Merge the movements

There is little difference between Reform and Conservative Judaism in Israel.

reform jews 224.88 aj (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
reform jews 224.88 aj
(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
On Simhat Torah, we begin our Torah reading anew, reminding us of that great revelatory moment we celebrate on Shavuot when both the Written Law (Torah) and the Oral Law (Talmud) were given to us by God through Moses at Mount Sinai. For Orthodox Jews, at Sinai both laws were revealed and remain immutable since that Divine event. For Reform Jews, 'revelation' is not a single moment in time, but an ongoing process. Unbound by the restrictions of Halacha, Reform Jews feel free to adapt Judaism so that it can confront natural wonders, scientific advancements, historical developments and the sociological machinations of a rapidly changing world. Conservative Jews, in practice, follow this Reform formula, but for them, any changes within Halacha are viewed as a natural outgrowth of 'The Tradition' and not a departure from it. Indeed, Conservative Jews would claim to be the authentic heirs of Rabbinic Judaism. But, this is merely nit-picking. There really is little difference in substance between Reform and Conservative Judaism in Israel. Now that virtually every Conservative synagogue in Israel is egalitarian, and its seminary ordains women, a main barrier to the unification of the two movements has been removed. And, while Conservative Jews generally felt that a formal affiliation with the Reform movement would minimize their chances of gaining official recognition by the Orthodox establishment - claiming that they are genuinely 'traditional' - the principle of the equality of the sexes in carrying out religious functions, which now binds Reform and Conservative Jews together, should bury once and for all any Conservative illusions of being accepted by the male-dominated Orthodox rabbinate. Ironically, Orthodoxy is more offended by what it considers the Conservative stream's pretension at portraying itself as 'traditional,' and therefore is less likely to accord it any status. Reform harbors no such affectations. Since the differences between the two movements are primarily in form and not in content, why don't they unite? It would seem to be in their self-interest. After all, both movements in the Jewish state are still marginal religious streams, comprised largely, with rare exception, of Anglo-Jewish populations. In fact, there are probably no more than 5,000 dues-paying members of Reform and Conservative synagogues throughout the country. It is convenient for us to blame our unequal treatment by the government for our limited numbers. But, it is highly doubtful that if we were granted full rights tomorrow our membership would grow significantly. We already know that those who have passed through our bar/bat mitzva "factories," those who have been married by our rabbis and those who send their children to our kindergartens rarely join our congregations. While some of my Conservative rabbinic colleagues claim that the Reform rabbinate is far too religiously liberal, the truth is that more unites Conservative and Reform rabbis in Israel than separates them, both politically and religiously. For example, almost the entire leadership of the Reform and no small number in the Conservative rabbinate are members of the socially progressive Rabbis for Human Rights. None will perform a mixed marriage. Their conversion process is identical, and their liturgical theology is virtually indistinguishable. Also, there already is much cross-fertilization of the movements. At the Hebrew Union College (HUC), the Reform seminary in Jerusalem, there are a number of Conservative rabbis on the teaching staff. The rabbi of Jerusalem's leading Reform synagogue is a graduate of the Jewish Theological Seminary (Conservative). A prominent leader of the Conservative Movement in Haifa is a graduate of HUC; and, for a period of time, the rabbi at the Reform Movement's Kibbutz Yahel was a Conservative rabbi. SO, WHY would the Conservative stream consider opening a synagogue in Modi'in, when there already exists there a thriving Reform one under the leadership of a dynamic Reform rabbi? Our fledgling movements would do better by joining forces than by competing for essentially the same population. Further, the support for both movements from our Diaspora brothers and sisters is minimal. The Conservative movement dismissed its president, and has no plans to replace him. Why? - because financial donations are not forthcoming from their supporters abroad. Such is also the case with the Reform movement. A national campaign two years ago for every Reform household in North America to contribute a pitiful $18 toward the Israel Reform Movement has still not gotten off the ground. Merging together certain congregations in cities and towns throughout the country - congregations barely able to support themselves - would not only consolidate our financial resources, but would also double our creative energies, as would the combining of our two seminaries. Indeed, having one seminary which could accommodate the varying views of our tradition would strengthen our rabbinic leadership. Having Conservative leaders join together with the Reform's Religious Action Center would increase our political influence, as together we could fight not only for our own equal rights, but also for a more humane and decent society for all. It is an uphill struggle for non-Orthodox religious streams of Judaism to gain inroads into Israeli society. But, one thing is certain: Operating separately diminishes the chances of Reform and Conservative Judaism from entering the Israeli religious mainstream. However, working together as one unified movement might, at the least, secure us a place on the religious playing field. The writer, a Reform rabbi, is the author of Fifty Ways to be Jewish.