Malcolm Gladwell had it right: “There comes a time when an idea, trend or social behavior crosses a threshold, tips, and spreads like wildfire.” Thomas Kuhn, a historian of science who wrote of similar tendencies in his classic “The Structure of Scientific Revolutions,” would have called this the moment of “paradigm change.” Whichever author’s construction you prefer, we are now witnessing this moment with Reform Judaism in Israel.
The very positive side of this tipping point comes from the manifold achievements of the Reform Jewish community in our beloved State of Israel. Next November, Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion will celebrate the ordination of the 100th Israeli Reform rabbi at our beautiful campus in Jerusalem, and the applicant pool for this year’s rabbinical class is fully four times larger than we have seen in past years.
This past Yom Kippur, Reform Jews celebrated the holy days in over 60 different locations in towns large and small in every corner of the State of Israel, from small groups to 1000-family congregations. When they come to pray, they find a modern, welcoming, accessible interpretation of Judaism that appeals to broad swaths of contemporary Israeli society: the Orthodox and the secular, the LGBTQ community, and those of strikingly diverse family origins.
Hundreds of couples are now married each year by Reform rabbis, despite the lack of state recognition of non-Orthodox wedding ceremonies — they simply (and bizarrely) go to Cyprus or Europe for a civil wedding then return to Israel and celebrate their kiddushin with their Reform rabbi. Reform kindergartens are teeming with young Israelis who will build the next generation of Reform Judaism in years ahead. Sociologically, the Reform movement has been making immense progress over the past few decades, and has grown into an indigenous, expansive movement with deep and increasing influence.
Why, then, are we currently hearing such intense negative responses from those who oppose Reform Judaism? I believe this is a function of our having reached the tipping point. When new paradigms rise in power and truth and begin to threaten the old, the first response is so often to circle the wagons and denigrate the inevitable evolution.
The way the state-funded religious establishment in Israel is fighting the deal to provide an egalitarian prayer space for Reform and Conservative Jews next to the Kotel is a prime example of this phenomenon. It is fascinating that a space never used by the religious establishment at all has now become the grounds for a veritable war over religious control.
Whether it is through handbills posted around Jerusalem decrying Reform Judaism, attacks by government officials defaming the non-Orthodox, or organized activities that rally the troops against Reform interpretations of our faith, these actions are all part of the old guard losing ground to new ideologies that resonate with ever greater portions of the Israeli Jewish community.
The goal of Israeli Reform Judaism is decidedly not to take control over Judaism in Israel. In fact, Reform Jews routinely protect the right of all Jews (and others) to worship, learn and live ethically in a society that celebrates pluralism and diversity. Our goal is simply to gain equal recognition and allow each and every human being the expression of personal religious ideals in freedom, respect and safety.
This is a concept consistently enshrined in Jewish tradition throughout the ages. From the Talmud’s depiction of Beit Hillel and Beit Shammai, whose students still married one another despite their manifold differences, to small Jewish communities worldwide where Jews gather respectfully across ideological lines, to the contemporary work of the Wexner Foundation and others like it in ensuring deeply respectful dialogue between widely divergent viewpoints, we must become better at respecting the different Jewish ideas we encounter even when they are in direct opposition to what we hold to be true.
Right now, sparks that have been gathering for years are beginning to grow into a flame. I am confident that this trend will, sooner rather than later, spread (in Gladwell’s phrasing) into a full wildfire that drives significant change in the way the State of Israel handles religion in general and Reform Judaism in particular. For the sake of the relationship between Israel and the vast majority of world Jewry, let us hope this change happens speedily and in our day.
Rabbi Aaron Panken, Ph.D., is President of Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, Reform Judaism’s global seminary, with campuses in Cincinnati, Jerusalem, Los Angeles and New York.