Friday, January 28, 2005

Can Reform Be Reformed?

The Reform movement has been given a free pass. While the mounting tzoros of the Conservatives receives much attention and every hiccup within Orthodoxy becomes a major story, what happens within the largest of the denominations gets little ink. One-third or more of those who now are identified as American Jews identify themselves as Reform, which is three or four times as many as the number of Orthodox. But it seems that the latter get about one hundred times more attention. What the Orthodox write and say is carefully parsed to extract any unflattering nuggets, while what Reform leaders and rabbis say is routinely ignored.

I am tempted to attribute this neglect to the unwillingness, shared by Jews who are distant from religiosity, to treat Reform as a serious religious movement. It is wildly successful as a membership group and as a way-station for those who are further distancing themselves from Jewish life, most of whom will be lost entirely. Reform is not a religious experience that informs the lives of all but a small number who identify with it. Many and perhaps most who are classified as Reform Jews rarely see the inside of a synagogue. As a Reform rabbi put it in 1885, too many who join Reform congregations "consider their dues to the congregation as hush money, paid to be left alone for a year."

Even so, there are other contributing factors, including the high quality of the movement's leadership. We might expect that with its liberal outlook and disdain for authority, Reform would be the least centralized of the denominations. In its public persona it is the most centralized, in large measure due to the considerable skill of Rabbi Eric Yoffie, its titular head, who like his predecessor, Rabbi Alexander Schindler, is focused, blessed with administrative capabilities, intelligent and articulate. He knows how to deliver a message and how to present a picture of a coherent movement. Much the same can be said of Rabbi David Ellenson, President of Hebrew Union College, the movement's top educational institution.

One message is the necessity to return to tradition. It echoes what Reform leaders have said for more than one-hundred years, even as they led their flock away from tradition. In Cincinnati in 1885, Reform had its celebrated trefa dinner and then adopted the Pittsburgh Platform that rejected a host of religious practices and the idea of a Jewish state. At the same time, as Jonathan Sarna writes, "many Reform Jewish leaders joined the call for an American Jewish revival."

A half-century later there was the Columbus Platform which attempted to undo some of the rhetorical sins of Pittsburgh by advocating the "retention and development of such customs, symbols and ceremonies as possess inspirational value…and the use of Hebrew, together with the vernacular, in our worship and instruction." In recent years, there have been emphatic calls for greater religiosity, a development that quite astonishingly was applauded in The Jewish Observer, Agudath Israel's English-language magazine.

While those who articulate this message are sincere, there is a disconnect between what is being advocated and what is being practiced. It is as if the invocation of a religious message constitutes its fulfillment. There are Reform leaders who speak out for day schools and this is taken as evidence that Reform Jews are sending their children to such schools, a conclusion that is not supported by enrollment statistics.

Reform Jews fall roughly into two groupings, congregational members and those who do not join. When all who identify as Reform are surveyed, the statistics that emerge indicate adherence to religious practices that hovers not much above the zero mark. The numbers are better - but not that much better - when only congregational members are included. Of course, many - and perhaps most - have a Seder, whether it is kosher or not, and many mark Yom Kippur, whether or not they fast. The reality is that Reform Jews are, in the aggregate, less Jewish than ever before and the movement's leadership knows this.

Nor is there prospect for improvement, if only because the barn door has been open for far too long and America is an open society. The likelihood is that for a great number of today's Reform, the next step on their itinerary is the abandonment of Jewish identity, something that has happened already to the offspring of Reform Jews.

Whatever the disclaimers at the top, the movement has enthusiastically embraced intermarriage, as is evident from the overwhelming number of Reform clergy who officiate at such ceremonies. Sarna reports that "a 1985 survey of Reform Jewish leaders found that only a minority of them considered it 'essential' for a 'good Jew' to marry a Jew." Things haven't gotten better in the past twenty years.

In addition to the impact of patrilineality and quickie conversions, Reform membership has been swelled by intermarriage. Sarna cites a 2002 article by Michael A. Meyer on "the role and identity of non-Jews in Reform temples" which indicates that "more and more, non-Jews - partners/spouses, grandparents, children, in-laws and siblings - are involved in the life of synagogues in some ways." Sarna adds, "They attend and join synagogues, sometimes hold dual membership in synagogues and churches, and even become active in synagogue life, taking on positions of leadership. In synagogues with large numbers of intermarried Jews among their members, non-Jews may constitute a quarter or more of those attending services."

Reform is certain to go where the flow is and the flow is not in the direction of more tradition, no matter what the public message. In a recent session at Hebrew Union College - Jewish Institute of Religion on the National Jewish Population Survey, a faculty member called for Reform to embrace a new concept of Jewish peoplehood that rejects Jewish particularism "and makes sense in a multi-cultural world."