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The identified patient: placing the Reform movement in a broader family context.

IF AMERICAN JUDAISM COULD BE TREATED IN A FAMILY therapy setting, Reform Judaism might well play the part of the "identified patient," the member of the family whose symptoms carry the distress and the issues that reside within the larger system and affect as well as implicate everyone. While Reform may be the place where the challenges and crises are most accessible and evident, the difficulties manifest in Reform Judaism today are evident throughout the entire North American Jewish community.

I raise this at the outset because while Dana Kaplan has crafted a comprehensive and challenging survey and analysis of contemporary Reform Judaism, his treatment of the issue facing the movement often seems to stand apart from the larger context in which it lives. The problems he identifies are problems that are shared, to greater and lesser degrees, among the other religious streams in American Judaism; and, thus, his proposed response to the problems facing Reform needs to be evaluated in this larger context.

In this regard, I welcome the invitation to respond to Rabbi Kaplan's book from a Reconstructionist perspective, even as I note with disappointment Kaplan's almost total ignoring of Reconstructionism. This is regrettable; unlike Conservative and Orthodox Judaism, each of which is committed officially to halakha as binding, Reconstructionism shares with Reform a position that gives the halakha "a vote but not a veto," and therefore presents a parallel culture in which many of the same issues affecting Reform are made manifest.

Three Goals

Dana Kaplan has three goals: to provide a general introduction to the American Reform movement; to describe the social and religious dynamics that affect that movement; and to argue that, in the absence of a compelling core theology, the continuity of Reform Judaism is in danger (p. 1).

The survey of the history of the Reform movement that Kaplan weaves through his book is comprehensive and informative, fulfilling his first goal. I did question the interplay throughout the book of official statements and anecdotal evidence, often from private correspondence or conversation between Kaplan and other Reform rabbis or Reform laypeople. While quoting from individuals adds some narrative color, does it really make any difference what Rabbi X thought about something? In this regard, I found Kaplan's extensive treatment of some of the more recent ethical infractions, accusations, and scandals that have occurred within the Reform movement--naming names, citing allegations--to be distasteful as well as unnecessary.

With regard to the second goal, Kaplan ably analyzes many of the social and religious dynamics affecting American Reform, including the issues of intermarriage, gay and lesbian inclusivity, feminism and the declining connection between American Reform Jews and Israel. In particular, he cites the continuing domination of American Judaism by a consumer mentality, in which fee-for-service rather than covenantal community becomes the organizing metaphor.

Inclusivity and Boundaries

Kaplan's thorough analysis of the issues--and of Reform's response to those issues--is a central strength of the book. He argues persuasively that Reform's history of progressive policy and posture positioned it to take advantage of the inclusivity dynamic that has been so central to liberal American religion in general in the past two decades. Reform has thus become a preferred address for many intermarried Jewish families, for converts, for gay and lesbian Jews and families, and for progressive Jewish feminist thinkers. Of course, the flip side of inclusivity is boundaries and standards, and here Kaplan correctly notes that the welcoming attitude of Reform towards these formerly marginal (or, more correctly, marginalized) populations has also generated any number of issues for Reform Judaism.

For example, as Kaplan notes, outreach to intermarried families is fine, but how does the Reform movement then affirm that only children raised solely with a Jewish identity can attend its synagogue schools? Although the Union of Reform Judaism (URJ), then the Union of American Hebrew Congregations UAHC), did in fact adopt a policy reflecting that position, what does it mean that, as Kaplan reports, it is routinely ignored in many Reform congregations and presumably by their Reform rabbis? Similarly, how do Reform rabbis who do not choose to officiate at interfaith marriages maintain that position in the face of a consumer-driven demand of their congregants that they get with the program and stop being hypocritical, i.e., welcoming interfaith families but refusing to officiate at interfaith weddings? I found Kaplan's assertion that "the only sensible solution is to avoid the dilemma by agreeing to officiate without preconditions" (p. 178) to be a rather radical concession.

Pragmatism, not Ideology

It is worth noting that some decades ago, when Reform confronted the issues of boundaries and standards, the discussion was often around theology and/or ideology. The old issues that agitated Reform often centered on belief. The "polydoxy" of HUC-JIR professor Alvin Reines, who argued for a radical individualism and an open (anti- or even non-)theology, stirred the movement, as did the debate over whether a "humanistic" congregation could join the UAHC. Today, issues of boundaries and standards center on behavior; and the operative dynamic, as Kaplan notes, is one of compassion, support, and, most critically, being non-judgmental. Thus inclusivity becomes, functionally, an acceptance of just about anything, and the burden is on those rabbis or congregations that choose to maintain a boundary line. Under the current circumstances, it is hard to imagine the URJ rejecting the membership application of a humanistic congregation, as it did back in 1994.

To return briefly to the therapeutic metaphor, these issues are hardly limited to Reform Judaism. Certainly the Reconstructionist movement, as well as the nascent Jewish Renewal movement, pride themselves on a similarly inclusive attitude, and consequently face the same problems of boundaries and standards. The Conservative movement is also affected by issues of inclusivity. Although it enjoys the ideological safety of the halakha, where limitations on inclusivity and acceptance of diversity are automatically constrained in a much more narrow way, Conservatism too faces agitation (increasingly from laypeople, but also from a number of rabbis) over welcoming intermarried families, and over gay and lesbian access.

But it is the Reform movement, owing to its size and prominence, where these issues are played out most publicly, as well as most stridently. Issues of boundaries and standards, for example, almost instantly become issues of rabbinic-lay relations, prerogatives, and power. When the rabbi holds that a child raised simultaneously as a Jew and a Christian cannot be enrolled in religious school or become Bat Mitzvah, and the congregation president and board hold the opposite position (with an eye on the membership rolls and the synagogue budget), in the current climate it is not too hard to predict who will win.

Authority and Autonomy

The Reform trope of autonomy, in the absence of a corresponding trope of community, yields, as Kaplan correctly notes, a bottom-line position in which centralized affirmations, positions, and practices are functionally meaningless. This calls into question the analysis and prescription that Kaplan offers with regard to his third goal, namely that of shaping a core theological understanding around which Reform Jews can gather, and out of which might emerge a normative core of what is and is not acceptable under the heading of Reform Judaism.

In this regard, Kaplan rehearses the 1998-99 debate over a new Reform platform, a debate that became a vehicle through which dormant issues in the Reform movement were reanimated. As Kaplan correctly notes, after the smoke had cleared, the 1999 platform of Reform Judaism adopted by the Central Conference of American Rabbis (CCAR) (but not, tellingly, by the UAHC/URJ) died a quiet death, with little practical consequence to show for all the effort, energy, and excitement expended. It is curious to me that Kaplan does not draw some of the logical conclusions from this recent exercise, and instead affirms that the construction of a core theology would (even if it could be created) somehow solidify and stabilize the soft nature of Reform belief, practice, and commitment.

As URJ President Eric Yoffie notes in his Afterword, American Jews like other Americans are pragmatists, not ideologues. They are consumers of product and service, who spend their discretionary dollars, time, and energy in places where they perceive value. Reform rabbis may think they represent Reform Judaism, but Reform congregations represent Reform Jews (and, increasingly, the non-Jews to whom they are married). In the push-and-pull between what (Reform) Judaism says and what the Reform Jews in a given congregation want, the outcome is already evident.

So when Kaplan argues that a core theology would contribute to resolving the tensions between autonomy and authority, he seems to overlook that the resolution of that tension has already occurred--autonomy is authority. If today's American Jews have any core and shared belief, it is in their functional self-understanding of themselves as what Steven Cohen and Arnold Eisen have named "sovereign selves."

Can we imagine, for example, a resolution adopted in 2004 that takes as its point of departure the assumptions of the opening line of the 1983 CCAR Resolution on Patrilineality--"The CCAR declares that the child of one Jewish parent is under the presumption of Jewish identity"? Today's Jewish and non-Jewish parents do not come kipa-in-hand to the synagogue to ask if their child will be considered Jewish--they come to tell us they consider their child Jewish, and dare anyone to tell them otherwise.

Folk and Elite Religion

Despite the many strengths of American Reform Judaism, there remains one major and pervasive weakness in Kaplan's presentation, namely, that he does not address the distinction between what sociologist Charles Liebman (and others) have named "folk" and "elite" religion.

What exactly is the frame of reference for American Reform Judaism? Kaplan refers indiscriminately to Reform thinkers; Reform rabbis; Reform Jews; Reform Judaism; and the Reform movement as if these were interchangeable. But surely what the "folk" may believe and what the "elite" may affirm are not always coordinate. One might well ask whether the 1881, 1937, and 1976 platforms of Reform Judaism, as well as that of 1999, meant anything to the vast majority of American Reform Jews at the time they were adopted by the CCAR.

In this regard, I found Kaplan's reliance on generalizations and terms such as "most" or "many" to be problematic. For example: "Most Reform Jews believe that God created the world and continues to be involved in an ongoing process of creation;" "most Reform Jews believe that God revealed the Torah to Israel in some form, but they would differ on what form such revelation may have taken;" "Reform Judaism does not accept that the written Torah ... was revealed to Moses, word for word and letter for letter;" or "Reform thinkers believe that humans have far more control over how the religious tradition develops and is practiced" (all found on page 29).

I suppose if one asked such questions in a multiple-choice format, most Reform Jews (I would argue, without irony, that "most" American Jews) would choose such answers. Confronted with a choice like--"The Torah a) is the literally revealed word of God given at Mt Sinai; b) is written by divinely-inspired people; or c) contains things given directly by God, such as the 10 Commandments, that we should follow, but also much written by Jews of long ago, like the rules of animal sacrifice, which we can ignore"--most would choose "c." But that assumes that most American Jews think about such things at all, and that, as Yoffie notes, is an unlikely assumption.

The New Jewish Market

Survey after survey, anecdote after anecdote, and statistic after statistic show that American Jews choose synagogue affiliation on any number of issues, but ideology or theology are likely to be among those least important. It seems to me no coincidence that, in the decade between the 1990 and 2000 National Jewish Population Surveys, the number of Jews identifying as Conservative declined, while those identifying as Reform increased. In that same decade, the communal discussion on intermarriage coalesced around outreach, welcome, and inclusivity; the enfranchisement of gay and lesbian Jews occurred; and the emergence of spirituality (which correlates with Judaism as a religion rather than a civilization) became central. Not surprisingly, the product best positioned to take advantage of these new markets was Reform Judaism.

Kaplan correctly raises the question of whether, having become the home for the majority of affiliated American Jews, Reform Judaism can create a lasting commitment that conveys continuity. The alternatives are not encouraging. We may yet witness the dissolving of any remaining core beliefs into an amorphous inclusivity; or Gen Xers and millenials passing by Jewishness and Judaism on their way to generic spirituality; or the acceptance of syncretistic religious identity whereby Jews-for-Jesus becomes not only one more dimension of an inclusive community, but a normative resolution of the identity issues for interfaith families; or the reduction of Jewish connection to fee-for-service stops as needed in the journey through the lifecycle.

If Reform Judaism is the identified patient of the American Jewish community, Kaplan's timely book may well be the encouragement we need--all of us, not just Reform Jews--to recognize the seriousness of the issues we face, and the imperative to enter into a community-wide conversation that seeks to uncover, address, and heal the disruptions that impede the healthy functioning of our American Jewish family.

RICHARD HIRSH is the Executive Director of the Reconstructionist Rabbinical Association and Editor of the journal The Reconstructionist.
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Author:Hirsh, Richard
Publication:Judaism: A Quarterly Journal of Jewish Life and Thought
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Jun 22, 2004
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