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Dissent in the Reform Ranks

Judaism’s largest denomination sees growing divisions around Israel, political alignment, Jewish peoplehood, and the very future of the movement

Armin Rosen
June 28, 2023
Tablet Magazine
Tablet Magazine
Tablet Magazine
Tablet Magazine

None of the speakers I heard or attendees I met at the Re-Charging Reform Judaism conference, held at Manhattan’s Stephen Wise Free Synagogue on May 31 and June 1, referred to themselves as dissidents, and at no point did anyone claim to be part of an internal opposition bloc within what is still the largest American Jewish denomination. In a question-and-answer session after what was officially billed as a “response” to the conference, Rabbi Rick Jacobs, president of the Union for Reform Judaism, likened the more critical segments of the event to a dvar acher—the smaller and perhaps incidental “other thing,” as opposed to the larger and more officious main thing that Jacobs leads. The two-day event concluded with the critics and the criticized joining together in a piano-led group singalong of the Zvika Pik “Shehechiyanu,” which is about the most Reform Jewish thing one can possibly imagine.

Nearly all of the over 290 attendees were people professionally committed to the mission of the Reform movement, and to its belief that Judaism’s unique practices and metaphysical claims can survive—and can perhaps only survive—within the embrace of liberal modernity. But many of those on hand, who included major congregational rabbis and professors from the movement’s Hebrew Union College, were there because they now found it impossible to avoid a Jewish version of one of liberalism’s great paradoxes: There is a tension between specific objectives and broad-minded principles, and unchecked tolerance can pose a danger to one’s core beliefs.

In his keynote address, Ammiel Hirsch, Stephen Wise’s senior rabbi, laid out the rationale for the two-day event. Hirsch is a former IDF tank commander, a youthfully energetic, middle-aged pulpit savant who laces his speeches with emphatic pauses and dramatically shifting cadences. Reform Judaism is getting smaller, he warned: “[O]ur institutions seem to be contracting, not expanding.” Internal divisions are becoming harder to ignore. “Sooner or later we will have to attend to the growing fissures in the Reform movement itself. We cannot pretend they do not exist for the sake of a false sense of unity,” he said. As for the movement’s relationship with Israel, Hirsch said, “I worry—deeply—that increasing numbers of liberal young adults, including those entering Reform leadership, express indifference to Israel—or worse, opposition not to the policies of Israeli governments, but to the very legitimacy of the Zionist enterprise and the Jewish state. … To turn against Israel, to join our ideological opponents and political enemies in castigating Zionism, is a sign of Jewish illness.” The speech drew a standing ovation from almost everyone in Stephen Wise’s sanctuary.

Hirsch could have limited the scope of his speech, and of the conference he organized, to such immediate topics as the movement’s fraught relationship with Zionism, its perceived overemphasis on a sharply partisan tikkun olam social justice theology, and its apparently growing unease with the idea that Jews are a distinct national unit with a particular purpose and destiny. All of these topics were discussed at the conference, but in his address, Hirsch broadened his critique even further, declaring that the movement is now snared in the liberal paradox of self-destructive openness.

Hirsch argued that Reform’s egalitarian vision has the potential to alienate the movement’s followers from the things they are supposed to care about the most. “There is something innate in the philosophy of Western Jewish liberalism that inclines us to elevate universal aspirations, not as complementary to, or a reflection of, Jewish peoplehood, but as its replacement,” he told the conference.

The rabbi reminded his audience that their movement had, at the more assimilationist and anti-Zionist points in its history, threatened to lapse into the kind of Christianized pseudo-Judaism that its more traditional-minded critics still accuse it of practicing. “Judaism absent Jewish peoplehood is not Judaism; it is something else,” said Hirsch. “Whenever Jews abandoned their ideological—or practical—commitment to Am Yisrael, they eventually drifted away. This was precisely the accusation leveled by Abba Hillel Silver toward his anti-Zionist colleagues in the prewar years. By continuing to insist that the Jews are ‘no longer a nation, but a religious community,’ Silver contended that Reform rabbis were reconstituting ‘Paul’s insistence upon a religious creed entirely divorced from nation and land.’” Hirsch’s reference was meant to make listeners ponder whether their own Reform colleagues are the present-day version of Silver’s incipient Paulites—as well as whether the speaker is a modern-day Silver, sounding the alarm.

For Hirsch, to be a conscientious Reform Jew means to be like Silver, on guard against the self-sabotaging temptations of the movement’s own central ideas. The question that the conference posed, but didn’t quite answer, is what that vigilance should consist of in our own present day, and how far the movement should be willing to go to protect what it claims to value.

Like many American Jewish gatherings, the Re-Charge conference largely consisted of older people commenting on the mentality of the young. “I’ve never experienced these kids as apathetic,” said Rabbi Matthew Gerwitz of the youthful anti-Israel Reform Jews he’s encountered in his rabbinic work at New Jersey’s B’nai Jeshurun, during his speech on the conference’s first day. “They wanted answers that squared with the Jewish education that we gave them.”

It was a 36-year-old rabbi, seemingly the youngest of the first day’s speakers, who most vividly laid out the movement’s issues. Rabbi Tarlan Rabizadeh, now vice president of Jewish engagement at American Jewish University, said that during her time as a director of student life at UCLA’s Hillel, “students were often in my office in tears weekly, sometimes daily.” Campus antisemitism had activated their Jewish identities, but they didn’t have the educational or spiritual grounding to settle their own rattled psyches, much less advocate for themselves as Jews.

Rabizadeh explained that the students’ confusion was downstream of even deeper failures in the movement, ones she had seen up close as a rabbinical student. She implied that the Reform movement had bred unseriousness and equivocation even into its future rabbis. Rabizadeh said she was rebuffed when she attempted to display an Israeli flag in the Hebrew Union College bet midrash during an uptick of violence in the country. (She added that her friends in the Persian Jewish community, which unlike many other subsets of American Judaism has had to flee a hostile theocracy within living memory, were shocked that the room in which she prayed and studied didn’t already have an Israeli flag in it.)

Rabizadeh spoke movingly about being in Jerusalem during the death of her grandfather back in the U.S., thousands of miles away. “Go to the Kotel,” her mother instructed when she shared her disappointment at not being able to attend his funeral. “He’s probably there already.” At Judaism’s most-visited holy site, Rabizadeh saw a woman explaining to her young daughter that they were in a special place, where you could pray for absolutely anything. Rabizadeh said she later told her rabbinical school classmates about this powerful convergence of self, place, and peoplehood—which, not incidentally, could only have happened in an Israel under Jewish political control. But: “When I shared that story at HUC, I got snickered at.”

After the first day of the conference wrapped up, I joined Hirsch in his office, a couple floors above the Stephen Wise sanctuary. Leaning against a wall-length bookshelf was a poster-board blowup of an article in the Jan. 26, 1898, issue of Harper’s Weekly about the Second Zionist Congress in Basel, Switzerland. In the accompanying photo, Theodor Herzl speaks from the rostrum to a room full of half-delusional Jewish utopians, a dvar acher that would come to be a defining event in Jewish history. Rabbi Stephen Wise, namesake of Hirsch’s synagogue and a fierce internal critic of the Reform movement’s anti-Zionist mainstream in the early 20th century, is seated on the dais almost directly behind Herzl.

The Reform movement’s contraction is sometimes touted as proof that liberal religion is oxymoronic, and that it simply isn’t tenable or satisfying or theologically consistent to warp something as awesome and limitless as God or the Jewish people within the contours of our own modern prejudices. But the image of Stephen Wise, a few feet behind the founder of modern Zionism, undermines the traditionalist fantasy that the Reform movement is somehow easily dispensed with. The image should complicate the outlook of those who cheer the decline of the movement, which is accused of being a force for assimilation and whose failure would supposedly prove that the American Jewish future lies outside the broader society’s liberal mainstream. The Reform movement isn’t a deviation from some fictive strain of pure Judaism: Its history places it in the center of nearly every major Jewish debate and event since the mid-19th century, and in the modern day it is responsible for engaging some large number of people who would otherwise have no strong connection to their identity. The 2020 Pew Survey of American Jewry found that nearly half of the children of only one Jewish parent between the ages of 18 and 49 identify as Jews, while “three-quarters of those raised as Jews of no religion remain Jewish today.” These numbers would be far lower, and the concepts behind them less plausible, without the Reform movement, whose compromises are ones that most American Jews have already made whether they consciously realize it or not.

How much compromise is too much, though? Once such pillars of the religion as kashrut, Shabbat observance, and the traditional liturgy have been jettisoned as a matter of principle, rather than merely out of expedience, basic communal and intellectual coherence requires that some limiting principle be applied. Reform Judaism has to be more than a justification for not believing in much of anything, just as it can’t be a subset of belief in a secular political agenda. In his presentation on the conference’s second day, Rabbi David Woznica of the Stephen Wise Temple in Los Angeles noted that the movement’s advocacy arm now officially supports reparations for slavery in California. The movement needs to do a better job of distinguishing its social and political goals from those of the Democratic Party, he said: “If that becomes the moral compass, then let the party decide what our Judaism will be,” Woznica slyly suggested. “If Jews are going to hear the same thing in their synagogue” as they would on MSNBC, “why would they go? And they aren’t going.”

In his office, Hirsch hinted that the movement’s most successful innovations, which are based on the idea that Jews can govern their own religious life while still being authentically Jewish, can only endure as long as there are areas where the movement refuses to compromise. “There’s a certain school of Western liberalism that values universalism above everything else,” Hirsch said. Total universalism is a tempting dead end for any liberal-minded movement. “A central objective of this conference is to set out ideological demarcation lines,” explained Hirsch. “If we’re a Zionist movement, don’t we have an obligation to ordain Zionist rabbis?” “If we all agree” on Zionism as a core principle, Hirsch continued, “what are the steps we take to enshrine these values in the movement and future leaders of our movement?”

One of the major questions going into the conference was whether Hirsch’s well-known dismay at the Reform movement’s supposed internal division and drift was meant to forestall some future crisis, or whether it is a reaction to a current crisis that only a senior movement figure like him is in a position to see. The conference ended with “responses” from Jacobs; Rabbi Hara Person, the chief executive of the Central Conference of American Rabbis; and Andrew Rehfeld, president of Hebrew Union College. Jacobs’ and Rehfeld’s speeches indicated that Hirsch may not be overstating the urgency of the situation: The current leaders of the movement would draw very different demarcation lines than Hirsch would, and their basic priorities and overall view of the movement differ sharply from his.

Jacobs appeared on the Stephen Wise bimah in a sharp blazer and no necktie, the lithe and confident leader of a large national organization. He apparently disagreed that the movement had been sucked into divisive political agendas, and proudly announced that Reform had implemented diversity, equity, and inclusion training among its staff “so that we can more effectively lead our diverse movement.” After all, Jacobs continued, “inclusion is a moral Jewish obligation,” while “it is impossible to detach tikkun olam from real Judaism” given that the movement’s “commitment to justice is theological.” Jacobs added a condition to the usual liberal formulation for support for Israel, a country about which he had almost nothing positive to say in his speech: Reform now believed in a “secure, Jewish, just and democratic state,” implying that the place might no longer be worth supporting if its democratic will proved to be unjust by the movement’s standards. The one apparent bright spot amid Israel’s intolerance and extremism was the Reform movement itself, which had organized in opposition to the right-wing government’s judicial reforms and challenged the chief rabbinate on its inequitable treatment of non-Orthodox communities. Jacobs received polite applause, but no standing ovation.

It was the deep-voiced and professorial Rehfeld, sounding less like a corporate spokesperson than a principled defender of his own nonnegotiable set of ideas, who drew the most direct contrast with Hirsch. He embraced the movement’s role as an antagonist to the traditionalist end of the Jewish spectrum, condemning “Yeshiva University’s medieval restrictions on gay and lesbian student organizations,” and suggesting a new catchall phrase for the Haredi and even yeshivish stands of Judaism: “We have communities that are practicing Jewish fundamentalism,” he declared. “Let’s name it for what it is.” Rehfeld said that he found a 2021 open letter harshly critical of Israel that was signed by a significant number of HUC rabbinical students during the height of the early 2021 rocket bombardment from Gaza to be “profoundly offensive and insensitive.” Still, he believed that a “litmus test” for aspiring Reform rabbis would amount to “Jewish McCarthyism.” “A lot of things I’ve heard here frankly leave me troubled,” Rehfeld continued. “The idea we should refuse admissions or ordination because of political activism is abhorrent to me.” He acknowledged there should be unspecified “certain boundaries.” Still, he said, “what’s being suggested is about assuaging our discomfort about a new generation.”

Unlike Jacobs, Rehfeld received a standing ovation from seemingly half the audience, meaning that there are people who rose for both Hirsch and for his critic. The next phase of debate over the movement’s future seems likely to unfold at HUC, around the issue of what Reform professionals should be expected to believe about Zionism. But even the dvar acher, the nondissidents who are nevertheless concerned about the movement’s future, have yet to determine their own willingness to spark a painful self-reckoning within the already fraying institution they’ve dedicated their lives to.

Armin Rosen is a staff writer for Tablet Magazine.