Monday, December 7, 2009

Reform Judaism – American Style

In the December 4th issue of the Forward, Jacob Neusner wrote an interesting piece on his journey from classical reform Judaism to conservative Judaism and then back to Reform Judaism. Usually I enjoy Neusner’s articles because they are well thought out, cerebral yet understated and with sophisticated humor. This piece however was somewhat different and my reaction to it was viscerally negative.

My acceptance of all formats and approaches to Jewish practice has no limits (although I reject Jewish practice as defined by denominational [Reform, Conservative & Orhtodox] affiliation). I have said many times that there are multiple portals into Jewish practice as well as an equal number of egresses out of Judaism as well. Judaism, in our tradition is a large tent where all are invited in, as Abraham demonstrated early on in his own journey of religious discovery. Our tradition confirmed this much later when the Passover Seder was formalized and with the incorporation of text that would certainly suggest the welcoming of all kinds of Jewish belief as attested to by the reading of the kol dichfin (kol dichfin yasei uyachal kol ditztrich yasei vifsach).

Neusner presents several arguments why he moved from Reform to Conservative and then back to Reform. It would appear that his preeminent argument is that Reform Judaism is uniquely American saying that “if Reform Judaism didn’t exist today, American Jews would have to invent it”. He got that wrong from a factual point of view. Conservative Judaism is a purely American experiment (failing) and Reform Judaism was an exponent of the “German Jew” attempting to emulate the Protestant German culture. He goes on to say that the proof is in the pudding: the demographic preeminence can be explained by its wide appeal and relevancy. The error in Neusner’s reasoning goes to the core of what he believes Judaism to be.

According to Neusner and many others like him Judaism is a religion. Ironically, it was the Reform movement in Germany that successfully reformulated and redefined Judaism from a comprehensive culture encompassing religious practice to a religion exclusively. It was their way of gaining acceptance and entry in to German society. Judaism was never a religion, but seen and understood as a great culture in exile with a rich history and tradition. So for him to say “I affirm Reform Judaism as the American Judaism” sounds as though he is seeking a Jewish answer to American Protestantism.

The Jewish world according to Neusner is divided between segregationist and integrationists. I couldn’t agree more as I have written on many occasions and most recently in my last essay on November 30, 2009, A Sate of Mind. However that is no argument for Reform Judaism or any movement for that matter. Being an integrationist and an involved and committed Jew are not mutually exclusive. There are many successfully integrated Orthodox Jews as well as Conservative Jews who could certainly be seen as integrationists.

Neusner’s Jewish worldview flawed as it is, erroneously is an attempt at bolstering his movement by suggesting three planks (Why is it that programmatic suggestions seems to always come in threes, like the three legged stool that Obama often times refers to when explaining the way to rebuild the economy or a country). The third plank affirms the tradition of individualism, validating the individual conscience, which syncs well with his second plank that halacha should be a voice but not a veto (when was it anything else in Reform Judaism?) as he suggests “I was brought up to affirm what I found personally meaningful and to dismiss as irrelevant what did not fit”. This strikes me as though he sees his Judaism as nothing more than silly putty: fun to play with, but when it ossifies and no longer does what you want it to do, it is abandoned. Somehow it seems too chaotic, too convenient, too American. In that sense he is right. Reform Judaism is an American expression. It reflects the American culture, a disposable culture. When something is no longer useful or relevant dismiss it. It’s something like the sprawling American suburb, where Reform Judaism is so comfortable; with single use buildings put up overnight and dismantled when they have outlived their use. Reform Judaism-American Style.