Religious Strains

Religious Affairs: Reform tries to figure out why it failed in Israel.

ark reform feat 224 (photo credit: )
ark reform feat 224
(photo credit: )
As first glance, the Reform Movement's failure to make significant inroads in Israeli society is counterintuitive. The Reform Movement has had a presence here since before the establishment of the state. In its Pittsburgh Platform of 1937, the movement, which began in Germany as rabidly anti-Zionist and anti-particularistic, formally committed itself to the centrality of the State of Israel for the Jewish people. In North America it is the single largest stream of Judaism, representing 35 percent of the Jewish population. The majority of Jews living here seem to identity with the type of Judaism practiced by their Reform brothers and sisters. The liberalism, openness and flexibility offered by Reform Judaism should appeal to a society that by and large has rejected Orthodoxy, which is widely perceived as irrelevant to modernity, irrational and overly stringent. The past success of the Shinui Party is evidence of this. Nevertheless, Reform Judaism has failed to take off. The reasons for this failure were discussed this week during a conference sponsored by the Van Leer Jerusalem Institute entitled: "Contemporary Reform Judaism - Sociology, Education and Theology." The fact that a serious Israeli research institute like Van Leer decided to devote two days of panels to Reform Judaism might be seen by some as a kind of victory for the movement. But at the same time there is an element of disappointment as well. As Rabbi Eric Yoffie, head of the Reform Movement in North America, pointed out, this is the first time in the country's history that the Reform Movement was deemed worthy of an academic conference. This can be seen as a testament to its lack of relevance. Prof. Naftali Rothenberg, who organized the conference for Van Leer, said that there were no economic incentives involved with the decision to focus on Reform Judaism. "Funding was raised privately without aid from the Reform Movement," he said. "And many of the speakers, including professors who belong to the movement, were very critical of Reform Judaism." IN THE concluding session, Dr. Asher Cohen of Bar-Ilan University, Yehuda Maimaran, director of the Morasha Institute, and Dr. Aviad Hacohen, dean of Sha'arei Mishpat School of Law, discussed the reasons for Reform Judaism's irrelevance for the vast majority of Israelis. Maimaran made a basic distinction between two types of Israelis: the traditionalist, usually Sephardi, Jew and the Reform Jew. The traditional "Masorti" Israeli, he argued, is basically fundamentalist in outlook. He or she accepts in principle the veracity of Orthodoxy and its demands as God-given. In practice, the traditional Israeli may behave very similarly to the Reform Jew. Both drive on Shabbat, both attend synagogue, both pray, both watch TV or attend a sports event. But there is a fundamental difference, Maimaran said. The traditional Jew never denies the authenticity of Orthodoxy, nor does he abandon loyalty to Halacha. He just has trouble translating his beliefs into practice. The traditional Jew fails to overcome life's temptations. He resolves himself to imperfection and a certain lack of coherence. A yawning gap opens between internalized religious ideals and the realities of day-to-day existence. Sometimes the traditional Jew even looks for, and finds, justification within Orthodoxy for his religious dissonance. Man makes mistakes. There is no righteous man who does only good and never sins. In contrast, Reform Judaism begins with the premise that individuals are entitled to personal choice. Personal autonomy is built into the system of norms governing a reformed style of Judaism. Instead of living in constant conflict between norms and practice, the norms are revamped to reflect historical or cultural changes called modernity. While the traditional Jew derives his feelings of religious obligations from customs passed on to him by family, the Reform Jew is more text oriented, said Maimaran. Reform Judaism developed a systematic approach to deriving practice from text which was directly influenced by modern Western culture. The end result is that there is no gap or tension between law and practice. Although he did not say so, Maimaran implied that Reform Judaism in Israel was a decidedly Ashkenazi phenomenon. Anat Hoffman, executive director of the Israel Religious Action Center, the legal arm of the Reform Movement here, said so explicitly. She said that Sephardim who belonged to the Reform Movement tended to come from "certain socioeconomic strata" and from "certain neighborhoods in Israel like Ramat Aviv." Hoffman's comments, which were based on a survey conducted for the movement by a professional pollster, triggered a vocal uproar from the audience. "How ugly of you to say such a thing," shouted one woman who appeared to be Sephardi. Ashkenazi-looking participants in the audience nodded in agreement. Rothenberg commented afterward that there was a wide divide between the traditional Sephardi Jew, no matter how educated, and the Reform Jew. "Reform Jews are overwhelmingly Ashkenazi and they tend to express themselves in abstract, theological and philosophical terms. In contrast, the traditional Sephardi Jew, no matter how secular he or she is, has a more emotional, instinctive approach to Judaism, to faith." Meanwhile, Bar-Ilan's Cohen did a quick but thorough survey of the various segments of Israeli society, and explained why none of them has warmed up to Reform Judaism. Obviously, haredi Judaism is totally out of the question, argued Cohen, but even modern Orthodoxy is not attracted by the Reform Movement because it has adopted many of its own innovations to adjust itself to modernity. Egalitarian synagogues, such as Kehilat Yedidya and Kehilat Shira Hadasha, that give nearly equal roles to both men and women, make it unnecessary for a liberal-minded modern Orthodox to abandon Orthodoxy, he said. Not only is Reform unnecessary, but there is even a conscious effort made by the modern Orthodox to distance themselves from Reform. Leaders of modern Orthodox synagogues might institute innovations that are clear deviations from normative Orthodoxy. For instance, they might allow women to perform the public reading of the Torah. But these leaders are careful to stress that the changes made should by no means be construed as "reforms," as they do not want to be accused of being Reform Jews. Totally secular Israelis are also not prime candidates to become Reform Jews, said Cohen. They do not want anything to do with God. Jewish renewal groups, such as Nigun Halev in Nahalal or Beit Tefila Israelit, are popular among secular Israelis because they tend to leave God out of the equation. Cohen basically agreed with Maimaran's assessment of traditional, Sephardi Jews. He said that in a series of personal interviews conducted with secular Israelis, many interviewees said that while they personally did not want religion, if they ever changed their mind, they would choose Orthodoxy, which is perceived as the "real thing." Hoffman, Rabbi Gilad Kariv, a legal adviser for the Reform Movement, and others rebutted that the movement's potential for growth was being hampered by decades of Orthodox monopoly. They also disputed Cohen's claim that secular Israelis rejected the God factor in Reform Judaism. YOFFIE, WHO was invited to make the concluding remarks, called for a free market of religious approaches that did not discriminate against non-Orthodox Judaism. "History has shown that every monopoly, whether in business or in religion, is doomed to failure. So the Orthodox monopoly cannot continue. Besides, Orthodoxy is not the answer for everyone. "And without Judaism, I cannot be sure of the future of the Jewish state," he warned. "If an Israeli is asked, 'Why do you stay here?' he'll have a hard time answering if he has no roots in Judaism. I refuse to believe that this generation of Jews is the first to be born that does not need Judaism."