An Honest, Respectful Look at
Reform Judaism

By Diana Dubrawsky, updated May 14, 2017, used here with permission

I ran across this post and was very impressed by the author's ability to share her criticisms of the Reform Jewish Movement while demonstrating respect for its origins and intentions. This post is one of the best such presentations of the innate weaknesses of the Reform Movement I have read. I am not sharing this to 'bash' Reform Jews, but to present some of the problems posed by it. Until we Jews begin open discussions about our divisions these sorts of issues will merely drive us farther apart and further delay the coming of the Redemption.

I left Reform Judaism for a reason. It’s been twenty years since I was a member of a Reform congregation, so some things may have changed, but I retain these impressions:

It’s inauthentic.

In talking about Reform Judaism, it’s helpful to remember that from the beginning, the impetus for “Reforming” Judaism was to seem more like our non-Jewish neighbors, in an effort to smooth the differences that (it was felt) contributed to antisemitism. This was such a powerful motivation that early Reform congregations did everything possible to remove the distinctions between themselves and their Protestant neighbors. Among other innovations, they moved their Shabbat services to Sunday, placed organs in the sanctuary, hired choirs to sing hymns at services, frowned on audible prayer by members of the congregation in favor of responsive readings led by clergy, prayed exclusively in the vernacular, and eschewed bar mitzvahs in lieu of ‘Sunday School’ and “consecration” and “confirmation” ceremonies.

The Reform movement declared that they were no longer ‘bound’ by the mitzvot, and that brit milah and the laws of kashrut, Shabbat, and taharat hamishpacha (the cornerstones of Judaism) were no longer necessary or relevant. Into the mid-twentieth century, it was not unusual for a man wearing a hat, tallit, or a kipah in a Reform synagogue to be approached and asked to remove it. The mitzvah of tefillin fell entirely by the wayside, and a quorum of adults was no longer required for public prayer. A friend told me that in her childhood congregation, her rabbi said they were “Prophetic” Jews: that is, they looked solely to the vision of Israel’s prophets, rather than the Torah or mesorah. Much has changed in the last fifty or so years—especially since the founding of the State of Israel—as it has become, frankly, safer and much more socially acceptable—even cool—to affirm one’s ethnic identity; but Reform Judaism still has yet to reclaim its authenticity.

From the Jewish Virtual Library, The Origins of Reform Judaism:

Between 1810 and 1820, congregations in Seesen, Hamburg and Berlin instituted fundamental changes in traditional Jewish practices and beliefs, such as mixed seating, single­day observance of festivals and the use of a cantor/choir. Many leaders of the Reform movement took a very "rejectionist" view of Jewish practice and discarded traditions and rituals. For example:

Circumcision was not practiced, and was decried as barbaric.

The Hebrew language was removed from the liturgy and replaced with German.

The hope for a restoration of the Jews in Israel was officially renounced, and it was officially stated that Germany was to be the new Zion.

The ceremony in which a child celebrated becoming Bar Mitzvah was replaced with a "confirmation" ceremony.

The laws of Kashrut and family purity were officially declared "repugnant" to modern thinking people, and were not observed.

Shabbat was observed on Sunday.

Traditional restrictions on Shabbat behavior were not followed.By 1880, more than 90 percent of American synagogues were Reform… Many Reform congregations of this time were difficult to distinguish from neighboring Protestant churches, with preachers in robes, pews with mixed seating, choirs, organs and hymnals. Like their counterparts in Germany, American Reform rabbis, such as David Einhorn, Samuel Holdheim, Bernard Felsenthal and Kaufmann Kohler, adopted a radical approach to observance.

This early radicalism was mentioned in the 1885 Pittsburgh Platform, which dismisses "such Mosaic and rabbinical laws as regulate diet, priestly purity and dress" as anachronisms that only obstruct spirituality in the modern age. The platform stressed that Reform Jews must only be accepting of laws that they feel "elevate and sanctify our lives" and must reject those customs and laws that are "not adapted to the views and habits of modern civilization."

Early Reform Judaism was also anti­Zionist…

Reform Judaism does a lot of things right—social action is one of them—but a Reform congregation often feels like just a country club with an emphasis on social action. Many Reform Jews have only a passing acquaintance with the foundational texts of the Jewish tradition. As in the Bible.

Many Reform Jews are very enthusiastic about Judaism—as long as they don’t have to know, think, or do anything about it that is remotely connected to the Torah or the tradition. This is closely connected to “Gastronomic Judaism,” wherein one primarily defines one’s Jewishness by liking bagels, lox, chicken soup, and kitschy aprons that read “World’s Best Bubbe.”

The English Liturgy

The English liturgy of the Reform prayerbook rarely reflects what is actually happening in the (severely abridged) Hebrew service, and much of the newer liturgy seems to have devolved into affirming the life choices of the worshipper. (Ugh. If you need this, and can’t handle metaphor, you should skip the liturgy entirely and go straight to therapy.)

Patrilineal Descent.

The Reform movement embraced patrilineal descent for the purposes of defining “who is a Jew” in an effort to stem the tide of assimilation in their congregations. It didn’t stem the tide, it simply made inter-dating and -marriage more acceptable and easier to accomplish. It has split the Jewish people and only complicated the assimilation/conversion/’who is a Jew’ issue further.

Attitude Toward Israel.

In my former congregation, the older people who well remembered the years before, during, and after the war, and had suffered themselves at the hands of antisemites, took seriously the adage, “All Israel is responsible for one another” and the mitzvah of loving klal Yisrael. They took great pride in supporting the Jewish state by all means available to them. As institutionalized antisemitism and the founding of the State of Israel recede from memory, the Reform movement continues to claim the privilege of weighing in on affairs concerning the State of Israel even as their congregants drift farther away from involvement with Israel. Whereas the Orthodox in America maintain ties with family in Israel, teach their children Hebrew, read Israeli newspapers, inform themselves widely about issues related to Israel, vacation in Israel, send their children to camp and gap years in Israel, make giving to Israeli charities a priority, and send their children into harm’s way to defend Israel in uniform—Reform Jews seem contented to either offer lukewarm support, or actively support Israel’s enemies—without knowing very much about the issues beyond what they hear on NPR.

The primary ‘con’ of Reform Judaism is that it is Judaism Lite, which can feel unsatifying if one is truly looking for a cohesive world view and strong community with shared values based in tradition.

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