What’s Eating Reform Judaism?
Rabbi takes to the ‘Forward’ with a theological explanation
Last week, the excellent Sue Fishkoff reported on the failure of the American Reform movement’s embrace of patrilineal descent—the notion that the child of a Jewish father and a non-Jewish mother is automatically Jewish (as opposed to traditional Jewish law, which establishes only matrilineal descent)—to catch on in other countries’ Reform faiths. (And in a letter, NYU’s Steven M. Cohen confirmed that the majority of American Reform Jews support patrilineal descent.) Also last week, the also excellent Josh Nathan-Kazis reported on a nascent crisis in liberal denominations, in which dissenting rabbis are trying to shake things up.
These two trends come together in an important essay in this week’s Forward by Dana Evan Kaplan, a Reform rabbi in Albany, Georgia. To
her him*, the inability of Reform Judaism’s ability to coalesce—the deluge it is potentially on the verge of—is actually a consequence of its religious substance. He argues:
The pluralistic theologies of Reform Judaism make it difficult to reach consensus on what we Reform Jews believe on any given issue. The liberal approach to observance makes it impossible to set and maintain high expectations in terms of communal participation. Without an omnipotent God who can compel believers to practice a prescribed pattern of behavior, religious consumerism becomes the movement’s dominant ethos. As members focus on what they want rather than what they can contribute, it becomes increasingly difficult to build committed religious communities.
His solution would seem to be a return to Reform Judaism’s roots, which, though of course based on a laxer approach than what we would now call Orthodox Judaism, was in its own way as theologically rigorous.
“As the Reform movement has increasingly emphasized religious autonomy and the importance of choosing what each person finds spiritually meaningful, it has become impossible to compel members to come to services regularly, study Torah seriously and contribute to the vibrant well-being of their congregation,” he notes. “Instead, they are allowed to come twice a year and call on the rabbi whenever they need a life cycle ceremony.” There is a difference, in other words, between formal laxness and informal laxness.
What he fails, to my reading, to argue is that a more rigorous theological approach would be not only real-world practical but theologically superior. I would love to read that piece, though.
Why Is Patrilineal Descent Not Catching On in Reform Worldwide? [JTA]
Liberal Denominations Face Crisis as Rabbis Rebel, Numbers Shrink [Forward]
The Theological Roots of Reform Judaism’s Woes [Forward]
* Josh Lambert emails me to point out that Kaplan is, in fact, a man. Apologies! I suppose, though, that it is a sign of progress that a journalist had no trouble assuming a rabbi named Dana is a woman.