A Perspective on the Failings of all Three Mainstream Jewish Movements


A Perspective on the Failings of all Three Mainstream Jewish Movements


Search our Archives:

Opinion & Society

Where have They ALL Gone Wrong?

By Warren R. Graham

It is important to set out what this thesis is, and is not. This is not an analysis of the comparative virtues of Reform vs. Conservative vs. Orthodox Judaism. I have had considerable exposure to the three mainstream movements in contemporary American Jewish life as I shall describe.

My father had been raised in a secular, though Yiddish-speaking home, and was set to pursue a career in show-business, having been blessed with a beautiful singing voice. He changed his name for that purpose, from a Jewish-sounding 'Greenberg' (which, itself, had been changed from the very Jewish-sounding name Keslansky) to a very Gentile-sounding 'Graham', this, in a time when ethnic-sounding names were not 'in' and most show-business aspirants changed their names as well. As luck, or the Almighty's delicious sense of humor would have it, however, my father, on a whim, went to an audition with a friend at the Hebrew Union College Cantorial School, and the rest is history. Cantor Graham, indeed!

My mother, on the other hand, was descended from a Lower East Side Family which traces its ancestry to the Vilna Gaon ("The Genius of Vilna" (Vilnius), Lithuania, one of most prominent and highly regarded Rabbinical Authorities of all time). My mother's grandfather, the patriarch of the Family, had come over from Palestine after the First World War, and was a teacher at the legendary Mesivtah Tiferes Yerushalyim. At his funeral on Erev Pesach 1958, he was eulogized by the head of that august institution, himself another legend, Rabbi Moshe Feinstein, (known simply to his millions of admirers and followers as 'Rabbi Moshe') probably the only Rabbi in the history of the United States whose word was law, and completely unquestioned. By way of personal observation, it is a small leap, both etymologically speaking and otherwise, from the phrase Rav Moshe to Moshe Rabbeinu, though modest man that he was, Rabbi Feinstein would have been aghast at the comparison, I am certain.

As a result of my parents' rather disparate family histories (though they were, in fact raised in the same apartment building in the Bronx), it was important to them that their children be afforded a true Jewish education. In the early 1960's, that meant an Orthodox Day School. So I started as a student at Westchester Day School, and after graduating 8th Grade (they had, in those days, no High School), I attended the Ramaz High School, commuting from my home in New Rochelle, New York to Manhattan each school day.

Up until my Bar Mitzvah, in 1967, I led a rather unusual and atypical Jewish life: an Orthodox Day School five days a week, and services in a Reform Temple on Shabbat Morning. By the time my Bar Mitzvah had come and gone, I informed my father that I no longer felt comfortable in the environment of the Reform Jewish weltanschauung. To his credit, my father, who must have felt a bit embarrassed that his son would, in essence, boycott his world, was content to allow me to attend the small, traditional Conservative Synagogue just down the street. It was all right, he said, for me to attend whatever synagogue I wished, but I was required to attend some service. Thus, I became a regular in the Conservative Synagogue, which was very traditional in its practices. In fact, but for the absence of a mechitza, one would have been hard-pressed to distinguish it from an Orthodox institution.

As the Synagogue was too small to have a full-time Cantor, I was very much a part of the regular rotation of members who led the services, read the Torah, chanted the Haftorah, read the Megillah on Purim, etc., etc. My Day School education served me well in qualifying me for these tasks. I was also an active participant in the Conservative Movement's Ramah/U.S.Y. worlds.

This leads me to the reason I feel somewhat qualified to write on this subject: Although by no means can I claim to be a scholar, it is an unfortunate by-product of the woeful state of ignorance amongst American Jews, that a person with a conventional Day School Education will become, in many circles, a figure of religious authority, whereas in a community of committed Jews, who attend synagogue and learn regularly, he might just be "one of the crowd." In other words, as the expression goes, "in the land of the blind, the one-eyed man is king."

To sum up, my exposure afforded me exposure to all three mainstream branches of Jewish life and has given me a perspective not widely shared by most American Jews, who are pigeonholed into a branch or movement throughout the entire course of their lives, unless they take an active step in changing it.

I believe that it is important to understand the profound and earth-shaking changes which have characterized all three mainstream movements in the last fifty years. They will be described in no order of importance.

Reform: The Outward Return to Ritual

When I was a child, attending services at my father's Reform Temple in Westchester, a casual observer would have had to go to some pains to differentiate the outward appearance of the Temple Service from that of an Episcopalian Church. This probably will sound like a smear to some; in fact, it is used precisely for the opposite purpose: to describe what, in my opinion, is a vast improvement and, for lack of a better term, the Judaicization of the Reform Movement.

In those days, Reform Rabbis and Cantors wore black robes, almost none of the men covered their heads, the services were almost entirely in English and were peppered by hymns and prayers so Protestant-sounding, viz., "G-d is in his Holy Temple/Earthly thoughts be silent now/While in Rev'rence we Assemble/And before His Presence Bow." (It makes me cringe even now) I can only think that the intention surely had to have been a rejection of old-fashioned Jewish ritual and liturgy, in favor of a religious environment and experience to which any American, of any religion, would have found himself, or herself comfortably exposed. In fact, at least one Reform Congregation, in Cleveland, I believe, unabashedly observed its Sabbath on Sunday (I still have a very difficult time coming to terms with that, and one wonders what the word "observed" can possibly have meant in such a context—ah well, there go my prejudices again). As part and parcel of the Americanization of Reform Judaism, the Movement was largely hostile, or, at best, neutral, on the central question of world Judaism fifty years ago: the State of Israel and the Zionist Movement.

Anyone who has been in a Reform Temple in the recent past can easily see what has changed. Men (and women, for that matter), are covering their heads and wear a tallis (prayer shawl), there is infinitely more Hebrew in the liturgy, which, in many respects, has reintroduced traditional prayer, many of the rituals once eschewed by the Movement (parading around the synagogue with the Torah before and after the readings, for example) have been reincorporated into the service, and there is a renewed commitment to chavrusah-style Torah study. What prompted all this? My father used to say that the Reform Movement discovered what rabbinical authorities have understood for two-thousand years: that ritual works. People like familiar ritual and they respond to it.

It should be noted that some Reform Temples have intentionally bucked this trend. There are, in fact, a number which continue to use the old Reform Union Prayer Book which dates back to the late 1940's and has very little Hebrew. In such congregations, the clergy still sport black robes and the men generally do not cover their heads. This, interestingly, proves the point that Reform Jewish tradition is every bit as capable of resistance to change and commitment to stultifying inflexible behavior as the Orthodox way of life it purports to reject.

Moreover, and significantly, the Reform Movement has become strongly supportive of the State of Israel and Zionist causes, while regularly decrying its lack of clout and the absence of pluralism in the rabbinate of the Jewish State.

In my opinion, the lack of power of the Reform Movement in Israel is a function of two important factors: First and foremost, aliyah (Jewish immigration to Israel) is almost non-existent within the Movement. When Reform Jews start making aliyah, paying taxes, and sending their sons to the Israeli Army, they will have quite a bit more to say about religious policy in the State. Secondly, Israelis tend to be divided between the religious and the secular. And even the secular Israelis, who rarely, if ever, attend a synagogue, want their lifecycle events to be presided over an Orthodox Rabbi. As many Israelis have said: "the synagogue I don't attend should be Orthodox and the Rabbi should have a beard."

It would seem, therefore, that outwardly, the Reform Movement has, if anything, become "more Jewish" in recent years. The substance, alas, is something else. More about that later.

The Conservative Movement and the Egalitarian Imperative

The Conservative Movement I knew as a young man is, for all intents and purposes, no more. In the 1960's and 1970's, the Movement was largely defined by its dedication to Halacha, (Jewish Law), with certain notable exceptions. For one example, as the epicenter of American Jewish life relocated to the suburbs, the Movement came to the realization that more and more of its adherents lived beyond walking distance from their synagogue, and found it necessary and/or desirable to sanction driving on Shabbat for the specific purpose of promoting attendance at services.

In most other respects, however, it was expected that Conservative Jews would keep kosher and observe the Sabbath, at least to an extent. The substance of the Conservative liturgy was not noticeably different from that contained in the Orthodox prayer book, with the exception that references to Temple Sacrifice were usually in fine print and sometimes, the English versions were not translated at all; rather, the reader was referred to the appropriate Chapter in Leviticus or Numbers, as the case may be. As for the service itself, it was also much like that in an Orthodox institution, except, of course, for the absence of a Mechitza, a partition, separating the sexes during the prayers. But, for the most part, women were not called to the Torah, nor did they lead the services or serve as Rabbis. That was, of course, to change and change radically.

The Conservative Synagogue of today would be virtually unrecognizable to its congregants of 30+ years ago. Most, though not all, of the change is a testament to the power and determination of the feminist movement. During the transformative years of the late 1970's through the 1980's, women congregants insisted upon, and obtained, increasing involvement in the services, and rituals. At first, women and men were called to the Torah in what was referred to as 'joint' aliyahs, with both husband and wife reciting the blessing over the reading. After a while, the charade was dropped and women simply were, for the most part, called to the Torah just as men were. Women began to be counted in a minyan (a quorum of ten worshipers—historically, ten men of the age of 13 and up).

Women began to be admitted to the Movement's flagship Rabbinical School, the Jewish Theological Seminary. They reasoned that, in the absence of a Mechitza, requiring separate seating for men and women, there was simply no justification for excluding women from every aspect of the ritual. At first, some of the 'traditionalists' within the Movement balked, and many congregations had 'alternative' services, which approximated the mainstream Conservative service of old. Eventually, however, this rejectionist wing was, in essence, left no place to go within the Movement. A Movement known as the Union for Traditional Judaism ("UTJ") (not be confused with UTJ meaning United Torah Judaism in Israel) was formed, just so that those who had grown up in old-time Conservative Judaism and were interested in preserving it as they knew it, had a place to go. UTJ has, however, a very limited presence on the scene, and the alternatives for their would-be adherents are few and far between.

Coupled with the officially sanctioned move toward egalitarianism was a move not officially sanctioned, but nevertheless quite real: the lack of pretense, in many or most congregations, at a commitment to Halacha. What had begun as a sanction to drive to synagogue on Shabbat morphed into buses pulling up to the synagogue after a Bar Mitzvah to take the kids to an amusement park. In effect, and though never publicly stated by the authorities within the Movement, what eventuated was a wholesale abandonment of many Halachic strictures.

Orthodoxy: Rightward Ho, the Wagons!

It is almost axiomatic and a cliché to observe that Orthodoxy has, in recent years, moved to the right. The evidence is, of course, everywhere and readily apparent, both in terms of outward symbols and substance. For example, one need only look at a photograph of the Class of 1955 of Mesivtah Torah Ve-Da'as to see a group of clean-shaven young men wearing kippot. Today's crop, of course, sports the archetypal black-hat, bearded 'yeshivish' look. If you can even see the kippot under the black hats, they are large and black velvet, not suede and not (G-d Forbid!) knitted.

These observations may seem silly and trivial, but any Orthodox Jew who is being honest with himself or herself will tell you that these appearances and accoutrements make a statement and carry meaning. It also gives the lie to the non-Orthodox assumption, borne entirely out of ignorance, that Orthodoxy is monolithic; it is anything but.

In my youth, among my Orthodox friends and relatives, even the most stringently observant, many women wore short sleeves in warm weather, most women did not wear sheitels (wigs) or cover their hair, and mixed dancing was quite prevalent in such society. In the world of kashrut (Jewish dietary laws), many so-called "kosher restaurants" at least the dairy restaurants, were not Shomer Shabbat (that is to say they were open on the Sabbath) and many Orthodox Jews ate in non-kosher restaurants (excluding, of course, meat dishes).

Many or most Orthodox Jews of today would be appalled at such ideas, but they are nevertheless true, and those old enough to remember know very well that they are true. My High School, Ramaz, an Orthodox institution (left wing Orthodox—if I may use a term I dislike—by today's standards, but centrist Orthodox by the standards of 35 years ago) had High School dances, a "Welcome Freshmen" dance, and cheerleaders, with short skirts. I have the school yearbooks to prove it.

I have heard the argument advanced that this world of 30, 40 and 50 years ago was, in fact, an aberration, in that the first generation of European Jews, out of fear of creating an American anti Semitism and a desire to fit in, deliberately dropped the shtetel look and mannerisms. Now that Jews are more secure in this society, the argument goes, we feel freer to cultivate a return to those ways.

As to the kashrut theme, it has been argued that 'back in the day,' there were few, if any, kosher restaurants, so hard choices needed to be made. I do not know whether those arguments are valid. I do know that nobody in the circles in which I found myself 35 years ago knew or cared about cholev yisraol, pas yisroel or lechem yoshen. I also know that only a few groups, the Lubavitch, most notably, excluded gebrochts from their Passover diets. For those readers who have no idea what this is all about, you need not worry. It falls under the rubric of what many have called (a phrase I wish I had coined) the "chumrah of the week" philosophy (meaning strict interpretation of a Jewish legal principle, as opposed to a more lenient one), in which, in an effort to reach a higher level of piety, stricter rules of observance become incorporated into the life of an individual or community. By the way, I have it on excellent authority that 'Rav Moshe' ate gebrochts on Passover. Yes, I know, my prejudices are showing again.

So we have explored something of the sea change in the three main Jewish denominations in recent years. In all cases, in my opinion, some of these developments have been quite positive, but some of these changes have done a disservice to the constituency at which they have been directed and, I daresay, to the Jewish People as a whole. In an effort doomed inevitably to offend, I offer the following specific examples:

Insularity of the Orthodox Community:

While it may be a generalization, it is, I believe, empirically true that both non-Jews and non-Orthodox Jews see the members of the Orthodox community as contemptuous of them and of their lives. What goes on the hearts of individuals is, of course, unknowable, but the appearance and bearing of many Orthodox Jews is such that it bespeaks disrespect of other points of view. I suppose it is, by definition, inherent in the belief in Torah from Mt. Sinai (the belief that Jewish Law devolves from the literal giving of the Torah by the Almighty to Moses at Mount Sinai), that there are no other truths. Therefore, the reasoning would go, moral or religious relativism is at odds with that idea.

What is missing from that analysis, of course, is that there are many groups of people and religions, all certain that they have a monopoly on truth and revelation. Even if they are all wrong, if we are all going to live in the world together, respect needs to be paid. Insofar as treatment of fellow Jews is concerned, in particular, the generally low opinion held of non-Orthodox Jews does nothing for the Jewish People; quite the contrary, it harms us by dividing us. The good news is that, at the same time, there is a great deal of kiruv (outreach) activity in the Orthodox Community, and this has achieved unprecedented success at bringing hitherto unaffiliated Jews into the fold.

Quite frankly, much of the issue in the Orthodox Community vis a vis the non-Orthodox movements has little to do with lack of tolerance on theological issues. After all, Traditional Judaism has not so much to say about what we are to believe, but a great deal to tell us about what we are to do and refrain from doing. And many people, who are affiliated with the Orthodox Community may, or may not, be following the specific rules in varying degrees.

I believe that much of the issue revolves around a rabbinical power struggle. This, I believe, is the overriding consideration in such issues as conversions, and power to conduct weddings, both here and in Israel (any Rabbi will tell you that a Rabbi is not necessary to perform a wedding from a halachic standpoint. All that is needed are witnesses, a Ketubah--marriage contract--and the magic words uttered by the groom under a wedding canopy).

In my opinion, Orthodox Jews should come to terms with the reality that most American Jews will never be Orthodox, or even affiliated and/or committed Jews. Unfortunately, the progeny of most unaffiliated Jews will, in a generation or two, be lost to us. That is a sad reality. Some, hopefully, will be brought home through outreach programs.

Our primary goal, therefore, should be to hold together those groups who want to continue as Jews, whether or not we agree with every aspect of their definition of Jewish practice. The outreach programs are one way to achieve that and there needs to be more and better interdenominational dialogue. It is simply unacceptable to say, in effect, "they don't observe Shabbat, they don't keep kosher, they're not really Jews, so who needs them." We do. We need ALL of them. If they are born of a Jewish Mother, they are ours and we should do whatever we can to keep them in our community.

Now we will proceed to one of the more difficult and controversial subjects in Orthodoxy, i.e., the ones that will get me in hot water. First and foremost, I believe the Orthodox movement is, for the most part, intellectually dishonest with itself and others on a central question of tenet of its creed. This is the subject of the rebuilding of the Temple and the reinstatement of animal sacrifice. We pray three times a day for G-d to give us these gifts. But do we really want them? Do we really want to slaughter and sacrifice sheep and bullocks and goats, by the millions, at an altar and sprinkle blood on a curtain where G-d's presence is said to reside? Do we really want to tie a red filet around the neck of a goat and have it pushed over a cliff to roll down and break all its bones on the way down, for the atonement and remission of the sins of Israel?

Never mind what the animal rights activists will say. Do WE want to do this? We say we do. I do not believe it. I believe that the prohibition imposed by the Israeli Rabbinate on Jews who would ascend the Temple Mount in Jerusalem is emblematic of this issue. The claim is made that we do not know the precise location of the Holy of Holies, so we proscribe access to the entire Temple Mount. This is nonsense. We know to a virtual exactitude where the Holy of Holies was…at dead center in the Dome of the Rock.

We believe that the rock may have been the actual altar itself. No, the reason the Temple Mount is off-limits is a political decision designed to appease the Moslem Waqf. The traditional Jewish argument that we cannot rebuild the Temple without the Messiah is also of dubious validity and is more likely a recognition that rebuilding the Temple on the current site of the Mosque of Omar would inflame the Muslim World (and the rest of the world, for that matter), to an unimaginable extent.

There is a small, extremist minority in the Orthodox Community that incomprehensibly wants to go forward with this "plan" anyway. In fact, the Third Temple will not be built anytime soon and may, actually, truly have to await the Messiah's arrival, but not for the reasons traditionally advertised.

Another area fraught with doubletalk in Orthodoxy concerns the role and status of women. Virtually all Orthodox Jews have been told for many years that women are not second-class citizens in Jewish life, that their exclusion from much of the ritual is predicated on their 'special' role within the family, a role so important and demanding, that it exempts them from the burdens of observing many Mitzvot. We have been told that women are unapproachable by their husbands during the menstrual period and thereafter, until they have been to the mikveh, not because they are 'impure' but because their segregation for a period of time enhances the sexual relations between spouses, a theory that has been espoused most recently in the pop-culture book Kosher Sex.

In short, say the promoters of these flights of fancy, women are actually privileged, not subjugated. This revisionist history is an attempt by the powers that be in Orthodoxy to placate their female constituency who live in a modern world and are unwilling to accept the patriarchal paradigm that is Orthodox Judaism, and it is mythology which ranks with the oft-advanced explanation of dietary laws being based on forward-thinking health considerations.

Organizations such as JOFA and Edah represent attempts (consistently and often virulently opposed by the Orthodox Right) by Orthodox women to promote a feminist agenda within the strictures of Halacha. This, to be sure, is a tight and rocky course to navigate, especially given the depth of opposition within the Orthodox Community, whose rules are made entirely by men. It bespeaks a profound misunderstanding of Jewish History (intentional or not) to fail to grasp that the sources and origins of our religion are to be found in a Middle-Eastern, desert milieu, hardly a paragon of advanced feminist thought. The earliest Jews treated their women like chattels, as was the custom of the day around them.

This is truly an area in which Halacha should, in my opinion, be more open to change. The Jewish laws governing women's rights and roles within the Community are a function of societal norms which simply cannot stand the light of day in 21st Century America. Much as the Orthodox Rabbinate has created legal 'fictions' to deal with the Aguna (women with husbands who are either missing, but not ruled legally dead) it has within its power the ability to 'reinterpret' halachic principles to address the legitimate aspirations of Orthodox women to be truer participants in all aspect of Jewish life, while remaining Orthodox.

The Reform Movement: Openness (to a Fault)

It is time to turn to the worst crime committed against the Jewish Community by the Reform Movement. The word 'crime' is a very strong word. I'm not talking about the wholesale acquiescence in, if not acceptance of, intermarriage, which is bad enough. My father used to say that if you looked long and hard enough, you could find a Rabbi who would marry a cow to a horse.

No, I am referring to the sanctioning of patrilineal descent as a basis for Jewish identity. This was the worst thing ever done by the Reform movement, bar none. It virtually ensures future generations in which we will have classes of Jews: Jews accepted by everyone as Jews, and those accepted only by Reform Jews as Jews. This is a disaster. Any Rabbi will tell you that, no matter how far a Jew has strayed, no matter what abomination he has put in his mouth, or what he has done on the Sabbath or Yom Kippur, if he or she was born to a Jewish Mother, he or she is undeniably a Jew. Undeniably by anyone. The Cardinal of Paris, born a Jew, is still a Jew, halachically. On the other hand, a person, no matter how dedicated to Judaism, born of a Jewish Father and non-Jewish Mother is, according to Halacha, millennia-old, not a Jew unless converted.

It is a simple rule, easy to justify, because one can always be sure who the mother is. So while it may seem somewhat unfair, it does carry a logic with it, and its unhappy results can be remedied through the conversion process. The consequences of this sea change in ancient doctrine are not so apparent yet, but will become so in the years to come, when family histories will need to be developed in advance of marriage, the Law of Return of Israel and, perhaps, for as yet unforeseeable purposes.

A friend of mind, who is very secular, attends very infrequently a Reform Temple. One of the things he does not like about this institution is that he feels that the Jews there are in the minority. He feels uncomfortable worshiping among non-Jews. Imagine! The argument advanced by Reform authorities is that with the sheer volume of intermarriage, this is our version of kiruv, outreach. This is, says the Movement, its method to hold onto the Jewish Community.

With respect, I must say, that kiruv is desirable only if its end goal is to have a Jew return to the Community or, indeed, to discover it for the first time. An article, which appeared recently in the New York Times, discussed interfaith couples and their desire to remain as interfaith couples, participating fully in both Judaism and Christianity. The official position of the Reform Movement, according to this piece, is that conversion should be encouraged. That this requires a proclamation from Rabbi Eric Yoffie is astounding.

Morever, in a written response to this article, one of the featured couples insisted that they did not want conversion; rather, they wanted to enjoy the full panoply of experience in being both of the Jewish and Christian communities and wanted to raise their children in that same vein. I do not believe that one can play for both teams. I would expect, indeed I would hope, that many Christians feel the same way. So while I might argue that consideration be given to making it somewhat less difficult to convert to Judaism (I consider that, at least, a rational response to the intermarriage problem), if the end result is nothing more than attracting additional dues-paying congregants who don't know whether they want to be Jews or Christians, or who wish to be both, we are simply wasting valuable time and resources better spent elsewhere.

At some point, as hard as it may be to watch, sometimes helplessly, as people leave the fold, or marry outside the faith, we must be able to say to ourselves that we stand for something. Otherwise, we are nothing more than an Elks Chapter with 'bridge-night,' a dinner-dance and an Aron Kodesh (Holy Ark).

I am all for open-mindedness. I think we need more of it—much more—and soon. But as one of my Ramaz teachers, Rabbi Klein used to say: "Your mind can sometimes be so open that your brains fall out."

On the other hand, the open-mindedness of many Reform Jews seems to apply to everyone except their Orthodox brethren. I cannot say how many times I have seen non-Orthodox Jews cringe or profess embarrassment and yes, disgust, at overtly Orthodox Jews. "Why do they have to look like that?" "What is this, the Middle Ages?" "What's with the hats and the strings sticking out?" And, of course, "Don't they bathe? How do they wear that black gabardine clothing in the summertime?"

For shame! If only our 'open-minded' brethren could love their fellow Jews with the same fervor with which they embrace the Christian spouses of their members.

The Reform Liturgy and its Underpinnings:

With the advent of the revisions to the Reform prayer book some years ago came some editorial decision-making which is worthy of discussion. The liturgical centerpiece of every Jewish service is known to Jews the world over either as the "Shemoneh Esrei" or simply the 'Amidah', the silent prayer The prayer begins with the praising of the G-d of our Fathers, Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, and the conclusion of the opening paragraph praises G-d, the 'shield of Abraham.'

The Reform prayer book has added the praising of our Mothers, Sarah, Rebecca, Leah and Rachel and has further ended the paragraph with further praise of G-d, the 'shield of Abraham and provider of aid to Sarah.' Personally, I see nothing wrong with these additions. On the other hand, this rather dramatic liturgical change constitutes, in large measure, an instance of political correctness trumping the reality of our heritage.

It is simply revisionist history to suggest anything but that Judaism was (and to an extent, still is, at least in its Orthodox incarnation) a patriarchal religion, in which the roles of the Matriarchs, though important, are much less significant in the theological arena. Now while the Amidah has made it somewhat intact into the Reform prayer book, numerous passages, for theological reasons peculiar to Reform Judaism, have been omitted. For example, references to G-d's revival of the dead have been substituted with G-d's implanting into humankind, eternal life. The distinction is subtle, but important.

Much of the traditional liturgy in the Amidah is predicated on the description of animal sacrifice appropriate to the occasion in question. All references to things Messianic, including the hoped-for rebuilding of the Temple, the return of G-d's presence (the 'Shechina') to Jerusalem and the re-imposition of animal sacrifice have been excised. On the other hand, some of the editorial decisions evident in the Reform prayer book are quite insidious. Many instances exist in which the Hebrew version of a prayer is left largely intact, so as, presumably, to convey a sense of continuity or tradition, while the English version bears no relationship to the Hebrew.

In the most overt cases, the editors drop a footnote with words to the effect (I paraphrase), "The intent of the editors is not to render a literal translation of the Hebrew, but to attempt to discern the timeless truth contained therein." What unimaginable hubris! Are we seriously to accept that the authors of these prayers, many of whom were great Torah sages, whose words date back to medieval times, or earlier, could not adequately convey their 'timeless truth' with the adroitness of a Chaim Stern? And does this approach not assume (perhaps rightly) and not encourage, even, the ignorance of Reform worshipers with respect to the Hebrew language? Personally, I can much more easily come to terms with liturgical change for theologically-based reasons than with misleading worshipers about what it is they are saying.

In the case of outright change to the text of the prayers, the reasons for all this may, and indeed are, quite objectionable to Orthodox Jews; nevertheless, viewed from the Reform perspective, they make sense. The Reform Movement does not accept the premise of Torah from Mt. Sinai, i.e., the literal truth of the revelation to the Jewish people at Mount Sinai. Once you've taken that foundation out, the entire structure of Halacha, as Jews have historically understood it, is compromised, for the reasons outlined earlier. In essence, then, what Reform Jews are left with is devotion to G-d which, in essence, is spiritually-based, rather than predicated on the doing of Mitzvot ordained by the Torah, the Oral Law and the Rabbis.

Another principle of Halacha is that the Jewish Law derives, in essence, from three sources: The literal words of the Torah, given, in writing, to the Jews, via Moses, at Sinai, the Oral Law, by which we mean laws given to the Jews via Moses which have been in effect for just as long, but which are not codified in the Torah (both of the preceding are sometimes referred to as D'Orraitah, which, in Aramaic, literally means: 'from the Torah'), and Rabbinical Law, sometimes referred to as D'Rabbanan, which interprets, explains, and, in some cases, supplements (but of course, never contradicts) the foregoing).

Even a cursory reading of the Reform prayer book reveals a strong appeal to the 'ethical' Mitzvot ('commandments) of Judaism, but far less emphasis on the more 'ritualistic' Mitzvot. Traditional Jewish thought on this subject is clear and quite well-established. Both are of equal importance. In fact, the Rabbis have told us, the Ten Commandments is a perfect symbol for this, in that the first five Commandments are between Man and G-d, while the second five are between Man and his fellow Man. But, I submit, once you eliminate Torah from Mt. Sinai as the central tenet of religious thought, an ethical construct is much easier to put together than a set of defined ritual, at least in the obligatory sense.

Why restrict what we eat, or why refrain from cooking on the Sabbath if we are not so commanded by G-d? On the other hand, the ethical principles of helping our fellow Man, refraining from stealing and bearing false witness have a clear practical value and even if G-d did not impart those laws to us at Sinai, the mere acceptance of any just G-d would, in and of itself, doubtless commend us to such behavior. In other words, if G-d did not give us the ethical rules, he should have.

Make no mistake about it: Reform Judaism, by having rejected Torah from Mt. Sinai, and, by extension, rabbinic halachic authority has not a great deal left to work with, in this writer's opinion. Take out roughly half the Mitzvot (or make them, as the Movement does, in many instances, 'voluntary'), eliminate the Messianic vision (which, in turn, incorporates our religious—as opposed to our secular Zionist—tie to the Land of Israel and the rebuilding of the Temple), and the remaining gruel is, I am sorry to say, quite thin. And it already has a name: Ethical Culture. The idea is that much in Reform Judaism in need of reform, there are always unforeseen consequences in any type of reform which can result in 'throwing the baby out with the bathwater.'

The Conservative Movement: Any Ideas?

As for the Conservative Movement, engaged in its lifelong search for identity, it is, more than ever, a Movement in need of a raison d'etre. It is becoming harder with each passing day to find an observable difference between practices and ritual in Reform and Conservative Synagogues. As Orthodoxy has moved palpably to the right, the Conservative Movement has moved inexorably to the left. In many New York Area communities, Conservative Synagogues, once 1000 or 2000 families strong have simply disappeared, as some of those communities have been taken over by vibrant Orthodox populations, or these Synagogues have simply died from lack of interest. I know of several such congregations that are actively considering becoming Orthodox now. Some have even already switched to the Orthodox Prayer books.

This is not to say that Conservative Judaism has no place in America. There is certainly a need for a movement to fill the wide (and, for the foreseeable future, unbridgeable) gap between Orthodoxy and Reform. But the Movement first needs to decide what it is. It cannot be everything to everyone and it must stand for some definable set of principles.

So, Where Do We Go From Here?

Now that some of the deficiencies of the three mainstream Jewish movements have been identified and discussed, what are we to do? It is easy to criticize but are there real solutions to the problems we have looked at? Is there a utopian form of Judaism, which can incorporate the best of all worlds? A world in which one can experience the utter joy and tranquility of an halachically observed Shabbat with the cares of the everyday world truly laid aside, together with a world in which women can be full partners and participants in the practice of Judaism, including the honor of being called to the Torah and fulfilling the Mitzvot of Tallis and Tefillin?

Certainly, this does not exist today, and the entrenched interests of the three mainstream movements make it unlikely that a successful foray into this brave new world will be possible anytime soon. It is, however, a subject worthy of serious contemplation and discussion, and points out, once again, the necessity for more regular interdenominational consultation and dialogue, so that areas of agreement and potential agreement, however few, can be identified, and those areas susceptible to compromise can be addressed.

In the meantime, not only is there no Jewish movement acceptable to everyone, there is, in many cases, no Jewish movement fully acceptable to the individual, this author included. So we have to choose among those that are available to us and to be the Jews we want to be and can be within those frameworks.


from the July 2006 Edition of the Jewish Magazine




Please let us know if you see something unsavory on the Google Ads and we will have them removed. Email us with the offensive URL (www.something.com)