Counterpoint: Merge Reform and Conservative Judaism

In uniting the two movements in Israel, neither would need to give up its theology or ritual lifestyle.

david forman 88 (photo credit:)
david forman 88
(photo credit: )
In October 2005, I wrote a column, "Merge the movements," which called upon the Reform and Conservative movements in Israel to meld together as one religious entity. The primary opposition came from the Conservatives, especially from many Conservative rabbis whose unabashed derision of my suggestion gave me pause to think that unifying both movements might be unattainable. Of course, this does not mean that they shouldn't unite. The Conservative movement's main objection to such a merger is its claim that Conservative Judaism is far more traditional than Reform Judaism and, unlike Reform, defines itself as halachic. However, my Conservative rabbinic colleagues suffer from a delusion of traditional grandeur. Their level of religious observance does not necessarily reflect that of their constituents. For example, one critic responded that the Conservative youth movement (Noam) observes Shabbat and kashrut, unlike the Reform youth movement. All four of my children were active in Noam. If their friends' and their parents' religious behavior is any indication, then I can categorically state that - with rare exceptions - the level of the Conservative movement's members' personal observance in no way matches the standards of traditionalism that Conservative rabbis pretend to be the case. Another critic based his opposition to the unification of the movements on the foolhardy supposition that "his synagogue had more in common with an Orthodox one than a Reform one." By whose standards? Certainly not Orthodoxy's. And why would a Conservative rabbi take pride in such a specious comparison, when Orthodoxy decries Conservative Judaism's legitimacy? Before considering a partnership with the Reform movement, my Conservative co-religionists argue that Reform in Israel must separate itself from Reform in America. Since when is guilt by association a criteria for judging someone? That McDonald's in downtown Jerusalem is not kosher did not prevent McDonald's at the Central Bus Station from receiving a kashrut certificate. Should Israel's Conservative movement disassociate itself from its American counterpart because its rabbis in the States altered halacha so their congregants could drive to synagogue on Shabbat (as if it would matter)? Does one truly believe that no Conservative rabbis and lay people in Israel drive on Shabbat? This is another case of wishful thinking. Does a violation of Shabbat by others diminish someone else's strict Shabbat observance? As one Conservative rabbi from Tel Aviv remarked: "Let my rabbinic brethren in Jerusalem spend one summer in Tel Aviv, and they will find halachic justification to drive to the beach on Shabbat!" WHATEVER COMPLAINTS the Conservatives have against Reform changes in the tradition, they eventually follow suit. The Conservative movement followed Reform's lead by instituting egalitarianism and ordaining women - both in Israel and abroad - despite its once-resolute opposition to such far-reaching changes in halacha. And, in the States, there are cracks in the once impenetrable Conservative wall, with musical instruments used to enhance Shabbat services, the ordination of gays and lesbians, and even some grudging recognition of children of patrilineal descent as Jews. Would the Conservatives here deny that one of its own rabbis performs same-sex marriages, or musical instruments are played in some of its synagogues on Shabbat? Conservatives, on both sides of the ocean, are fast becoming a mirror image of Reform. The Israel Conservative movement would benefit more from an affiliation with Israel's Reform movement than vice versa. Jerusalem's prestigious Van Leer Institute dedicated a conference to "Contemporary Reform Judaism," the first serious academic symposium in Israel on a non-Orthodox religious stream of Judaism, which demonstrates that the Reform movement's profile is substantially more visible than the Conservative movement's. The Conservatives hitch a ride on the Reform's Israel Religious Action Center, whose organizational activism makes it the chief proponent for equal rights for non-Orthodox religious branches of Judaism. And while the Reform movement's Israeli rabbinic program has grown, the Conservative movement's has shrunk, with many Conservative rabbis employed by Reform institutions. ULTIMATELY THEN, a merger of the two movements would be advantageous, especially since the most liberal count of Israelis who consider themselves Reform or Conservative does not exceed a few thousand. Why fight over essentially the same constituents by opening competing synagogues in the same cities and towns? Why have two educational campuses? In merging the two movements, neither one would need to give up its ideological worldview or ritual lifestyle. Compromise would demand that the Reform movement adjust to the Conservative movement's halachic leanings, but more significantly, Conservative rabbis would have to adjust their ideology to reality. And here we will find much to build upon, because the religious practices of the majority of Reform and Conservative Jews in Israel (and abroad) are virtually indistinguishable. Yes, the Reform movement views halacha as nonbinding, which is far more honest than the Conservative approach that surreptitiously "unbinds" halacha. But the basic fact is that both movements in Israel hold equal religious positions on marriage, divorce, conversion and patrilineality. Many Israelis are facing crises of faith and are seeking answers to questions regarding the efficacy of a Jewish state that should reflect the best of Jewish moral values. The two movements should pool their religious, educational and financial resources so that they might make an impact upon Israeli society, which is in need of alternative spiritual nourishment to Orthodoxy's rigidity and paternalism - an alternative that is creative, progressive, inclusive and responsive to the dramatic events that continually confront our country.