Stop the bashing

The top rabbi of the Reform movement makes Agudath Israel's Avi Shafran a modest proposal.

reform stained glass 88 (photo credit: )
reform stained glass 88
(photo credit: )
Rabbi Avi Shafran's article comparing the Union for Reform Judaism's convention in Houston with Agudath Israel of America's convention in Stamford, Connecticut, (The Jerusalem Post, December 5) became, to the surprise of no one who follows Shafran's writings, yet one more opportunity to bash Reform Jews and Reform Judaism. Because the Reform movement has no desire to participate in the spectacle of Jew pummeling Jew, we rarely respond to articles by Shafran that are written for the American Jewish press. However, since some of the Post's readership may not be familiar with North American Jewish realities, I offer, with reluctance, these comments on Shafran's essay. It is interesting that his attack on Reform is presented mostly in generalities. He says that the Reform movement is "hemorrhaging… members"; that it offers "platitudes" but not "true direction"; that it, unlike the "original" Judaism of Agudath Israel, refuses to take Judaism seriously; and that Orthodox Jews possess "spiritual wealth" that Reform Jews do not possess. The impression that one gets from his column is that Reform is withering away while Orthodoxy dominates the North American scene. FIRST, A reality check. Reform Judaism is vibrant and growing, and is by far the largest of the North American religious streams. Furthermore, in the open and pluralistic religious environment of North America, where no movement enjoys state-conferred privileges and where all streams compete on a level playing field, the overwhelming majority of North American Jews have chosen not to embrace the approach to Jewish tradition that Shafran has to offer. Fewer than 15% of North American Jews identify as Orthodox, and Shafran's particular brand of Orthodoxy constitutes only a modest percentage of that number. It is probably not a coincidence that in discussing conventions, Shafran gave no attendance figures. More than 5,000 people attended the Reform convention, while it is safe to say that only a fraction of that number were at Agudath Israel's meeting. Do not misunderstand me. I have great respect for all of the religious streams of the Jewish world, Orthodoxy included. As a religious Jew, I am delighted when any authentic stream of religious Judaism develops vibrant institutions and broad appeal. Orthodoxy in particular brings to the table ritual seriousness and a commitment to Torah learning that is an inspiration to all segments of the Jewish people. Nonetheless, the simple fact remains that the strict halachic observance proposed by Shafran has never appealed to more than a small minority of the North American Jewish community, and there is no evidence that it ever will. A different blend of modernity, tradition and creative religious thinking will be required if our community is to survive and grow, and Reform Judaism - along with the other non-Orthodox streams - provides that alternative. Indeed, Reform Judaism has in many respects become mainstream North American udaism. At its Houston convention, the Reform movement dealt with a range of issues intended to strengthen its synagogues and build its appeal to the young and the marginally committed. The delegates engaged in heartfelt, enthusiastic worship, tested a new siddur, and experimented with a variety of new worship formats. In addition, they studied Torah with the leading rabbis and teachers of our movement and learned about new on-line Torah study opportunities; talked about how to increase synagogue membership by developing their congregations as face-to-face communities of intimacy and warmth; discussed special outreach efforts to empty nesters and to single parents; and considered how non-Jewish spouses of synagogue members can be encouraged to convert to Judaism. TRUE TO our liberal traditions, the delegates built a house near the convention site for a homeless family. They also continued our post-Katrina hurricane relief efforts, which included establishing a food and supplies distribution center in Mississippi and raising more than $3 million for both Jewish and non-Jewish hurricane victims. And we devoted time to considering and approving in concept a new curriculum for young people on sexuality. The curriculum was based on the premise that there is a middle way between the absolutes of total abstinence from premarital sex on the one hand and non-judgmental sex education on the other. While emphatically opposing sex for teenagers and sex for its own sake, we took into account that most Reform Jews do not marry until their late 20s and are not likely to refrain from sex until that time. Therefore, we talked about a Jewish ethic of sexuality for adults based on the premise that we are creatures of God and that holiness is attained through loving relationships that do not lead to exploitation and hurt. We are well aware of the problems that we face and that all religious streams face in building Jewish religious commitment in a profoundly secular society. But we are convinced that the core principles of Reform Judaism - belief in a developing and growing tradition, equality between men and women in religious life, tikkun olam (repair of the world), and drawing boundaries in a way that includes rather than excludes - are the key to developing a large core of praying, studying, observing Jews. Rabbi Shafran may or may not agree with the above, but I have a modest suggestion for him to consider. While open and honest theological debate is healthy and welcome, the constant attacks on Reform Judaism that he produces for the Jewish press serve no purpose other than to inflame and incite. Therefore, let us all declare a moratorium on bashing other religious movements in Judaism and let us devote the time instead to the study of Torah. The writer is president of the Union for Reform Judaism.