On Reform Judaism and Reform Jews

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by R. Eliezer Melamed

Those who do not accept the fundamentals of Jewish faith are not considered a stream of the Jewish religion * As in academia and medicine, unrecognized titles and activities should be contested * The Reform community in the United States is strong, but encourages fewer olim than the Orthodox, and mainly supports the position of the Israeli Left * Alongside our opposition to recognizing Reform Judaism as a religious stream, we must acknowledge their important and praiseworthy activities on behalf of the Jewish people and the State of Israel

Recently, questions of the Reform movement and its demand for full religious recognition (at the Western Wall, regarding access to state-funded ritual baths [mikva’ot] to perform conversions, and with regard to chaplaincy in the IDF) have resurfaced.

The movement claims that it is one of several Jewish religious streams and therefore deserves status equal to that of the Chief Rabbinate of Israel. Just as the state funds the appointment of rabbis for cities and neighborhoods and grants legal validity to rabbinical courts in matters of marriage, divorce, and conversion, so too, they deserve the right to appoint rabbis to cities and neighborhoods, and to maintain rabbinical courts for matters of marriage and conversion. And just as the IDF has a military rabbinate and invites rabbis to give talks and classes on Torah and Jewish values, so too it must also invite representatives of the Reform movement as legitimate representatives of the Torah and Judaism (unfortunately, it seems the IDF high command shares this view).

To reinforce their demands, Reform Jews argue that they are the largest stream in the United States, and discrimination against them in Israel insults all Reform Jews abroad. To this argument they add the threat that if they do not win equality, the Reform community’s support for the State of Israel will end, a situation that is likely to adversely affect Israel’s status in the United States—the mightiest country in the world, whose support for the State of Israel is important, if not critical.


Principles of Jewish Faith

Two fundamental principles underlie the Jewish faith: the first is the divine origin of the Torah—‘Torah min ha’Shamayim’. The second is the absolutely binding validity of the mitzvot, of halakha—validity that sometimes demands that a Jew sacrifice his life or wealth to sanctify God’s name.

This is not the place to expound on the importance and profundity of these principles, but we shall address only their formal framework. Upon examining the position of the Reform movement, we find that they deny these principles. While there are various religious streams in Judaism that emphasize different aspects of serving God—such as Hasidim and their opponents (Mitnagdim), the Mussar movement, and the Torah im Derekh Eretz movement. There is even an anti-Zionist Haredi stream. Nevertheless, the common denominator of all of these groups is their faithfulness to these principles, and their functioning solely within the principles’ framework. All of the fierce debates between the different streams are conducted precisely on the shared basis of these principles. But Reformers, who do not accept these principles, cannot be considered a religious stream within Judaism, just as the Karaites are not considered a stream of Judaism or a legitimate Jewish community.


Preventing Distortion

Because the impression that the Reform movement is a Jewish religious movement constitutes a distortion and misrepresentation of Israel’s sacred Torah, we must fight against any grant of religious authority to their representatives, as has been the practice of the Chief Rabbinate of Israel from its founding until today.

It seems that we can learn from the academy how to deal with those who purport to confer academic degrees counter to the orderly and established academic route, as well as the medical establishment’s attitude toward those who profess to be doctors without passing the accepted course of studies. Even when it comes to a large movement like alternative medicine, which many people trust and consult with, the medical establishment vehemently opposes granting the official status of doctor to someone who has not gone through the accepted academic course of study. And anyone who declares himself to be a doctor is likely to face the legal consequences.


Harming Jewish Identity

It should be noted that the Reform movement has existed for only about two hundred years and, historically speaking, was one of the causes of the disintegration of Jewish communities in Europe and later in North America. It hurt Jewish national identity, both in relation to the Torah and halakha, and vis-à-vis the singularity of the Jewish people and the value of the Land of Israel. Never in history was there a Jewish group that deleted mention of Jerusalem, of the Land of Israel, and of the ultimate redemption of the Jewish people from its prayer book—except for the Reform movement. By doing so, this movement undermined the very foundations of Jewish national existence and uniqueness.

It is no wonder that intermarriages between Jews and gentiles are conducted under the auspices of this movement alone, with Jewish and Christian clergypersons standing shoulder to shoulder under the wedding canopy. This legitimates assimilation, which is the most dangerous threat to Jewish existence.

While today’s Reform leaders boast of their Zionist stances, if we examine immigration from Western countries since the establishment of the State of Israel, we find that the vast majority of immigrants came from Orthodox communities. This is particularly pronounced among olim from the United States, where, Reform’s claim to represent the most American Jews notwithstanding, close to 90 percent of olim are graduates and products of Orthodox communities.

It seems that support of Israel by Reform leaders accords with the views of Israel’s Leftist minority. In this context, they encourage the U.S. government to pressure Israel to uproot Jewish communities in Judea and Samaria and establish an Arab state in our heartland. If they were to succeed, everything that has happened near the Gaza Strip in recent years would happen throughout the State of Israel.


The Positive Aspects

Still, we must remember that when Jewish life was unbearable, when it seemed that the nations of Western Europe were developing and progressing toward lives of prosperity and culture, science and freedom, while the Jews remained hated and discriminated against, without the ability to acquire a prestigious profession and earn a decent living, Reform Jews chose not to forsake the Jewish people.

When the nations of Europe began to advance socially, scientifically, and economically, gifted Jews had to choose between two options. On one hand, they could remain sextons in small prayer houses, resolving the quarrels that broke out between Hasidim and Mitnagdim and between traditionalists and modernizers. Or they could convert to Christianity and be accepted in society’s upper crust, perhaps even become prime minister (Benjamin Disraeli), an influential philosopher (Edmund Husserl), an acclaimed author (Heinrich Heine), a famous composer (Felix Mendelssohn and Gustav Mahler), a social revolutionary (Karl Marx), or generally participate in the scientific and industrial revolutions (countless Jews).

It seemed to many that Judaism’s hope had vanished; the world was advancing and developing, while Jews who adhere to the Torah and mitzvot were left behind, without a way to make a decent living, and with no hope of redemption. It was difficult at that time to see how Torah and mitzvot could benefit a private Jew or repair the world. Unfortunately, countless Jews chose to convert or assimilate. But the early Reformers sought to pave a way for people to maintain their Jewish identities and Jewish values to the extent that they could be integrated with the values accepted in ​​of enlightened Western society.

It turned out that for many Jews who wished to assimilate, Reform managed to stave off the process; but on the other hand, among those who were seduced into viewing Reform as a creditable alternative to traditional Judaism, it accelerated the process of assimilation.


The Proper Attitude

Accordingly, Reform should be regarded as a movement with Jewish membership, that engages in educational, cultural, ceremonial, and communal matters and activities, giving them a Jewish flavor, and that has a sense of responsibility and solidarity towards all Jews, including the residents of the State of Israel. Such movements have long existed in Israel and abroad. The World Maccabi movement, B’nai Brith, the Joint Distribution Committee, the Kibbutz Movement, Hashomer Hatzair, and the various Jewish youth organizations are but a few examples. Just as we must appreciate all the positive activities these movements engage in, so too, we must value all the Reform movement’s positive contributions in the fields of goodwill, ethics, and Jewish solidarity.

Moreover, precisely because we are forced to oppose Reform and stop it from attaining the religious status it desires, we must therefore find ways to express our basic, positive attitude towards Reform Jews as Jewish brothers and towards all the virtues in each and every one of them. As we have learned in the Torah, the mitzva of rebuking a fellow Jew for his sins appears together with the mitzva to love him and not hate him, as it is written: “Do not hate your brother in your heart. You must rebuke your fellow, and not bear sin because of him. Do not take revenge nor bear a grudge against your people. You must love your neighbor as you love yourself. I am God” (Vayikra 19:17-18). Thus, even when required to admonish someone who has transgressed, the mitzva to love and help him remains in effect. Not only that, but in a case where two people require assistance—one who has not sinned, and another who we were required to rebuke, it is a mitzva to give precedence to the one we rebuked, so that he knows that the criticism concerned that specific issue, but that in general, we love one another like brothers (see Bava Metzia 32b; Tosafot, Pesahim 113b s.v. “Lakhuf”). The same applies to Reform Jews. Having had to quarrel with them, we must find ways to express our brotherhood and our common fate and destiny.

This article appears in the ‘Besheva’ newspaper, and was translated from Hebrew. Other interesting and informative articles by Rabbi Melamed, including all his books in Hebrew and some in English, can be found at: http://en.yhb.org.il/

About Eliezer Melamed

Rabbi Eliezer Melamed is Head of Yeshivat Har Bracha and a prolific author on Jewish Law. His works include the Peninei Halacha series on Jewish law and a popular weekly column "Revivim" in the Besheva newspaper. Some of Rabbi Melamed's books are currently being translated into English. These articles are excerpts from the authorized translations, with occasional brief introductions by the editor.

One comment

  1. The limitation of this piece is that its arguments assume its conclusion. In other words, it is preaching only to those of us who already hold an orthodox world-view.

    For example the author states: “It should be noted that the Reform movement has existed for only about two hundred years”. That is true, but it is also true to say that the orthodox movement has existed for only about two hundred years, because prior to that there was no distinction to be made. The orthodox world-view today is that what we now call Orthodoxy is how things have always been and that Reform is a recent deviation or innovation. The reform and secular world do not see it that way They see Reform as either (a) the true idea of Judaism from which orthodoxy wrongly deviated in the past or (b) one of many legitimate strands of belief and practice. The former probably applies to the more militant founders of reform in the 19th century, while the latter is probably more prevalent today.

    The author goes on to say “and, historically speaking, [the Reform movement] was one of the causes of the disintegration of Jewish communities in Europe and later in North America.” Again, this assumes an orthodox world-view. Have Jewish communities in North America disintegrated? Presumably secular and reform Jews would say that they have thriving communities – culturally and religiously. But they are just different sorts of communities from the ones which R’ Melamed would like them to be.

    I do however find R’ Melamed’s conclusions very interesting. I would be interested to hear more about what R’ Melamed does, or recommends that we do, to reach out to Reform Jews “to express our brotherhood and common fate and destiny”

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