Op-Ed: On The Reform Movement and Israel

Recently, questions about the Reform movement and its demand for full religious recognition (at the Western Wall, regarding access to state-funded ritual baths [mikva’ot] to perform conversions, and with regard to chaplaincy in the IDF) have resurfaced.

The movement claims that it is one of several Jewish religious streams and therefore deserves status equal to that of the Chief Rabbinate of Israel. Just as the state funds the appointment of rabbis for cities and neighborhoods and grants legal validity to rabbinical courts in matters of marriage, divorce, and conversion, so too, they feel that they deserve the right to appoint city and neighborhood rabbis and maintain their own rabbinical courts for matters of marriage and conversion. And just as the IDF has a military rabbinate and invites rabbis to give talks and classes on Torah and Jewish values, so too, they demand, it must also invite representatives of the Reform movement as legitimate representatives of the Torah and Judaism (unfortunately, it seems the IDF high command shares this view).

To reinforce their demands, Reform Jews argue that they are the largest stream in the United States, and discrimination against them in Israel insults all Reform Jews abroad. To this argument they add the threat that if they do not win equality, the Reform community’s support for the State of Israel will end, a situation that is likely to adversely affect Israel’s status in the United States—the strongest world power whose support for the State of Israel is important, if not critical.

Principles of Jewish Faith

Two fundamental principles underlie the Jewish faith: the first is the Divine origin of the Torah—’Torah min ha’Shamayim’. The second is the absolutely binding validity of the mitzvot, of halakha—validity that sometimes demands that a Jew sacrifice his life or wealth to sanctify God’s name.

This is not the place to expound on the importance and profundity of these principles, hence we will only address their formal framework. An examination of the position of the Reform movement shows that they deny these principles. While there are various religious streams in Judaism that emphasize different aspects of serving God—such as Hassidim, Litvisher, the Mussar movement, the Torah im Derekh Eretz movement, the anti-Zionist Haredi stream – the common denominator of all of these groups is their faithfulness to these two principles, and their functioning solely within that framework. All the fierce debates between the different streams are conducted precisely on the way to observe the shared basis of these principles. But the Reform movement, which does not accept these principles, cannot be considered a religious stream within Judaism, just as the Karaites are not considered a stream of Judaism or a legitimate Jewish community.

Preventing Distortion

Because the impression that the Reform movement is a Jewish religious movement constitutes a distortion and misrepresentation of Israel’s sacred Torah, we must fight against any granting of religious authority to their representatives. That has been the practice of the Chief Rabbinate of Israel from its founding until today.

An example can be taken from academia on how to deal with those who purport to confer academic degrees counter to the orderly and established academic route, as well as from the medical establishment’s attitude toward those who profess to be doctors without passing the accepted course of studies. Even when it comes to a large movement like alternative medicine, which many people trust and consult with, the medical establishment vehemently opposes granting the official status of doctor to someone who has not gone through the accepted academic course of study. And anyone who declares himself to be a doctor is likely to face the legal consequences.

Harming Jewish Identity

It should be noted that the Reform movement has existed for only about two hundred years and, historically speaking, was one of the causes of the disintegration of Jewish communities in Europe and later in North America. It hurt Jewish national identity, both in relation to the Torah and halakha, and vis-à-vis the singularity of the Jewish people and the value of the Land of Israel. Never in history was there a Jewish group that deleted mention of Jerusalem, of the Land of Israel, and of the ultimate redemption of the Jewish people from its book of prayers—except for the Reform movement. By doing so, this movement undermined the very foundations of Jewish national existence and uniqueness.

It comes as no surprise that intermarriages between Jews and gentiles are conducted as a matter of course under the auspices of this movement, with Jewish and Christian clergymen standing shoulder to shoulder under the wedding canopy. This legitimates assimilation, the most dangerous threat to Jewish existence.

While today’s Reform leaders boast of their Zionist stances, if we examine immigration from Western countries since the establishment of the State of Israel, we find that the vast majority of immigrants came from Orthodox communities. This is particularly pronounced among olim from the United States, where, Reform’s claim to represent the most American Jews notwithstanding, close to 90 percent of olim are graduates and products of Orthodox communities.

The support of Israel by Reform leaders is, for the most part, in accord with the views of Israel’s Leftist minority. In this context, they encourage the U.S. government to pressure Israel to uproot Jewish communities in Judea and Samaria and establish an Arab state in our heartland. If they were to succeed, everything that has happened near the Gaza Strip in recent years would happen throughout the State of Israel.

The Positive Aspects

Still, we must remember that in the 19th century, when Jewish life was unbearable, when it seemed that the nations of Western Europe were developing and progressing toward lives of prosperity and culture, science and freedom while the Jews remained hated and discriminated against, without the ability to acquire a prestigious profession and earn a decent living, Reform Jews chose not to forsake the Jewish people.

When the nations of Europe began to advance socially, scientifically, and economically, gifted Jews had to choose between two options. On one hand, they could remain in the shtetl, taking part in the disputes between Hasidim and Mitnagdim and between traditionalists and modernizers. Or they could convert to Christianity and be accepted in society’s upper crust, perhaps even become prime minister (Benjamin Disraeli), an influential philosopher (Edmund Husserl), an acclaimed poet (Heinrich Heine), a famous composer (Felix Mendelssohn and Gustav Mahler), a social revolutionary (Karl Marx), or generally participate in the scientific and industrial revolutions, as many did.

During that period, it seemed to many that there was no hope for Judaism; the world was advancing and developing, while Jews who adhered to the Torah and mitzvot were left behind by anti-Semitic legislation, without a way to make a decent living, and with no hope of redemption. It was difficult at that time to see how Torah and mitzvot could benefit a Jew or bring about tikkun olam. Unfortunately, countless Jews chose to convert or assimilate, but the early Reform movement sought to pave a way for people to maintain their Jewish identities and Jewish values to the extent that they could be integrated with the values accepted in ​​enlightened Western society.

It turned out that for many Jews who wished to assimilate, the Reform movement managed to stave off the process; but on the other hand, among those who were seduced into viewing Reform as a creditable alternative to traditional Judaism, it accelerated the process of assimilation.

The Proper Attitude

Accordingly, Reform should be regarded as a movement with Jewish membership, that engages in educational, cultural, ceremonial, and communal matters and activities, giving them a Jewish flavor, and that has a sense of responsibility and solidarity towards all Jews, including the residents of the State of Israel.

Such movements have long existed in Israel and abroad. The World Maccabi movement, B’nai Brith, the Joint Distribution Committee, the Kibbutz Movement, Hashomer Hatzair, and the various Jewish youth organizations are but a few examples. Just as we appreciate all the positive activities these movements engage in, so too, we must value the Reform movement’s positive contributions in the fields of goodwill, ethics, and Jewish solidarity.

Moreover, precisely because we are forced to oppose Reform’s positions vis a vis Judaism and stop it from attaining the religious status it desires, we must therefore find ways to express our basic, positive attitude towards Reform Jews as Jewish brothers and towards all the virtues in each of them.

In the Torah, the mitzva of rebuking a fellow Jew for his sins appears together with the mitzva to love him and not hate him, as it is written: “Do not hate your brother in your heart. You must rebuke your fellow, and not bear sin because of him. Do not take revenge nor bear a grudge against your people. You must love your neighbor as you love yourself. I am God” (Vayikra 19:17-18). Thus, even when required to admonish someone who has transgressed, the mitzva to love and help him remains in effect. Not only that, but in a case where two people require assistance—one who has not sinned, and another whom we were required to rebuke, it is a mitzva to give precedence to the one we rebuked, so that he knows that the criticism concerned that specific issue, but that in general, we love one another as brothers (see Bava Metzia 32b; Tosafot, Pesahim 113b s.v. “Lakhuf”).

The same applies to Reform Jews. Having had to quarrel with them, we must find ways to express our brotherhood and our common fate and destiny.

This article appears in the ‘Besheva’ newspaper, and was translated from Hebrew. Other interesting and informative articles by Rabbi Melamed, including all his books in Hebrew and some in English, can be found at: http://en.yhb.org.il/

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