In search of a brave Reform rabbi

I’m looking for the first Reform rabbi who will once again reform – Reform Judaism.

August 11, 2018 23:16
4 minute read.
Reading a torah scroll

Reading a torah scroll. (photo credit: INGIMAGE)


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I find myself, an Orthodox rabbi in Israel, sitting and contemplating the upcoming holiday season, with an unorthodox request, or to be more exact, a plea, to my Reform brethren in the Diaspora: Please stick to the Jewish story!

There is a desire to stay relevant and to satisfy the needs of the liberal community in action and in message, and as a result of that, the rabbi often tries to adopt an overreaching universal agenda instead of the particularistic Jewish agenda. In the last decade, the Jewish calendar events in the Reform communities are looking more and more like a Democratic National Conference agenda dissected into themes and slogans and less and less like Jewish holidays.

In many Reform communities, the Jewish calendar has been replaced by “The Jewish Social Justice Calendar of the Year.”

• On Rosh Hashanah, we find ourselves transforming the Netaneh Tokef prayer into a reflection on the hunger in Africa.

• On Sukkot, we contemplate the meaning of “shelter from the storm” following hurricane Matthew.

• On Purim we raise awareness for the #metoo movement.

• Passover is the playground for social justice warriors. Robert Bank from AJWS rewrote the story of Egypt, and I quote from the Social Justice Haggadah: “We connect our story with those of people who suffer from a range of issues that matter deeply today: refugee crises and genocide, global hunger, poverty, violence against women and LGBT people, and the persecution of minorities.”

Seriously? This is supposed to be our story; the story of our family. You are making it not a celebration of our story but a celebration of their story. The Haggadah has become an affirmation of every other type of revolutionary liberation in the world; where is the story of my ancestors?

Imagine you are celebrating the birthday of your grandfather, and you write him a birthday card:

“Dear Grandpa,
“Congratulations! This card is a celebration of all the old people in the world who have reached the milestone of turning 80! After all, there are so many old people in the world who don’t have family to celebrate with. In addition, we are also commemorating all those who because of poverty and illness did not reach the age of wisdom.”

Your very own living, breathing Grandpa is now buried under a hump of universalism.

The over-emphasis on universal goals and the galvanizing of the Jewish Holidays to promote different political agendas cloaked in pseudo- religion is harmful to the identity of the congregation itself. As historian Tevi Troy wryly observes, “All of the emphasis on ecological sustainability does not appear to be doing much to promote Jewish sustainability”.

The Jewish story was always comprised of two historical memories: long-term and short-term – but both of them Jewish! The long-term memory of the Exodus and the splitting of the sea and the short-term memory of the Jews who broke free from the Iron Curtain or who walked hundreds of miles from Addis Ababa to Israel intertwined into one harmonious particularistic Jewish tale of slavery and freedom; oppressor and oppressed. The long-term memory of the victory of a small band of zealous Maccabees combined with the short-term memory of the Six Day War, where an army of a small young country pushed back seven enemy armies. The stories all had Jewish protagonists.

But what happens when a people starts to suffer from collective amnesia? Similar to medical amnesiacs, there is an erosion of both long-term and short-term memory.

Elliott Abrams, in Mosaic, identified the change in American Judaism as the “moving away from Jewish religious affiliation,” and hence the loss of long-term memory. In a published response to the Abrams essay, Daniel Gordis added another factor: “the gradual erosion of communal memory, especially of the Holocaust era and the history of the State of Israel itself” – hence, the erosion of short-term memory. What came first is hard to tell, but they are both intertwined. Reform Judaism is starting to suffer from total historic amnesia. The children do not know the story of their ancestors, nor do they resemble their own grandparents!

The story was once the bedrock of Jewish continuity; Israel’s particular story. How we celebrate the story and how strict we are with customs and observance was once the distinction between Orthodox and more liberal religious Jewish denominations, but now the chasm is greater. The Jewish story is being deleted from our collective memory!

The holidays were always the platform for telling the Jewish story as it is. Not more. Not less. It was sometimes connected to a current particular Jewish story, but it was never watered down to a universal liberation or environmental story. It was inspired but never diluted.

And so my quest begins to find the first brave Reform rabbi who will want to maneuver this big ship of Liberal Judaism back to the safe shores of Jewish continuity. Let the Jewish holidays stand out for what they are: a celebration of a very unique tribe of people and their spectacular story. I’m looking for the first Reform rabbi who will once again reform – Reform Judaism.


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