Reform Judaism in Britain

Reform Judaism has faced a struggle against the established, comfortable, middle-of-the-road, non-haredi Orthodoxy that represented Judaism to most of the natiion.

Rabbi Laura Janner-Klausner (center) joins a vigil against human rights violations in Iraq outside Westminster Abbey with the Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby (second from left), Imam Shaykh Ibrahim Mogra (second from right) and Sayeeda Warsi (right) in 2014 (photo credit: REUTERS)
Rabbi Laura Janner-Klausner (center) joins a vigil against human rights violations in Iraq outside Westminster Abbey with the Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby (second from left), Imam Shaykh Ibrahim Mogra (second from right) and Sayeeda Warsi (right) in 2014
(photo credit: REUTERS)
On July 9, 2020, Sephardi Chief Rabbi Yitzhak Yosef issued an all-out attack on Reform Judaism, while also criticizing the practice of women studying Jewish law at an advanced level. Reform Judaism he described as “fake” and “falsified Judaism,” and Reform Jews as more of a lost cause than secular Jews.

A secular Jew, he said, could be taught and brought back to Torah observance. “A Reform Jew?” he asked, “nothing will help... When everything is fake there is no chance that they will return to Torah observance. Go and speak with people who have come back to Torah observance, you won’t find one Reform Jew among them... A Reform Jew remains a Reform Jew. They have a new Torah.” Britain’s Reform movement issued a riposte.

“Reform Judaism is disappointed, although sadly not surprised, to read the latest comments of Israel’s Sephardi Chief Rabbi Yitzhak Yosef regarding women’s Torah study and Reform Judaism. Whilst there are many differences in Jewish thought and practice around the world, as there have always been, we must remain one Am Yisrael. We are proud of the immense contribution our female rabbis and lay leaders make to our communities. They are a testament to the undeniable fact that women are just as capable as men in this and all fields.” And indeed, Britain’s Reform movement affirms an uncompromising commitment to gender equality and inclusion, and seeks to engage with unaffiliated Jews and Jews with non-Jewish partners.

From its very introduction to Britain in the mid-19th century, Reform Judaism has faced a struggle against the established, comfortable, middle-of-the-road, non-haredi Orthodoxy that represented Judaism to most of the nation’s Jewish community at the time – and still does. Despite some notable moves toward a better relationship – and the gap has both narrowed and widened over the years − the religious gulf between orthodoxy, in however attenuated a form, and any other concept of what Judaism is, or could be, yawns as wide as ever.

“We talk instinctively of ‘the Anglo-Jewish community,’” writes Geoffrey Alderman, in his seminal Modern British Jewry, last updated in 1998 and in urgent need of a new edition. “There is today no such thing, but rather a series of communities some of which overlap to a greater or lesser extent.”

Judaism in Great Britain is its own thing. Comparisons are possible with some elements of US Judaism, but there is no real equivalence except perhaps within the strictly Orthodox tradition. An analysis of the UK’s 280,000-strong Jewish community reveals at least six varieties of Judaism functioning in its 450 synagogues. Non-haredi Orthodoxy is practiced by more than half, and Reform Judaism in about 20%. Strict Orthodoxy is observed in some 13.5%, and that is followed by Liberal, Masorti and Sephardi Judaism.

Nomenclature can be confusing. American Reform is not equivalent to the UK Reform movement, but more akin to Britain’s Liberal Judaism. UK Reform is comparable to America’s Conservative Judaism, but with a number of distinct characteristics.

The UK Reform movement identifies itself as cherishing both Jewish tradition and what it identifies as “Judaism’s ability to evolve in response to the contemporary world.” It cites the towering rabbinical figures of the ancient Sanhedrin as examples of a reforming tradition within Judaism which has been lost. It regards the Mishna and Talmud as evidence of their striving to adapt Judaism to ever-changing conditions.

“The demise of the Sanhedrin in the fifth century,” writes Rabbi Dr. Jonathan Romain, a leading figure in Britain’s Reform movement, “robbed Judaism of its dynamic reforming process. The result was an increasing stultification within the faith, and the gulf between Jewish Law and everyday reality widened. Conformity became the hallmark of religious authenticity.” He writes that the rabbis of the Sanhedrin had “reformed Judaism to such an extent that what emerged was no longer recognizable as Biblical Judaism and became known as Rabbinic Judaism.” The yawning gulf separating Reform from Orthodoxy is explicable by one indisputable fact: Every one of those transcendent rabbinical figures who formed the Sanhedrin, without exception, regarded the Biblical basis of the religion they strove to clarify and interpret as literally the word of God. Reform Judaism does not.

The key, says Romain, is “what happened at Mount Sinai. For the Orthodox, it was the revelation of God given once and for all time. Reform adheres to the notion of Progressive Revelation: that the will of God is constantly unfolding and each generation has to hear God’s voice in its own time.” That proposition, in orthodox eyes, is the very essence of sacrilege. It explains why the religious chasm between orthodox and reform Judaism can never be bridged.

But we are talking about Great Britain, the nation famed for tolerance, compromise and good manners. Surely some modus vivendi must have emerged from the decades of squabble, if not on the religious front, at least on the communal?

Indeed it did, following an incident that shook the UK’s Jewish community to the core, and threatened to topple the early chief rabbinate of Jonathan Sacks.

Rabbi Hugo Gryn, a leading Reform rabbi and a Holocaust survivor, won a national reputation for himself among Jews and non-Jews alike, largely through his broadcasts on the prestigious radio programs, Today and The Moral Maze. To the public at large Gryn represented Judaism at its best, and the public response to his death in 1996 was overwhelming. Tributes filled the media. As his daughter, Naomi, later recorded: “He was mourned and celebrated as a national hero.” Sacks, as he then was, had been chief rabbi of the United Hebrew Congregations of the Commonwealth – to give the position its full title – for a mere five years. His announcement that he would not be attending Gryn’s funeral was met by the British public in general, and by much of the Jewish community, with shock, astonishment and not a little distress. He delegated his wife and a member of staff to represent him at the service.

The media overflowed with comment, but the scandal was far from over. At the subsequent memorial service, sponsored by the Board of Deputies of British Jews − the body representative of the whole Jewish community – Sacks was present and spoke of Gryn as an honest and courageous Holocaust survivor, but never referred to him as “Rabbi.” The mere fact of Sacks’s presence at the memorial event was too much for the Union of Orthodox Hebrew Congregations. Even though it does not recognize the authority of the Chief Rabbi, it rebuked him for attending and speaking. In response he wrote what could only be described as a letter of apology to the head of the organization, in which he criticized Reform Judaism as a “false grouping” that should not be given recognition, and described Gryn as “amongst those who destroy the faith.” That letter was doubtless intended as a private communication, but The Jewish Chronicle obtained a copy and published it. The furor intensified, calls for Sacks’s resignation grew louder, and British Jewry seemed in danger of blowing itself apart.

It was in this febrile atmosphere that, in November 1998, the leaders of the various Jewish religious groupings came together and pledged themselves unreservedly to pursue communal peace and cooperation. As a result, what became known as the Stanmore Accords was signed by the leaders of the Orthodox, Reform, Liberal and Masorti Jewish movements. As part of this positive effort to foster harmony within the Jewish community, they agreed that non-Orthodox rabbis would not take part in Orthodox services, and vice versa, but that members of liberal Jewish movements could be called up to the Torah during Orthodox services.

The spirit of cooperation on issues that affected the Jewish community was strengthened during the years that Britain’s Labour opposition was led by Jeremy Corbyn, who failed signally to deal effectively with antisemitism in his party. However, when a new general election loomed, Reform’s senior rabbi, Laura Naomi Janner-Klausner, described the Stanmore Accords as “moribund,” and called for them to be refreshed.

She was no doubt aware that the Reform Movement’s general election manifesto, recently issued, encompassed aspects of social policy not envisaged in 1998 when the accords were signed. Modern Reform diverges most sharply from Orthodox practice in relation to the “woke” approach to societal and communal life of the last decade or so. The manifesto document endorsed such policies as the inclusion in all schools of sex education encompassing lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender inclusive relationships, and advocated funding for problems disproportionately affecting the LGBT+ community including homelessness and mental health.

Reform Judaism is, by its own definition, liberal and inclusive. Just as it welcomes female rabbis and lay leaders, it finds no difficulty in ordaining LGBT clergy or in conducting LGBT marriages. It includes women in forming a minyan, welcomes non-Jewish spouses and, since 2015, recognizes Jews by patrilineal descent. Many of these concepts were never contemplated back in 1998.

Janner-Klausner has been Reform’s senior rabbi since 2011. When Margaret Thatcher, Britain’s first woman prime minister, but a Conservative, died in 2013, Janner-Klausner – oddly paralleling the Hugo Gryn affair – refused to attend her funeral. Thatcher’s gender could not have been the issue; it must have been her politics.

Janner-Klausner, 57, recently announced that she would be stepping down from the position of Reform’s senior rabbi on October 1, 2020. The movement is in the process of selecting a replacement. Only time will tell whether the Stanmore Accords are robust enough to withstand a “refreshment” process, and remain the basis for intra-communal good will within Britain’s Jewish community.