What Azoulay Meant About Reform Jews

by Rabbi Pesach Lerner

When Israel’s Minister of Religious Affairs, David Azoulay, recently appeared on Galei Zahal Radio to address Jewish conversion and religious standards in Israel, media and political figures picked up on a half quote found within a small segment of his interview, and had a field day. “Reform Jews aren’t Jews,” blared the headlines — never mind that he said otherwise, repeatedly, in that same segment.

Why ignore the context, content, and intent of his remarks? The American Reform Movement is pressuring Israel to change its religious standards to match their own; MK Azoulay was responding to this pressure. He said that Reform Jews aren’t simply Jews, but Jews who erred. They have strayed from the path of Torah, he explained, and he implied that they are at risk: “We must truly be concerned that every Jew returns to the lap of Judaism, and we will receive everyone with love.” Every Jew is welcome — but American Reform standards, he maintained, don’t belong in Israel.

This is not, as some might wish to believe, Azoulay’s opinion because he is an Orthodox Rabbi. It is simply because Azoulay is an Israeli.

Israel’s current President, Ruby Rivlin, was a Likud MK in 1997 when Reform Rabbi Uri Regev brought him to the United States to learn more about American Jewry. Upon his return, he told the Israeli media that “as a Jew who does not observe 613 commandments and perhaps not even 13 commandments, I was deeply shocked…Any connection between [Reform] and Judaism didn’t approach reality. I felt as if I were in a church.”

The Reform movement claims that more Israelis would be involved with Judaism if Reform were given greater recognition — but the evidence suggests otherwise. According to periodic studies by the Guttman Center, Israelis are increasing their attachment to Jewish tradition and religion — while the Pew Forum survey shows just the opposite happening in America, and especially within Reform.

Despite a massive influx of immigrants from the former Soviet Union, 75% of whom define themselves as secular, Israel’s Jewish population remains evenly divided between those who classify themselves as “secular” and those who call themselves “traditional” or “Orthodox.” And that statistic uses a definition of “secular” that would surprise any American.

Only 17% of Israelis consider themselves fully non-observant, while two-thirds of “secular” Israelis are in reality “somewhat observant” or even “very” observant. According to the Guttman Center’s recent surveys, “a vast majority of secular Jews observe certain aspects of Jewish tradition (eat kosher food, refrain from driving on Shabbat, fast on Yom-Kippur, not eat chametz on Pesach, light Chanukah candles, etc.).”

Most critically for the future of Judaism, Israel’s younger generation evidences a far greater attachment to Judaism than previous ones. Whereas 68% of Israelis over 60 are secular and just 24% are traditional, only 37% of adults under 30 are secular while 31% are traditional. And this is besides the phenomenal growth of the Orthodox population — which has reached 32%, nearly one-third of all young adults.

In every one of these key metrics, American Reform Judaism is sadly moving in the opposite direction. Just over 50% of Reform Jews reported to the Pew Forum that they fasted for even part of Yom Kippur; only 10% “always” or “usually” light Sabbath candles, and just 7% keep kosher at home. And these are merely symptoms of a much deeper problem.

In contrast to the marked increase in the affiliation of younger Israelis, American Reform Jewish involvement is in free fall. Just 7% of elderly American Jews identify themselves as secular, as “Jews of no religion” — but nearly one-third of the youngest generation, the “millenials,” describe themselves as such. Reform rabbis claim to represent the largest American Jewish movement, but only 14% of American Jewish adults are actually members of their temples — and that percentage is declining rapidly.

Asked what it means to be Jewish, American Reform Jews are vastly more likely to identify “remembering the Holocaust” or even “being intellectually curious” than to reference Jewish observances or practices. Fully half of Reform Jews who are married at all are married to non-Jews — and despite decades of increasingly desperate efforts to welcome intermarried families into their temples, children of intermarriage remain much less likely to be affiliated with Judaism.

And it’s not as if Reform leaders are doing much better themselves. The demand for “inclusion” has led inexorably towards the endorsement of intermarried rabbis — no one expects the movement to hold out even another decade. And that’s not the only Jewish standard of marriage to be jettisoned in recent years: the movement openly supported and celebrated the recent Supreme Court decision endorsing same-gender marriage.

Regardless of one’s personal opinion or level of religiosity, no one can claim that Reform maintains even its own version of Jewish standards when the prevailing wind changes direction. The positions of Reform Judaism are those which today’s Central Conference of American Rabbis say they are, never mind what was said a generation ago. So what American Reform leaders are demanding of Israel is not simply that they accept Reform positions of today, but that Israel pre-approve, carte blanche, whatever Reform positions will be in decades to come.

In a recent interview, former Israeli Ambassador to the United States Michael Oren commented that “when you look at the Pew Report you see that the rate of assimilation among non-Orthodox Jews is massive, but at the same time, the Orthodox community is growing very fast. So the Jewish community in America might be smaller 30 to 40 years from now, but it will be more connected religiously and probably more connected to Israel.”

The Reform Movement was an unprecedented social experiment upon the Jewish people. Reform leaders claimed that the Jews could abandon the path of Torah, abandon the code of conduct that has set us apart for thousands of years, and remain Jewish. In America, this experiment has proven itself a failure of historic proportions. And at the same time, in Israel, where even secular Jews recognize the traditional definitions of Judaism, observance and attachment to Judaism are increasing rapidly.

For all his undiplomatic language, MK Azoulay had it right. Reform Judaism in America has had no great positive impact on Jewish continuity; in actuality, the evidence indicates the opposite. Reform Judaism is collapsing in the United States; the worst thing Israel could do to the integrity and continuity of the Jewish people is to import that failed model at this critical time.

Rabbi Pesach Lerner is Executive Vice President, Emeritus of the National Council of Young Israel.

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7 Responses

  1. Bob Miller says:

    According to the Reform movement’s own logic as expressed from its inception, there has been no reason to leave the diaspora or move to Israel or have a Jewish state in Israel.

  2. Mr. Cohen says:

    Rambam, in his Hilchot Teshuvah, chapter 3, paragraph 8, teaches that:

    If any Jew denies that even ONE WORD of the Torah is Divinely-revealed, then he or she is a heretic [apikuris].

    In the same paragraph, Rambam teaches that any Jew who denies the Oral Law* [Torah SheBeAl Peh] is also a heretic [apikuris].

    In paragraph 6 of the same chapter, Rambam teaches that a heretic [apikuris] has no place in the afterlife of the righteous, and will be punished eternally.

    What percentage of Reform Jews and Conservative Jews qualify for these categories?

    Last but not least:

    Since Orthodox Jews believe that the entire Torah is Divinely-revealed, why should they accept the validity of conversions that were performed by Reform Jews who reject the Divinely-revealed nature of the Torah?

    Since Orthodox Jews accept the authority of Judaism’s Oral Law, why should they accept the validity of conversions that were performed by Reform Jews who reject the authority of Judaism’s Oral Law?

    * NOTE: The Oral Law can be found in:
    The Mishnah, the Jerusalem Talmud, the Babylonian Talmud, the Minor Tractates of the Talmud, and ancient midrashim like: Pirkei DeRabbi Eliezer, Mechilta, Tanna DeBei Eliyahu, Midrash Tanchuma, etc, etc.

  3. Yehoshua Friedman says:

    The metrics of observance and the differential in population growth/decline between the different sectors of Jews would indicate that the percentage of Orthodox Jews in the US Jewish population will be higher as time goes on. BUT don’t forget to factor potential aliya. Orthodox Jews are becoming more activist and purist, not having the patience for December Dilemma and having to ask the boss for permission to leave early on Fridays in the winter and take off Jewish holidays. But that’s almost trivial. Anti-Semitism in America is growing. The economic viability of the Orthodox Jewish lifestyle in a declining economy is being felt while the Israeli economy steadily turns upward. And you don’t have to pay wads of money for day school education in Israel. And most of all, observant Jews are more Jewishly educated than previous generations. They don’t merely recite prayers by rote, they are aware of what they mean, including references to Eretz Yisrael. They become increasingly aware that the very fact of living in the ersatz Israel of the shul and the yeshiva is also part of a hyphenated Jewish existence. Some of them are removing the hyphen and coming home every year. Those numbers are IMHO going to increase in the coming years. What will be left of the Jewish community after that is anyone’s guess.

  4. yehudi says:

    The reform movement is a joke; they have no shame, inasmuch as there was a time they did not even recognize Israel. Their so-called prayers books omitted most of the prayers and omitted ‘Jerusalem’, Zion and anything referring to the Land of Israel. Now they have the gall to demand a place in the Jewish Land that will give them the same level of authority that the Orthodox hold. Chutzpah has no shame. Already, there is an internationalization of Yerushalayim with every kind of avodah zorah and chilul H’, r’l. Please, H’, rachamim and send Moshiach Tzdkeinu NOW!

  5. mycroft says:

    “Since Orthodox Jews believe that the entire Torah is Divinely-revealed, why should they accept the validity of conversions that were performed by Reform Jews who reject the Divinely-revealed nature of the Torah?

    Since Orthodox Jews accept the authority of Judaism’s Oral Law, why should they accept the validity of conversions that were performed by Reform Jews who reject the authority of Judaism’s Oral Law?”

    It is not so simple. Rav Soloveitchik once paskened in a case of husband and wife who were “converted” by a Reform conversion married and had a civil divorce the women know wanted to remarry she required a get before she could remarry. Similarly-I believe RIETS-I heard a shiur on YU Torah about this will megayer again misafek someone with a non these Orthodox conversion but not say the bracha for gerus-safek brachos lehakhel-in case the non Orthodox conversion is a valid one.I am well aware that according to Rav Moshe all this would not be necessary but RYBS is also a major figure

  6. Y. Ben-David says:

    I am sorry, but I fail to see any benefit in the statement the Knesset Member made. Yes, we know the weakness of the Reform movement, which is headed for eventual extinction. So why is it even necessary to make such public comments? Is there a single Reform Jew that is going to change his beliefs because of the statement? Are there any members of his SHAS movement that were seriously considering leaving Orthodox observance for a new found identification with the Reform movement going to reconsider because of his statement? The answer to both is NO.
    Instead, it antagonizes many non-Orthodox Jews who might have had some sympathy for the Orthodox community and it alienates some American Jews from Israel. The answer to dealing with the problems of assimilation that the Reform movement exemplifies is to get non-religious Jews “turned on” to their Jewish identity, to show the the relevancy of Torah and Eretz Israel where the Torah is most alive for the modern Jew.
    Simply going around and saying “look how great we are!” does no good, and in fact, it displays a certain lack of self-confidence in our own Torah values. Tearing down other people is not the way to strengthen our own committment.

  7. cvmay says:

    A MUST: Just like some people are in need of ANGER MANAGEMENT classes in order to survive and accomplish in their personal lives and in the work field. SPEAKERS (no matter who!) must never respond from the hip!!! Ridiculous, hurtful, painful and anti- Torah statements are stated (& written) by SPEAKERS & Leaders of the frum kehilla. Forget about the Anti- Jewish/Torah rhetoric that is spewed from the Knesset or Jewish Demonstrations (in Israel & US). Speech & language is what separates us from the animal class & the separation line is getting narrower and narrower.

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