was the bargain our grandparents thought they could have...but they could not.
to the eternal question of "Who is a Jew" I've always preferred the response "Somebody whose grandchildren self-identify as first and foremost Jewish". By that measure, Orthodox Judaism succeeds far more than Conservative Judaism and Reform Judaism.
The sad truth is that the middle (Reform and Conservative Judaism) is inherently unstable. As generations pass, most either drop down a level (i.e. from Conservative to Reform or Reform to non-practicing). A few (maybe 10%?) drift up to higher levels of daily observance (i.e. Conservative to Modern Orth).
Reform Judaism and Conservative Judaism must go against their big tent instincts and draw firm lines of what constitutes acceptable daily practice. Without such clear lines, they will continue to drift away.....
However, it is a little more of a problem than whether it is kashrut or not, whether it is the 613 mitzvot or not. The question is whether Jews can survive if they are only a religion. While we may have been religious down through the ages, we engaged in a lot more ways of Jewish living than that. First, there was community. Where is the Jewish community, the one that includes all the Jews regardless of their religious and non-religious behavior.
Then we accept the division of secular-religous as though it really is historically descriptive of what we've been. Whether we are religous -- in any sense of any of the Jewish "trends" -- we have accepted as proper Jewish behavior in our economic lives they way of the land, we regard our Jewish folkways as quaintisms while living in the folkways of the majority people. Then, we put on sackcloth over the problem that our children and grandchildren intermarry thus relieving ourselves of the task of absorbing the new member in a positive Jewish way that opens the possibilities for the newcomer to appreciate and want from the heart to be a Jew with us.
I could go on and enumerate many more instances that spell the difference between living in the milieux of America and Judaism where we chose almost without thinking the American milieu. This is not the problem of one "trend" or another. It is the problem questioning the possibility of a k'lal yisrael.
That percentage is growing. And it is the only percentage that has staying power. It also happens to be the only growing sector of American Jewry so I would hardly call that a failure. The 100% Orthodox Jews of the past were barely educated, hardly literate, and dirt poor immigrants from Eastern Europe and elsewhere. Orthodoxy was what they grew up with so it was all they knew. You can't compare that to today's Orthodox, who are schooled and educated in their tradition. Also, Orthodoxy is the only denomination that has diversity, as a wealth of Jewish cultures, from East European to Middle Eastern, find their homes in it.
A basic trait of Judaism is worrying whether Judaism will survive, but survival must be for a purpose, not for survival's sake. We are not dumb selfish genes but vibrant and thinking humans and we look for program and purpose. I suspect that it is possible that the article asks all the wrong questions and avoids the look for possible new models of Jewish expression. Rabbi Moffic hints at that, but maybe that is where the dialogue needs to be, not just reform and orthodox leaders each claiming, "Only we can be relevant."
The title amused, for I had to look up the word, which I learn comes from an African linguistic history meaning "magic" and seems to have entered English only in the 1920s. It seems used in sports and now in politics, more than in religious circles. Tasty prose, perhaps, but what is "magical" about Reform Judaism or any other "costumed cultic sect?"
Rabbi Moffic states the obvious, that there is a "decline in synagogue affiliation." Demographics and rudimentary economics have always been dispassionate measures by which to gauge growh or diminution. "Decline" is the latter. For all the harsh words in this comment stream, it seems the salient issue has not been answered to anyone's satisfaction, and so name-calling becomes the other debate tactic. But the end of the article states clearly, "default has only deepened. If it is not addressed now, there may be no future opportunity for repair."
Decline. Default. No future opportunity. This is a serious issue, and I suspect the state of this moment is due to the flooding of politics into and over religion in such a way that religion now becomes just another branch of politics. If religion is subsumed and, as Reform Rabbi Moffic states, "the American Reform synagogue has 'defaulted' on all three of its traditional functions," then it seems that the default was symptomatic of something else taking the place of such "traditional functions." I suggest secular politics is the competitor, and an aggressive one too.
As we watch gathering government debt problems from Europe to the Americas, "decline" and "default" will be the vocabulary in which we will be speaking. It seems a rational explanation to understand why Rabbi Moffic's observation is so apt. As synagogues deal with politics while "traditional functions" dilute, "default" and "decline" seem as certain in Judaism as they are in politics the world around. Mojo or "magic" will not be the avenue back.
- But why would anyone join a Reform synagogue. Continuity for the sake of continuity - let's survive so that we can survive - what's the point? Fund and social capital -- but again, for what? ... I agree that if you're going to have a movement, then the movement needs continuity and resources, but why have your movement?
"The American Jewish community as a whole cannot survive if there is no non-Orthodox movement to which American Jews can belong; in other words, survival depends on a strong Reform movement."
Who says? What is a strong Reform movement for? Just keeping Jews nominally affiliated?
Reform, perhaps, shouldn't be targeted more than other movements.
I just think we need to dedicate our hearts and minds to considering, What is being Jewish? ... If it's just about perpetuating an ethnic identity that makes for stand-up comedy, then count me out. I'll take Plato over Kaplan... Why Jewish? Why does creation need the Jews?
I actually find myself agreeing with every single thing you've said here. Reform and Conservative Judaism are declining for the same reason that the mainline Protestant churches and those Catholic parishes and organizations that have embraced theological liberalism, are declining. Reform and Conservative Judaism don't have anything that sets them apart as unique. They, like their Catholic and Protestant equivalents, simply parrot whatever happens to be politically correct and current in Postmodern circles. Doesn't inspire anyone.
Outside of the United States, these movements have much more success, partially because they are minority movements almost everywhere, and partially because their non-American equivalents have coherent philosophies. Progressive Judaism, which is basically Reform Judaism outside the USA is a Reform-Reconstructionist-Masorti synthesis, with a great deal of influence from Rabbi Mordechai Kaplan, which is always good for a non-Orthodox Judaism. Masorti Judaism, which is basically Conservative outside the USA, is very traditional, encourages observance, and in essence, functions as an extremely liberal Orthodoxy. These movements have established standards, whereas the American movements have not. Of course they're going to decline.
I remember a challenge from Father John Neuhaus to Alan Dershowitz on a TV panel years ago about religion in the public square: Alan, what do you affirm with other Jews? [You can't be a Jew all by yourself.] Dershowitz's life is his best answer. I ask some of my liberal Jewish friends the same question. They bridle. They [really do] think we're a race and that's it: no common affirmations about God or Israel, no mutual responsibilities.
Today, only Orthodoxy and Zionism show real vitality and substance. They have real raisons d'etre. That is because the Diaspora is dissolving mostly through the natural processes of assimilation. Zionism promises a total modern Jewish environment (or laboratory if you will) with a Jewish language and culture. Orthodoxy is atavistic but muscular enough to survive in the Diaspora. Liberal forms of rabbinic Judaism provide a home for moderate majority of Diaspora Jews, but not a program.
Recent demographic studies have shown more of a decline in Conservative than Reform. The reason for this in my opinion is that many people who grew up Conservative and inter-married find the Reform Temple to be more of a fit, and more accepting of their non-Jewish spouses than the Conservative Synagogue is.
Besides the obvious point that Reform claims to be the largest Jewish movement is not true since a third of their members are not Jewish.. there is the other point. That once the children of the inter-married grow up and marry non-Jews they will leave Judaism altogether. Thus Reform's recent steady numbers just reflects the stopping over point of Conservative Jews who inter-married and are really on their way out.
the number of Jews converting to Gentile religions, like:
Christianity, Islam, Buddhism, etc.
Orthodox Jews are far less likely to convert to these alien religions than Reform or Conservative, which gives the Orthodox another advantage over Reform and Conservative in maintaining their numbers.
In the same time frame, Rabbi Yoffie (who usually does not respond to online attacks) made an exception for Rabbi Lamm, and you'll find his comments here http://blogs.rj.org/blog/2009/08/10/a_call_for_civility/.
I'd like to suggest that trying to force a dichotomy between Judaism as "religion" and Judaism as "culture" is a false effort, untrue historically and untrue socially.
Those institutions which represent Jewish values emanated from the observance of Torah ideals. Hospitals, free-loan societies, food-pantries, clothing drives - all derive from Biblical commandments.
Even today many important communal life-saving institutions are coming from the Orthodox community who will admit that they are "just doing what the Torah demands. During the recent Hurricane Sandy, one of the leading self-help organizations is Achiezer. Hatzala has been saving lives by re-defining emergency first-response, Zaka has used its emergency-response skills in tragedies around the world.
These organizations (cultural institutions) were founded by people loyal to Torah who felt that they had to ACT in Torah-enhancing ways.
I believe that in the vagaries of Reform theology and applied-behavior those norms don't exist. Hence Reform people are inclined do the "right" thing based on their own sense of what feels right (obviously conditioned by Rabbinic and social norms). But they lack the depth of Jewish education, facility with Jewish historical norms and behaviors, and any expectation that they will behave in distinctly JEWISH ways (as opposed to what is called Judeo-Christian values).
That sense of Jewish excpetionalism (unique expectations & hence unique opportunities) may be what is needed to deliver Reform from its decline.
But if they did, would it still be Reform??
Would you be sad if your child intermarried out of the faith?
What if they loved that person?
Do we deny love and self-fulfillment to preserve Judaism?
In the case of Reform, let us take Moses Mendelsson as a harbinger of the Reform movement, due to his many friends and students who went on to found it. He died in 1786 - so we are at the 225 year point at which the movement should be soon fizzling out.
Simple observation shows us that assimilation in the US is usually a 4 generation process. The first generation was nominally “Orthodox”, kept kashrut but stopped keeping the Shabbat. Next generation didn't keep Shabbat or kashrus, but kept some tradition and was very Jewish, and belonged to a Conservative synagogue. Next generation kept nothing but knew they had to marry a Jew and joined a Reform congregation. Next generation married out, belonged to no congregation and for all purposes had stopped any significant Jewish affiliation. This process was often a 3-generation process on the more liberal East and West Coasts.
This is why it is almost impossible to find 4 generations of Jews who are all Reform, despite Reform being around for 200 years. This is also why there are almost no Jewish descendants of the original German reformers.
Before WWII, about 0.5% of American Jews were of the strict Orthodox model known in Eastern Europe before the war. This group has found their way to combine strict observance with the demands of modern life through Jewish education, kashrus certification, rabbinical courts and all the other accoutrements of Orthodox life and today, after 80 years, have rebounded to 10-15% of American Jews with a minuscule dropout rate. The other 99.5% of American Jews followed the assimilatory track mentioned above. Whoever arrived in the early 19th century, their 4th generation has married out and rarely affiliates with any form of Jewish worship. Those who arrived in the 20-30's, their grandchildren are still with Reform.
Remember how Conservative used to be proclaimed the main movement after WWII? What happened is that the children of those who arrived "Orthodox" were joining Conservative en masse, which swelled the movement and made it the biggest movement among American Jewry. When this “Orthodox” drip-off came to an end, due to Orthodox retention, there was no one to keep swelling the Conservative movement, so it began to decrease, while the drip-off from the Conservative to the Reform continued unabated, turning Reform into the largest movement. Now, very little is left of Conservative, and Reform is now hemorrhaging to intermarriage and non-affiliation.
The so-called high numbers quoted for both Conservative and Reform is an illusion, because 1) there are high number of non-Jews in their ranks, 2) they include in their membership numbers anyone who has come to their temples occasionally, i.e. just to make a bar mitzva. If one speaks about members who come weekly, it is doubtful that they even have 100,000 countrywide today.
It is not difficult to understand why all these divergent movements never last. Jews have always been a tiny minority. To be able to remain separate from the huge mass of gentiles among which one lives, and to survive the under-current of anti-Semitism and discrimination which has existed in all societies, one has to be completely committed to his convictions. Only belief in Torah from Sinai, constant Torah study, and a life committed to mitzva observance can do this, not the wishy-washy agenda of divergent movements who primarily imitate the popular values of their host society and change their beliefs and practices according to the zeitgeist.
It doesn't mean that Reform will disappear. Maybe it will reinvent itself as a new religion, similar to how Paul and Mohammed created Christianity and Islam. They retained many Jewish ideas and practices but adapted them to the needs of their gentile adherents and eradicated those that didn't suit.
A good case could be made that Evangelical Christianity is closer to rabbinical Judaism than Reform.
Firstly, Karaite Judaism is very much alive and well. It has 50,000 adherents worldwide, most of them in Israel, but with smaller communities in the USA and Turkey, as well as tiny groups in Europe. 50,000 members is hardly what I would call having 'died out,' and in fact, it is experiencing a rennaissance. Also, Karaite Judaism bears quite a close resemblance to traditional Ethiopian Judaism, which evolved in a very different way from Rabbinic Judaism, but which survived for over 2,500 years even so.
Second, the Samaritans still exist, albeit in tiny numbers. The whittling down of their numbers was due to forcible conversions of their population to Christianity and Islam over the years, with the result that those who kept their faith were forced at one point to leave Palestine. They returned and today number just over 700, which is a revival due to them reversing the rule against accepting outsiders.
Third, in some countries the assimilation rate is actually higher among the Orthodox-affiliated than among the Progressive and Masorti. This is very much the case in Britain, for example. I don't believe that the problem has to do with not having the right beliefs, but rather with how well the movement defines its core philosophy and whether it inspires its members to be involved in the community, as well as with learning. Reform and Conservative in America have failed miserably at this, with the exception of a few notable communities, and so has mainstream British Orthodoxy. When you get complacent and become dull and uninspiring, then you're going to lose your people. Actually, outside the United States, the equivalent movements--Progressive and Masorti--are actually doing exceptionally well. Not being the majority (the only major community where they are is Hungary, with its local Nealog Reform movement), they don't have access to the community's purse strings and are not stymied by vested interests. Therefore they've been able to attract many young people. In Latin American countries, these movements are actually vital to the survival of the Jewish communities there, because the Orthodox establishments in those countries are extremely backward and refuse to perform any conversions. Some communities face extinction because of this (i.e. Guatemala, Peru, Ecuador).
Finally, the whole ideology of 'we have to survive because the gentiles hate us and we're always persecuted and blah blah blah' does nothing but promote a victimhood mentality that perpetuates itself. If that is what it takes for Judaism to survive, then that is truly pathetic. I don't think you can reduce it to that. Judaism has to be pro-active and engage the world, rising to the challenges it faces. Moreover it would help if all forms of Judaism opened their doors wide to converts, who could and I believe, would, come into the Jewish world by the millions. To do that we must jettison this attitude that we're not allowed to seek converts, a position with absolutely no source in halacha whatsoever.
A similar fate awaits Reform in the future. If Reform maintains a large Jewish element in the future, they will likely be rejected for marriage with Jews for questions of mamzerus, similar to the Karaites. This is already a serious problem. The alternative is that they will disappear through intermarriage -- far more likely in America, which has embraced Jews and where Jews suffered from much less discrimination than elsewhere."
When you talk about "Orthodox-affiliated" you have to differentiate between committed Orthodox Jews and those who just attend Orthodox synagogues for reasons of tradition or convenience but are not observant in their lifestyle.
I don't know where you get your statistics about Orthodox assimilation in the UK. Here is a report from December 2011:
Orthodox Jewish population on the rise, new figures show
STATS: Dr Yaakov Wise
Posted Tuesday, December 6, 2011 - 07:10
By Hayley Clarke
Statistics released by a Manchester-based academic show that more Orthodox Jewish families are having children than non-Orthodox families.
Dr Yaakov Wise, an Honorary Research Fellow at Manchester University’s centre for Jewish studies, released statistics showing the strictly Orthodox community made up 20 percent of all Anglo-Jewry in 2010.
In Manchester, the UK’s second largest Jewish community, around 350 births per thousand women occur in the strictly Orthodox community, compared to an average 65 births per thousand among the non-Orthodox Jewish community.
Dr Wise said: “Although the small, provincial, Jewish communities in the UK are declining rapidly, it is important to point out that the strictly Orthodox population is rising quickly.
“Because of this huge increase in Strictly Orthodox numbers in immigration, I expect the overall numbers of Jews to continue growing in the UK.”
Strictly Orthodox couples are having an average of 6.9 children, which Dr. Wise thinks has credited to the 19% Jewish population rise since 2009.
Dr Wise argues that non-Orthodox Jewish women spend longer in higher education and marry later, causing a lower fertility rate.
He says that non-orthodox Jewish women under the age of 35 produce even fewer children than their non-Jewish equal.
“At no point do non-Strictly Orthodox Jewish women attain the fertility levels of their non-Jewish peers or bear children in numbers sufficient to offset population losses from natural causes.”
As for Reform's great success in Latin America - the growth is due to Latin America having relatively young Jewish communities (most Jewish communities there were started by immigrants in the 20's-30's). There is extensive intermarriage and assimilation, and within a generation or two, the Jewish community will likely fizzle out, as we see happening in the US. Actually, Latin America has seen the formation of many local communities of Jews coming back to Judaism (in Buenos Aires, Sao Paulo, Santiago, etc.) which set up strong Orthodox communities, and they are the only ones that will have Jewish continuity generations from now.
"the whole ideology of 'we have to survive because the gentiles hate us and we're always persecuted and blah blah blah' does nothing but promote a victimhood mentality"- I don't know where you picked this up from, not from me, but I quite agree. We have to survive because of our covenant with G-d, not because we're persecuted. Being persecuted is the best reason why to assimilate. Orthodox Judaism welcomes converts who want to join the covenant (Torah and mitzvos). There is no other reason why to become a Jew.
There is a group called the Karaim-Karaylar, who are not considered Jewish, and who live mainly in Russia. They practice a syncretistic form of Karaite Judaism, but these aren't even considered Jewish by the Karaites themselves, and the Karaim-Karaylar don't consider themselves to be Jews.
I agree with you that charedi communities are growing everywhere, especially due to natural increase, but this doesn't change the fact that assimilation in Britain is highest among Orthodox affiliated. As far as Latin America goes, much of the responsibilty for assimilation and intermarriage there can be laid directly at the feet of the Orthodox rabbis in those countries, because they absolutely refuse to do any conversions at all. This is why Masorti and Progressive are doing so well there--their growth cannot be denied.
Yes, there are growing Orthodox communities in those Latin American countries, and many of them are returnees, but a very large percentage of those are Syrians. The Syrians have a culture that is very closed to all outsiders and they have a racist policy against converts. Most Jews worldwide would not be in any way attracted to the way Syrians do things.
There is a common fallacy when talking about assimilation. Orthodox Jews are said to assimilate when they marry out. Conservative and Reform Jews, by this definition, are already completely assimilated. Intermarriage is not even an issue for them. I read somewhere that the number of Reform adherents with 4 Jewish grandparents are only a small minority today. Therefore, to say that Orthodox Jews are more assimilated than Reform/Conservative/Progessive or any other non-halachic group is a contradiction in terms.
You confuse conversions with getting citizenship or a country club membership. Conversion is not a matter of performing a ceremony, similar to how one becomes Christian or Muslim. Jewish conversion means a inner fundamental change -- you are joining a covenant that will completely change your beliefs and lifestyle. Without the commensurate change in beliefs and practices, one can go to the mikvah a thousand times, circumcize himself and study Torah all day long and still remain a gentile.
All these rabbis who convert non-Jews (usually for intermarriage purposes) are essentially declaring a zebra a cow and pronouncing it kosher. You're still left with a striped non-kosher animal. These non-Jews may fill the Masorti and Progressive movements for a generation or two but inevitably the watered down movements will simply disappear.
The Syrian policy is not so much racist as an emergency policy enacted to keep their community from falling to the assimilatory pressures that have affected other Jewish groups. They can put into effect such a policy because of their tight cradle-to-grave community life and no-questions-asked reverence for their rabbinical leaders. To their credit, they were right, as you yourself testify to. The policy has been highly successful in keeping the Syrians in-married. They may not be that happy about it, but Syrians do intermarry with Ashkenazim and Sephardim so they are not as insular as you think.
see my comment above and
i think you would enjoy those articles.
"The Union for Reform Judaism represents 900 congregations with 1.5 million members."
Well that's the number for 2000 - and it includes people most Jews would not consider as Jews. The number of Reform Jews today is lower.
"The American Jewish community as a whole cannot survive if there is no non-Orthodox movement to which American Jews can belong"
Why ? There is alost no Reform in Israel or France and the Jewish communities "survive" much better than the US one.
I think on the contrary that Reform Judaism is the main responsible for the decline of US Jewry and assimilation. And don't get me wrong, I am not a religious Orthodox. But that's just a fact, where Reform is strong, Jews disappear.
Just to explain, in the orthodox world, the vast majority are conservative, and you find your occasional democrat. But it's not the RELIGION. You can go to shul every day of the week, and read every shul bulletin or flyer, and not a hear a single word about political issues. Whereas, it is undeniable that to a Reform Jew, the services and well-nigh the religion itself is indistinguishable from the democratic party. (Example: in Reform prayerbooks of the 1930s there were prayers for the coal miners, when union legislation was the big issue of the day.)Nearly every sermon I read about can easily serve as a speech for the ACLA, the Sierra Club, or some other plan in the democratic colation. If you talk to ballei teshuvah who grew up in reform households, they often say the merger of ancient religion with modern day lefty politics instinctively struck them as inauthentic, causing them to begin their journey and discover orthodoxy.
So, in sum, I am I all for a separate "stream" of Jewry, which leaves out many of the rituals and legalistic halacha details found in orthodoxy. (I wish orthodoxy would "reform" itself from these too, but that's a different story.) But that doesnt mean the gap should be filled by whatever happens to be the current liberal fad of the day.
As long as Reform and Conservative Judaism identify solely with leftist politics, not even engaging in debate about whether these politics really make any sense or are in tune with Judaism, then Reform and Conservative Judaism will decline. The same thing is happening in the mainline Protestant churches--northern Baptists, ELCA Lutherans, Episcopalians, United Methodists, United Presbyterians, United Church of Christ, Disciples of Christ, Reformed Church in America, Church of the Brethren, and their equivalents in other countries--all are experiencing drastic declines and rapidly aging congregations. The same holds true in the Catholic world, where liberal parishes are on their way out. I even read one Catholic writer saying that to adopt theological liberalism is to sound the death knell for your church. Even among the Mormons, it's the same--the Reorganized Church of Latter Day Saints has become very liberal since the 50s, and has lost over half of its membership since then.
Because leftists are far more attracted to secular religions, such as Marxism, Secular Humanism, and Postmodernism, which have all the left wing activism without the God-talk and the inhibiting theological rules.
I have a great deal of Orthodox family, and I have a lot of experience in Orthodox communities, and I'd say that in my experience, I've encountered everything from leftist socialist to ultras-conservative. Lots of Republicans in Orthodox communities. Lots of Democrats too. Plenty of Libertarians and Greens as well. It reflects the incredible diversity of Orthodox Judaism, something that Reform and Conservative lack. It's truly ironic that the communities that preach diversity tend to be the most homogenous ones.
This is incorrect. France has an extremely high rate of assimilation and intermarriage, even among the Maghrebi Sephardim. Also, you should know that there is a prominent Progressive movement in France, which, while a minority of French Jewry, is holding its own quite nicely. Progressive shuls there are actually better attended than Orthodox ones. Also, Masorti has made some significant inroads in the last decade among the younger generation, and half of its participants are Maghrebi Sephardim.
In Israel there are over 90 communities affiliated with Progressive and Masorti, though I agree that this is a drop in the ocean of Israeli Jewry. What is making a far bigger impact there, however, is a secular spiritual movement, with which Jewish spirituality and many traditional practices are filtered through a nationalistic lense. This movement functions much like an Eastern religion and has a God component, but is fully based on Judaism. It even has a Secular Yeshiva through which thousands of people have graduated, with the full gamut of Talmudic and other texts taught in as intense a curriculum as at any Orthodox yeshiva, and for as long hours, but are taught by secular professor types. That movement may prove to be better suited to the Israeli mentality than Progressive or Masorti are.
Liberal and Masorati are small minorities that most French Jews despise or ignore. They can grow, but they are growing from 0, so it does not mean much. I know the French community, there is not a chance in the world the non-Orthodox will ever be more than 5-10% - unless the rest leaves France, which is what is also happening slowly.
Unlike countries where the religion (ex. Russian Orthodox Church) is handmaiden to the State, Israel faces the opposite problem; the State is hostage to the national religion. I suppose we can say that Islamic countries face a similar problem: some violent group will always find the national State lacking Islamic authenticity, therefore illegal.
I agree with you about the Israeli Chief Rabbinate, which is a vile organization that truly is threatening the State of Israel with its increased extremism in practice and its parasitic nature on the body politic. The Israeli Chief Rabbinate needs to be dissolved.
But it doesn't represent Orthodoxy, and many Orthodox are getting utterly fed up with it. As far as racial barriers against converts, these don't exist. The only community that practices these are the Syrians, with their disgusting racism (though they seem to have no issue with their rabbis getting involved in real estate scams). I never understood this, because you can still preserve and love the Syrian culture, without going to this extreme to protect it. Even the Latin American Orthodox rabbis, who refuse to perform conversions, can be accused of being backward and short-sighted, but they're not racist, because they will accept a convert who converted in Israel or America.
There are Orthodox communities that are very multi-racial and where converts are accepted with open arms. There is even now an Orthodox sect that believes in actively proslytizing to Gentiles to encourage them to become Jewish. Statistics of Orthodox Jews defecting to Reform are minor--because it almost never happens in this day and age. Why would they abandon the richness of Orthodoxy for the bland watered down nature of Reform (I don't include the Progressive movement in this classification)? It happened a lot a century ago, but not today.
As for your claim of the Russian Orthodox Church being a handmaiden to the Russian government and therefore benign, how do you explain the discrimination and harassment that other Christian denominations endure at the hands of the Russian government? How do you justify the fact that in Russia, the only accepted religions besides Russian Orthodoxy are Islam, Judaism, and Buddhism, while all others are treated like crap?
What piqued me was a comment by Miriam of Detroit whose thoughtless statement,"there are almost no Jewish descendants of the original German reformers" made me shudder when we realize that the German Jews were the first victims of the Nazis. I could make a statement about the responsibility of some ultra-Orthodox rabbis in persuading their Jews not to escape the Nazis as the barbarians moved eastward, and then have their survivors claim that the Nazis were the punishment for "non-Orthodox" Jewish practices.
The very definitions of assimilation expressed here are enough to cross a rabbi's eyes. All I do is look around at Jews, and generally, I can tell where they come from from their very physical appearance. I would not ever be confused in identifying a Yemenite Jew from a German Jew. But according to some assimilationists, there is a presumption that we should look racially alike. Up until the beginning of the 20th century, many Jews accepted the racial definition of Judaism. In the US, we began to define ourselves as a religion. The idea of a Jewish people was the assumption behind Zionism.
In the U.S. around the middle of the 20th century, professional Jews including rabbis and sociologists decided to call Judaism a "religion" because they felt it would be a safeguard in America for us to retain a Jewish identity. Over several generations, most Americans forget where they come from, so ethnicity seemed too frail a hook on which to define Judaism. (After the 60s, ethnicity again came into its own for many groups to define themselves.)However, by defining Judaism as a religion gave the rabbis the status of community leaders, subordinating all other Jews defined as Lay-people.
I advocate a unitary Jewish community, within which we have -- as it now exists -- our pluralistic religious kehilot. Only then will "all Israel be responsible one for the other."
Pluralism in Judaism is described in the Torah: When Jacob died, his 12 sons of differing temperaments and abilities surrounded him and declared "Hear O Israel, the L-rd is One." Once one deviates from rabbinic Judaism, then one falls into the category of the man-made religions, most of which have adopted many of their practices from the Torah.
The early Reformers lived in the early 19th century. Many of them and their descendants moved to the U.S. and other places and their descendants had a good chance to escape the Holocaust. But I challenge you to find Jewish descendants. Many of them had children and grandchildren who had already married out and converted.
But let's look at someone closer to our times. Has anyone done a study on the descendants of Isaac Wise, the leader of Reform in the early 20th century? How many of them still identify themselves as Jewish, no matter what the domination. His descendants running the New York Times no longer do.
Jewish identity defies definition. We are not a race, not an ethnic group, and we are more than simply a religion or a nation or a people. Rav Saadya Gaon (tenth century) defined Jewish identity by fidelity to the Torah. The Chofetz Chaim (d. 1933) said that one who doesn't keep Shabbat has wiped his name off the rolls of the Jewish people (and it is just a question of time before his descendants will leave all Jewish affiliation).
Your rabbis' commentary about Galitzianer and Litvish Jews is just good old-time Jewish squabbling. Always existed and always will. And believe it or not, it's good. It keeps the different Jewish groups in line and makes sure no group does anything that will cause an uproar and arouse castigation from other groups.
Miriam from Detroit on November 14, 2012 at 2:09 am said, "Even splinter groups like the Karaites only disputed aspects of Jewish law while keeping most of it. Groups that eviscerated Judaism."
It seems that Miriam has pluralistic opinions on the same subject.
Not that Orthodoxy can do no wrong. In fact, the current state of Jewish Orthodoxy is in shambles...they just don't know it yet. 50 years ago, Orthodox Jewish congregations did not force their members to send their children to expensive day schools. Or set strict social delineations in place based on how observant your parents were/are. Or encourage marriage at age 19-22 and have the parents support their grown children and grandchildren, and have the hundreds of thousands in dollars in resources to do so.
The interesting thing is that I was always told in Reform, that you do whatever mitzvot is meaningful to you. But in practicality, this is not true. How can a married Reform Jewess perform the mitzvah of going to the mikvah if 98% of Reform Jewish congregations don't have one? How can a man pray with a daily minyan with tefillin if these aren't offered? In fact, not only are these things not available, but they are too often openly criticized...if not by Reform lay leaders, than by the congregants themselves.
In this way, I admire the Sephardim...because they never opted to have these splinter groups. For better or for worse, the Sephardim just have one type of synagogue to go to....an Orthodox (traditional) one. I wish we could say the same. I really have no desire to be led by a female rabbi, to sit along side of men during services, to hear English during the service, etc., etc. However I also don't want to...no, can't be forced into a box and a lifestyle that I can not comfortably attain. I don't want to segregate myself from other non-Jews (or non-observant Jews). I don't want to go to the poorhouse supporting my unborn children until they are 30-35. I don't want to be made to feel bad that I listen to the Clash in my car. No, there is no real place for me...especially not Reform. If the non-Orthodox movements can learn to expand without cutting down or cutting out, I think there would be a chance.
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The best thing for Reform Judaism would be to dissolve itself into the worldwide Progressive movement, which is basically a Reform-Reconstructionist synthesis with a strong dose of tradition from the Masorti movement. Progressive Judaism is doing quite well in a number of countries in Europe, Latin America, and the FSU, because it has become a lifeline to Judaism for many Jews who seek a Judaism that maintains a fine balance between tradition and modernity.
Also, Progressive Judaism needs to place emphasis on religious observance, traditional textual learning, meditation, and seeking converts.