Reform Judaism Isn’t an Island

Opinion

By David Ellenson

Published March 16, 2011, issue of March 25, 2011.
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These days, everyone seems to have something to say about what they think is wrong with Reform Judaism.

We have heard that the Reform movement is, at best, in stasis and, at worst, facing a significant decline in its membership rolls. Some argue that Reform institutions are insufficiently nimble and overly bureaucratic. Others point to what they see as an underlying ideological or theological malaise, suggesting that Reform Judaism does not galvanize Reform Jews to acknowledge and act upon their covenantal obligations.

Many of the critiques come from within our movement, others from outside it. Most are offered as constructive criticism, while a few are mean-spirited polemics. (Glenn Beck has even got in on the act!)

Amid this wave of criticism and consternation, we should not lose sight of the great strengths that Reform Judaism displays. As I travel throughout the United States and Canada, I see synagogues where attendance at services is significant and worship is spiritually inspiring. I see thriving Reform day and afternoon religious schools, and summer camps where Judaism is a richly lived experience. I also see countless numbers of Reform Jews engaged in meaningful Torah study, acts of social justice and the forging of inclusive communities. Still, one need not ignore these triumphs to recognize that there is more than a modicum of truth in many of the expressions of concern and the critiques that we are hearing.

The organizational structures of the Reform movement often do not act in purposeful and coordinated ways to address the many challenges confronting the Jewish people. Too seldom is there an overarching vision of liberal Judaism present to guide the Reform movement as we attempt to address the great demographic and religious issues of our day.

To be sure, the fuller context of North American Jewish life as a whole must be taken into account if the challenges that the Reform movement faces are to be properly assessed and appreciated. After all, the unprecedented opportunities that Jews on this continent enjoy have resulted in ever-increasing assimilation and indifference among millions of North American Jews. This is the communal price exacted for living in an open and accepting society.

In such a setting of individualism, where traditional kinship and associational patterns among Jews have been eroded by mobility and acculturation, each Jew is now a “sovereign self,” and it is not easy to “command” Jewish participation. These forces that challenge the continuity and relevance of Judaism for so many Jews constitute a sociological storm with which the Reform movement has had to cope.

It is only fair to remember that this is a challenge for all Jews, not just for the Reform movement. However, the Reform movement is committed to outreach and inclusion, to not neglecting any Jew. Our hope is that we can inspire and motivate those persons on the periphery of our community and bring them back to a center. Reform Judaism calls upon itself to address Jews of “thin” Jewish culture, i.e., those who lack a strong background of Jewish education and involvement, while not neglecting those who were raised in an environment of “thick” Jewish commitments and affiliations. Of course, this is no easy task.

There is no magic bullet to resolve the challenges we face. Organizational reform is surely desirable, but institutional reorganization cannot accomplish the task of making Reform Judaism relevant to all Jews. Similarly, theology and vision are crucial. Nevertheless, we should not be naïve and assume that a commanding and compelling theology will inspire all Jews to participate meaningfully in Jewish life.

Here we must recognize that Judaism is an adult religion. We must acknowledge that the complexity and plurality that mark modern life do not allow for simple answers to multivalent and textured problems. Indeed, I harbor no illusions that there are any quick fixes to the problems that confront North American Judaism.

The recognition of the enormity of the tasks that confront the Reform movement does not excuse us from our responsibilities. If anything, this knowledge requires us to ask with urgency how the movement can best be organized and act. Our goal must be to inspire modern Jews to affirm traditional Jewish commitments to God, Torah and Israel while simultaneously insisting upon an open and honest engagement with the modern world.

Rabbi Leo Baeck once wrote, “An inheritance cannot be fabricated, let alone forced. It can only be assumed by a freedom that has the ability to build on it. When a man forms his life, he begins to create community. He is not only born into community as if by fate, but he has now been called to the task of molding it.” We who are his heirs must live up to this call.

Rabbi David Ellenson is president of Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion.


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