Jack Is Back

We didn’t stop him the last time around when his victim was Conservatism, as I had presciently recommended, and lo and behold, JTS’s Jack Wertheimer is back on the attack against the non-Orthodox, this time with What Does Reform Judaism Stand For? in this month’s Commentary.

Something must be done about that man, if only by having him join the roster at Cross-Currents, so that his incisive pieces can be written off as just so much Orthodox triumphalist, exclusivist tripe, which can’t quite so easily be done now that he’s the JTS Provost publishing in Commentary.

Perhaps I’ll have other occasion to comment at greater length on the article, but for now I’ll suffice with one comment. He writes:

In a remarkable statement issued last summer, Rabbi Yoffie distinguished the Judaism practiced by Reform from other forms of Judaism in these words: “If you take it all upon yourself as an obligation rather than as a choice, you’ve reached the point at which you’re no longer a Reform Jew.”

Here, at last, is a candidly non-inclusive position. What it suggests is that in today’s Reform, red lines continue to exist to the Right: for a rabbi or a congregant to flirt with the basic concept of religious obligation, or venture too close to traditional Jewish observances, is to rule oneself out.

What of red lines to the religious Left? Are there any limits there? True, the movement disapproves of such outlying phenomena as the Society for Humanistic Judaism with its denial of a personal God, or Jews for Jesus. But, as we have seen, it has accommodated all sorts of other innovation under the rubric of legitimate Jewish expression, and has been remarkably silent on what it would consider beyond the pale.

The reference to Humanistic Judaism jogged my memory, causing me to delve into my voluminous files under “R”, for Responsa, Heteredox (I’ve thought from time to time of drawing on my vast archives and expertise to pen a monthly column titled “A Review of Periodical Heterodox Responsa Literature,” to compete with Rabbi Bleich’s long-running Tradition feature, but the I realized: who would read it?) What I retrieved was a CCAR responsum from 5751 regarding a secular humanistic congregation seeking admission to the Reform congregational body, UAHC.

Briefly, the question before Responsa Committee was this:

Reform Judaism has been an open-ended and variegated movement. It is historically flexible, but how far does flexibility go? Can it accommodate the philosophy and liturgy of this particular Congregation?

The responsum sets outs to answer this difficult query and, along the way to its resolution, engages in a great deal of very subtle lomdus, which I found fascinating. To share the wealth, I’ll quote an illustrative snippet of this, (and will, of course, withhold [almost] all other comment, respectful as I am of other religious traditions):

The Congregation’s liturgy deletes any and all mention of G-d, either in Hebrew . . . or English. One of its publications . . . explains the congregation’s position in this regard as follows: “The concept of G-d has undergone constant modification in Judaism . . . There has always been and continues to be great diversity in the Jewish understanding of G-d.”

There can certainly be no disagreement with the statement that Reform Jews (like other Jews) have different conceptions of God. Our Gates of Prayer, in the sixth Shabbat eve service while leaving the traditional Hebrew God-language undisturbed, does not use the word “God” in the English text. Instead it speaks of “The Power that makes for freedom” and says: “We worship the power that unites all the universe into one great harmony” (p.210).

It is clear that the sixth service remains a prayer service, which leaves it to the worshippers to fill the word “Power” with their interpretation of the supernatural. The language is purposefully ambiguous only within these limits. That kind of ambiguity does not, however, exist in the Congregation’s liturgy.

To be sure, the above- mentioned statement says: “Many falsely assume that humanism is atheistic…The definition of Humanistic Judaism does not preclude one’s having a concept of God.”

This affirmation of people’s right to interpret the God-concept in their own way is, however, not borne out by the liturgy which precludes the exercise of this right by omitting any and all references to a supernatural power in whatever language. In fact, the statement goes on to say unequivocally: “The use of prayer in services would be incompatible with such a theological system.”

So, to review, the Humanistics are dissembling by granting the right to members to “have a conception of G-d” [although presumably they’d draw the line at an immaculate one – EK] but denying the right to “exercise that right” by having “services” complete with “liturgy” but sans “prayer,” whereas the Reform team is honest because its Prayer Service #6 [I can’t tell you how much I want to say something here about wonton soup, but I gave my word – EK] remains a “prayer service” despite the fact that it “leaves it to the worshippers to fill the word “Power” with their interpretation of the supernatural.” Got that?

After some further discussion, the Committee concludes that “we find Congregation’s system of beliefs to be outside the realm of historical Reform Judaism.”

But the Committee’s not done just yet:

But should we not open the gates wide enough to admit even such concepts into our fold? Are not diversity and inclusiveness a hallmark of Reform? To this we would reply: yesh gevul., there are limits. Reform Judaism cannot be everything, or it will be nothing.

Then comes the “sensitivity” argument in classic (little “c”) Reform style:

The argument that we ourselves are excluded by the Orthodox and therefore should not keep others out who wish to join us, has an attractive sound to it.

But it doesn’t carry the day:

Taken to its inevitable conclusion, however, we would end up with a Reform Judaism in which “Reform” determines what “Judaism” is and not the other way around.

Not only is this responsum notable for its clear pronouncements — take note, Jack Wertheimer — of “yesh gevul” and ” ‘Judaism’ determines what ‘Reform’ is, not the other way around,” but also for the following three fascinating tidbits:

1) The Committee writes:

The argument has been made that our doors should always be open to ba’alei teshuvah, that is, those who repent and turn back. Our reading of the texts the congregation has published does not bear out the intent that, by joining the Union, it is prepared to turn back to the principles of historic Reform. Rather we find in its literature a declared purpose to redefine the essence of Reform Judaism. The Congregation is of course free to pursue this goal and may wish to attract other groups to its philosophy. It must do this, however, outside and not inside the Union.

If I understand this correctly, the Committe is arguing that a group is free to redefine Judaism, but not to call it Reform Judaism, since that refers to a fixed, historically known set of concepts and values.


2) The Committee further writes:

Persons of various shadings of belief or unbelief, practice or non-practice, may belong to UAHC congregations as individuals, and we respect their rights. But it is different when they come as a congregation whose declared principles are at fundamental variance with the historic God-orientation of Reform Judaism.

If I understand this correctly, the Committee is arguing that there’s a difference between an individual belonging to a Reform congregation despite what he does or doesn’t believe or observe, and a congregation seeking to formalize and legitimize its disbelief or non-observance.

Beyond fascinating (how fast can you say CBST?)

I do wonder, however, whether the Movement has moved away from the views in this 1991 responsum that there’s no prayer without G-d and that the Movement has non-negotiable standards about things like G-d that individuals can choose to meet or not meet.

A 2007 New York Times piece on the new and improved and market-tested Reform prayerbook noted that it “was intended to offer something for everyone . . . even those who do not believe in G-d.” Clergyperson Elyse Frishman, the editor, said that it

reflects a recognition of diversity within our community. . . . There are even those in my community who come to Shabbat worship each week who don’t believe in G-d How do we help them resonate with the language of prayer, which is very G-d-centric and evokes a personal G-d . . .? There are many, many Jews who do not believe in G-d that way?

And, finally, 3) in addition to three dissents to the responsum, Professor Eugene Mihaly circulated a 14-page counter-responsum in which he argued, inter alia, that the UAHC’s “constitution gives full religious autonomy to its members.” In his point-by-point refutation of Mihaly, Professor Michael Meyer noted that

Article VI of the Union’s constitution affirms the religious autonomy of its constituent congregations, and not of those who apply for membership. Similarly, an American citizen is free to declare the Constitution a worthless document, while applicants for citizenship are in a different class regarding their affirmations. Their admissibility is judged on the basis of that very Constitution.


Oh, and it should be noted that one of Mihaly’s other arguments for the Congregation’s admission was that it “includes men and women who have achieved prominent positions.” Give that man an award for the most honest statement in the whole shootin’ match.

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13 Responses

  1. Ori says:

    Eytan Kobre: If I understand this correctly, the Committee is arguing that there’s a difference between an individual belonging to a Reform congregation despite what he does or doesn’t believe or observe, and a congregation seeking to formalize and legitimize its disbelief or non-observance.

    Beyond fascinating (how fast can you say CBST?)

    Ori: Do you mean that Orthodox synagogues would not accept as members Jews who are not fully Orthodox in their beliefs and practices?

  2. L Oberstein says:

    Jack Wertheimer is to be commended for stating the facts in a way that demonstrates the futility of Reform Judaism in a way that sounds non ideological. Nobody likes to be told he is a failure, so it has to sound scientific. However, the battle is over.Reform Judaism is not a threat to anybody, it is not drawing away one frum kid. Years ago I read a scathing critique by Jacob Petuchowski, a professor at HUC in Cincinatti. He compared Reform to the Cheshire Cat in Alice in Wonderland. The cat is gone but the image lingers on. There is no staying power in Reform, it survives on new members defecting from Conservative. Intermarriage is so pervasive in both of these movements and the need for numbers to justify the salaries of those who make a living from these movements will motivate whatever changes it takes to keep going.
    Jack Wertheimer is an honest person. If he were representative of Conservative Judaism as it really is, the movement would be much stronger. After all the talk, nobody reckons with them any more.

    To me, as one who grew up Conservative and has a lot of affection for the vast majority of American Jews who come from the same background I do, the dimunition of Conservative Judaism is tragic. My FFB friends don’t understand what I mean. They look at the ideology and say these guys are non believers by orthodox standards. I look at them and say that I would have been that way too had an orthodox rabbi not come to my conservative shul when I was 14. If Conservative Judaism goes under, what will be the fate Jewishly of most American Jews?

  3. Reb Yid says:

    “Something must be done about that man, if only by having him join the roster at Cross-Currents, so that his incisive pieces can be written off as just so much Orthodox triumphalist, exclusivist tripe, which can’t quite so easily be done now that he’s the JTS Provost publishing in Commentary.”

    While Wertheimer was Provost at JTS for many, many years, his role and status have recently diminished there. He’s no longer Provost.

  4. barry says:

    Taking a break from the groan your immaculate conception joke evoked just long enough to remind you that the doctrine refers to Mary, and not to Jesus, in which case any Jewish denomination would presumably agree that we are conceived immaculately, that is, without the taint of “original sin.”It’s often confused with–but not the same as–virgin birth.

    As Casey Stengel used to say: You can look it up.

  5. Jacob Suslovich says:

    What exactly is the purpose of this post? Is it to persuade or teach someone something? If so, who and what? Is it to gloat?

  6. Mark says:

    L Oberstein,

    “I look at them and say that I would have been that way too had an orthodox rabbi not come to my conservative shul when I was 14. If Conservative Judaism goes under, what will be the fate Jewishly of most American Jews?”

    While I share your love for Jews, even those who identify as Conservative, I’m not sure I agree with the above sentiment. Not to say that your Conservative upbringing did nothing to help you on your way to Orthodoxy later on, but I’m not convinced that it’s as necessary as you may believe.

    I speak here from experience as a part-time member of the outreach who has been involved with numerous BT’s. I always that the kids raised in C had an advantage over those raised in R and certainly over the completely unaffiliated. Interestingly, the numbers don’t show that to be the case. The bulk of my students were raised with no affiliation at all. In many cases, it was their lack of any affiliation that allowed them to be more open-minded abou Orthodoxy than their Conservative friends who claimed to have already experienced and weren’t looking to do anything more either because they were turned off or were perfectly happy to remain in a movement that allowed for most things they’re non-Jewish friends had.
    At Ajop conventions I’ve always made it a point to speak with others in outreach and find out whether my experience matched theirs and very often it did. I’m aware that this is not scientific but it’s something worth thinking about.
    Consider what would you respond if someone asked you whether he should send his son to a Conservative school or public school – what would you reply?
    I know that based on my experiences I would think many times before recommending the Conservative school. Not certain, but it would be a big dilemma.

  7. Arnie Lustiger says:

    After reading Jack Wertheimer’s criticisms of Haredi Orthodoxy in his February 1999 article in Commentary (“The Orthodox Moment”), you might give second thought to having him join the roster for Cross Currents!

  8. LOberstein says:

    In response to Mark, I have no argument with your assessment. It is based on the idea that a blank slate is easier to write on. Sadly, residual observance is very weak in young people who were raised in Conservative affiliated homes. Few saw much ritual or kept dietary laws even minimally. Thus, the staying power of Conservtive Judaism is not too strong. The movement is in decline and they know it.
    However, this is not good. AJOP reaches only a small number of people, what will keep the rest Jewish until the kiruv professionals get to them? What about most Jews who are not so unhappy that they will willingly adopt the strictures of orthodoxy, what will keep them Jewish?
    Birthright? Maybe some. Hillel? Maybe some. The ideology of Conservative Judaism isn’t germane to the discussion. They are kofrim who don’t believe in Yetziat Mitzrayim, how much worse can you get? But, their members don’t know that ,so it isn’t a factor. What is a factor is learning how to do Jewish things and put Judaism into your life, to the extent that they do that, they will stay Jewish until the AJOP guys get to them, hopefully.

  9. Raymond says:

    With all this talk about the degree of legitimacy of the various branches of Judaism, I want to throw out a challenge to the readers of this forum.

    Can anybody here make a case for Modern Orthodoxy representing the Torah view of the greatest Torah personalities and commentators in our history?

    In other words, if you ponder people in the Tanach like Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Joseph, Samuel, King David, Isaiah, and Jeremiah (just to name a few), as well as Torah commentators such as Rashi, Rambam, RambaN, Rabbeinu Bachya, the Baa’ HaTurim, Moshe Alshich, the Ohr HaChayim, the Maharal, Rav Hirsch, the Chovetz Chaim, and so on, would you honestly say that these people’s thoughts and behaviors were more in line with the Chareidim, Chassidim, Sephardim, or the Modern Orthodox?

  10. Lawrence M. Reisman says:

    A comment to Mark and L. Oberstein: Throughout the period 1945-1970, the Conservative movement had a large number of tradionally-minded, observant members. They went to synagogue every week, kept kosher, observed yomim tovim. In many cases, they went to Orthodox day schools such as the North Shore Hebrew Academy in Great Neck. When the children of these families hit college in the 1960s, something very interesting happened. They started going to Young Israel synagogues, and hanging around with the Orthodox. When they graduated college, got married, and started families, they affiliated as Orthodox. The reason Mark never saw them at outreach programs was because they found their own way based on their upbringing, and never needed the outreach.

    This phenomenon is widespread and has been noticed in the non-Orthodox community. Trude Weiss-Rosmarin commented on it as early as 1967 or so. In the 1980s, the Long Island Jewish World quoted a conservative rabbi in Commack as saying (and I paraphrase) “We give them the best we have, Camp Ramah, Solomon Schechter Schools, USY, and when they become adults, where do they go to get the ruach we gave them? Young Israel!” In 1991 or so Rabbi Jerome Epstein was reported (in the New York Jewish Week) to have complained as to how so many of the best and brightest of Conservative Jewry have chosen to affiliate as Orthodox when they become adults.

    As a result of this mass defection, the more traditional wing of Conservative Judaism has suffered a total meltdown. Whether or not this is a good thing is a subject for discussion in and of itself. However, it’s there.

    A cute note on Wertheimer’s comments on Reform. Arthur Hertzberg, a Conservative Rabbi, claims to have asked Alexander Schindler, the Reform leader, what a reform Jew would have to do in order to be considered mechalel shabbos. Schindler couldn’t come up with an answer.

  11. Garnel Ironheart says:

    Hey Raymond,

    Frankly I don’t think these people’s thoughts and behaviours were in land with any modern group. I don’t think any great Jewish figure of the past would identify with Modern Orthodoxy’s rush to embrace secular culture and imbue it with a degree of holiness wherever possible. But I also don’t think they’d like the Chareidi alternative of ignoring and denigrating the outside world except when it sends you a cheque, or the absolute hatred that comes out of the Neturei Karta community.

    Rashi? He invented the concept of commentary and made every text readable. Can you imagine the reaction he would get today? “Why, our fathers in Bavel never needed a commentary. We should put Rashi in cherem.” As for the Rambam, wait a second! They DID put him in cherem, didn’t they!

    All the great leaders you list moved Judaism forward to its next stage or added something through their original thinking and philosophizing. This is completely in contrast to today’s “Nothing new is allowed” philosophy.

  12. Steve Brizel says:

    Raymond-WADR, the burden is on the ideologue or what we would call a Darshan, regardless of their hashkafic basis. to show how the Avos, Ishei Tanach, Rishonim, Acharonim,etc fit into their world view. That’s what distinguishes drush and revisionist history from learning Chumash, Talmud with Rishonim and the Baalei Machshavah. Proposals like yours IMO use such study as a proof to wield an axe.

  13. Raymond says:

    To Steve Brizel, sorry, but I have no idea what those initials stand for (WADR and IMO), so I do not understand what you said. Also, instead of using words like Darshan, can you please speak in English? No offense intended, but that is the way I would have the best chance of understanding what anybody says in here.

    To Gabriel Ironheart, I am very skeptical that the great sages such as Rashi or the Rambam added anything new to Judaism. I think, rather, that they helped reveal what was already there. I am not playing with words here. I think of the difference between a Supreme Court Justice who is a strict constructionist, versus a loose constructionist. A strict constructionist judge will interpret law according to the original intent of America’s Founding Fathers, while a loose constructionist will create law according to what he thinks seems reasonable and fair, even drawing from the philosophy of outside countries to help make his decision.

    Thus, the loose constructionist Harry Blackmun created the right for a woman to get a doctor to kill her helpless unborn children, even though it did not exist in the Constitution. In sharp contrast, strict constructionist Antonin Scalia recently led the way to declaring a ban on handguns to be illegal, citing the original intent of our Founding Fathers that the average American citizen have the means by which to defend their lives.

    I suspect that traditional, Orthodox Judaism is by its very nature strict constructionist in its approach to the Torah, while the non-Orthodox forms of Judaism are loose constructionists. Rashi and Rambam thus do not invent anything new, but rather reveal what is there in the Torah, just as Antonin Scalia does with the Constitution.

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