The Reform movement's religious reductionism

Judaism isn't synonymous with 'progressive' politics.

The reduction of Judaism to a political position roughly identical with the editorial page of The New York Times constitutes one of the greatest threats to American Jewish continuity. That reductionism was on full display at the recent convention of the American Reform movement. Much of the press coverage of the convention focused on passage of a resolution against war in Iraq. "American Jews and all Americans are profoundly critical of this war," said Eric Yoffie, president of the Union for Reform Judaism, in a press release announcing the resolution. The press release concluded with a quotation from navy doctor Dr. Michael Rankin: "This is not a just war." In an accompanying op-ed piece, Yoffie expressed his "outrage" over the war. Nor was Iraq the only subject on the agenda. The delegates voted overwhelmingly to oppose Senate confirmation of Judge Samuel Alito, Jr. to the Supreme Court. While acknowledging Alito's intelligence, integrity and judicial temperament, he was deemed too great a threat to "choice and women's rights." The convention also passed resolutions in support of the Millennium Development Goals to end global poverty (no resolution that the lamb lie down with the wolf was introduced), endorsed voting rights for the citizens of Washington DC, and supported workers' rights to organize. In his major address, Yoffie lashed out at the Christian Right and implicitly linked those who oppose rights for homosexual couples to Nazis by pointing to the Nazi persecution of homosexuals. All in all, the proceedings were fully consistent with the position expressed by David Saperstein, head of the movement's Religious Action Center. Saperstein once told a friend of mine that "social justice" is the fundamental tenet of Reform Judaism. Though the definition of "social justice" evolves, he explained, in America today it primarily refers to "women's right to choose" and "homosexual rights." For the record, I disagree on policy grounds with the Iraq resolution. I do not know Michael Rankin's theory of "just war," but I suspect an overwhelming majority of the 25 million citizens freed from Saddam Hussein's claws would disagree with his characterization of Operation Iraqi Freedom as unjust. (The resolution glosses over the end of Saddam's tyranny en passant.) The resolution cites the ongoing deaths of American servicemen and Iraqi civilians as if they are by themselves a complete argument for speedy American withdrawal. But the number of Iraqis killed and the chances of Iraq dissolving into separate cantons (another of the resolution's criticisms of the war) would only increase in the absence of American troops. The jihadists, disgruntled Ba'athists and Sunnis embittered by the empowerment of the Shi'ite majority would be better able to go on blowing up their fellow Iraqis after an American withdrawal. As Abu Musad al-Zarqawi made clear in his intercepted February 2004 letter to Osama bin Laden, the great enemy of these groups is democracy. Suicide bombings targeting the Shi'ite population and designed to trigger civil war are their chosen means of thwarting a democratic Iraq. If American forces are forced to withdraw by domestic political pressure, the big winners would be Zarqawi and his legions of suicide bombers. And his tactics will be emulated around the world. YET I would not maintain that the Torah dictates one clear position on the various policy debates over American policy in Iraq. The same cannot be said with respect to much of the Reform movement's "social justice" agenda. Presumably Eric Yoffie would also condemn as "hateful" the Torah's explicit condemnation of male homosexual acts as an "abomination." And it is hard to imagine an idea more antithetical to the Torah than that women or men are the absolute owners of their bodies, free to do with them what they wish. The Torah repeatedly describes how God took us out of the slavery of Egypt in order to become His servants and accept His laws. The Reform movement's resolution opposing confirmation of Judge Alito quotes a 19-year-old college freshwoman, who informs us, "Our tradition teaches us that we must not be silent." The question, however, is where her "tradition" teaches her to look when she decides what noises to make. Not to Judaism's sacred texts, one surmises from the fact that only 7% of American Jews view the study of such texts as important to their Judaism. Nor to her temple, which only 2.5% of Reform Jews attend even once a month. Rather she will be taught to look to herself. "Personal freedom of choice" is the bedrock of Reform Judaism, declares a pamphlet of the Central Council of American Rabbis (Reform). But a Judaism self-defined by each individual Jew is essentially contentless. And that void will typically be filled by the latest political orthodoxy. Shortly before his death, Jacob Petuchowksi, longtime professor of theology at Hebrew Union College (Reform), wrote, "Because American Reform Judaism no longer finds it necessary to justify itself before God and Jewish religious tradition, its abject submissions to any and all modern fads are boringly predictable." A Judaism reduced to the command to express one's political opinions loudly offers no plausible reason why the Jewish people should continue to exist. Judaism defined as the vector sum of the individual opinions of all Jews at any given point in time leaves no room for what Jack Wertheimer calls "the distinctive commandments, beliefs and values for the sake of which Jews over the millennia ... have willingly, and gratefully, set themselves apart." And a Judaism incapable of distinguishing itself from the zeitgeist can provide its young with no reason not to intermarry. That Jews are disproportionately represented on the left wing of the Democratic Party is hardly an argument for marrying another Jew. For if liberal politics - or any particular political vision, for that matter - are the ultimate measure of virtue, why not cut directly to the chase and marry someone who shares one's politics? And that is why the long series of political resolutions at the Reform movement's Houston convention bodes so poorly for the future of American Jewry.