Middle Israel: On Reform Judaism and Christian Zionism

While Reform Judaism now shuns Christian preachers, Orthodox Jews are waltzing with them.

amotz asa el 88 (photo credit: )
amotz asa el 88
(photo credit: )
So, Reform Judaism is now afraid of Christianity. The leader of the proud, rich and mercurial denomination that in the past abandoned Hebrew, abolished circumcision, moved Shabbat to Sunday and served pork at a rabbinical ordination ceremony has now cautioned American Jews not to cooperate with America's Christian Zionists. Talk about irony. While Reform Judaism - until recently the wellspring of interfaith dialogue, hyperactivity and naivete - now shuns Christian preachers like John Hagee, Pat Robertson and Rod Parsley, Orthodox Jews like Knesset member Benny Elon are waltzing with them. And all this is happening less than half-a-century after Reform greeted with theological enthusiasm the Vatican's concession that we didn't kill Jesus, while Orthodox thinkers, led by Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik, cautioned against a lowering of the walls between the faiths. Some Reform Jews at the time were so infatuated with Christianity that United American Hebrew Congregations president Maurice Eisendrath called for a reciprocal reconsideration of Judaism's understanding of Jesus. Now this spirit of ecumenism, like so many others among Reform's assorted historic experimentations with theological striptease, is giving way to a new sobriety, in line with Reform leader Nelson Glueck's 1963 cry to Eisendrath that Reform was not prepared "to put Jesus in a central role as a great rabbinical leader." LIKE ALL analogies, this one, too, is unfair. For one thing, Vatican II was purely about theology, while the concern over Christian Zionism is also political. Second, the interlocutor back then was Catholicism and its hundreds of millions of believers the world over, whereas what now is at stake is a much smaller number of Christians, all of them Protestant and American. Moreover, the current situation comes against the backdrop of explosive tension between Islam and the West - a factor that hardly existed back in the 1960s, when Arab enmity to Israel came in a secular wrapping. One cannot take lightly Reform leader Rabbi Eric Yoffie's warning that a quip like Pastor Rod Parsley's that "Islam must be destroyed," is problematic to us Jews. Even Richard the Lion Heart realized (well, eventually) that Islam should not be destroyed. Hagee is more tolerant than Parsley, insisting that he is only focused on radical Islam, and also denies having called Catholicism "the anti-Christ." Fair enough; the question of which Christian is or isn't an anti-Christ is really none of us Jews' business. But the problem with Evangelicals is that - just like the rest of monotheism's fundamentalists - they interpret current events with only one eye attached to reality, as the other is patched by this or that ancient text. This is why Jewish messianics feel so good in Evangelicals' company. When witnessing an earthquake, a flood or a volcanic eruption they share a pretension to explain God's wrath; that is what made some Israeli rabbis attribute the tsunami of winter '05 in South Asia to the impending departure from Gaza, and that is what made some American Evangelicals attribute the Katrina disaster to a gay parade for which New Orleans was preparing when it got buried underwater. Such "insights" are dangerous to faith itself, as they might foster fatalism. Even more dangerous is this attitude's treatment of the future, which might result in the eruption of horrible wars for reasons that have less to do with geopolitical realism and more to do with textual literalism. And this, of course, is before one takes stock of the suspicion that the Evangelicals' embrace of Israel is part of a belief that on the eve of the Second Coming all Jews will convert. For all these reasons, Rabbi Yoffie's speech last week in Cincinnati was well said, maybe even long overdue. However, Yoffie had one more thing to tell the Jews who were out to tango with Evangelicals - the one thing in which Reform Judaism is itself evangelical. Reform Jewry, he said, cannot cooperate with Christian Zionists because they oppose the two-state solution. Here you lose us, Rabbi Yoffie. WHAT, REFORM can't cooperate with Israel's supporters unless they accept Yoffie's views about the Middle East conflict? Isn't that a little - pardon the expression - dogmatic? In this one regard, the problem is not Christian Zionism but Reform Judaism. Not that the two-state solution is relevant or irrelevant, wise or unwise, dead or alive; who knows, maybe peace will arrive in our time after all, and the formula on which it will be based will be Yoffie's. It's simply that in doing this Yoffie does just what he is asking his adversaries not to do, namely mix faith and politics. Now Yoffie says that cooperating with Christian Zionists will put off Jewish youths who do not share Hagee's hard-line take on the Middle East conflict. Fair enough, but there is also a flipside to that. Did Reform ever wonder how many youths it may be losing every year because they have their own view about the conflict? Here in Israel there clearly is a relationship between Reform's historic marginality and its insistence on taking sides in our endless, and futile, territorial debate. Had Reform focused on religion and left the conflict to the politicians, it might have accessed more of the millions of traditional Israelis who reject Orthodoxy. By welding itself to a particular peace formula and elevating it to a degree of an article of faith, Reform is actually losing sympathy, certainly in Israel. To us, statecraft, geopolitics, diplomacy and strategy should be divorced from faith, worship and ritual. That goes for Catholicism, Lutheranism, Calvinism, Evangelism, Islamism, Shi'ism, Hassidism, Conservatism, modern Orthodoxy, ultra-Orthodoxy - and Reform Judaism, too. You, Rabbi Yoffie, bring to all this the very same political non-authority that plagues Hagee, Robertson, Parsley, Mordechai Eliahu, Haim Druckman or Moshe Levinger or for that matter Muqtada a-Sadr. Like them, you're no statesman; heck, you're not even the junior spy that Nelson Glueck was. You're clergy, and that's already plenty of work in its own right. Stick to it.