Behind the Wall, Part One
First published in Hamodia
The “Battle for the Kotel” wages on, funded by the American liberal movements. They and the Women of the Wall (WOW) demand a place of their own at the Western Wall, with equal prominence and of comparable size to the plaza that now facilitates traditional prayer. Meanwhile, a splinter group calling itself the Original Women of the Wall is in court demanding the ability to pray in the women’s section itself, complete with Talleisim, Tefillin and Sifrei Torah. This group calls itself O-WOW; most readers of HaModiah will undoubtedly find their demands only slightly less ludicrous than their name.
It is tempting indeed to laugh them off. Many ask, why is this so important? Let them have a section. Let them do what they want, no one will be interested, and they will go away! Sadly, it is not so simple.
Why the Kotel?
Consider the demands of these movements. In Israel, they have no more than 75,000 adherents, barely one percent of Israel’s 6.1 million Jews. Most liberal congregants go to synagogue for the High Holy Days, Bar (and Bat) Mitzvahs and other special occasions. The Reform call their synagogues ‘temples’ because they reject the special holiness of the Makom HaMikdash, the site of the Holy Temple. Yet they are demanding a section at the Western Wall with equal prominence and similar size to that used by over 1.5 million Israeli Jews who pray on at least a weekly basis, if not three times a day, and who revere that place as Judaism’s holiest site. This is patently ridiculous. To borrow from (and slightly mistranslate) Rashi, “this occurrence begs for a deeper explanation.”
The key issue is not Jewish practice at the Western Wall, and it is certainly not, as they claim, pertaining to women’s rights or their ability to pray as they wish. The Torah community cannot permit itself to believe that this is an isolated issue without real or serious consequences.
Why are they trying to change prayer at the Western Wall? Why are they demanding a section of equal prominence with the one used for traditional prayer?
The true answer is that they are trying to change the definition of Judaism in Israel, and take control of Jewish conversion, marriage and divorce away from the Rabbinate. This would have permanent and tragic ramifications. This is why we cannot ignore this issue, or let them do as they please. They are attempting to gain a foothold in Israel.
In this two-part series, I hope to explore with you their goals and agenda. In this first article, we will look at the liberal movements, their divergence from Jewish tradition, and the sad results. In the second installment, we will iy”H take a closer look at their efforts to transform Israel, compare their claims to present reality, and see the potential consequences were they to gain the upper hand.
The founding belief of the Reform movement is, of course, that Judaism needs to be “reformed” — amended and improved. [One might append chas mi’le’Hazkir at the end of each sentence in this section.] At its founding, it rejected all of the Torah, saying that its Laws represented merely the outdated thinking of a relatively primitive group of people dwelling in the desert.
The movement even rejected the idea of a Jewish homeland in Judea. The Society of the Friends of Reform Judaism, meeting in Frankfort, Germany, in 1843, published the following principles:
First, we recognize the possibility of unlimited development in the Mosaic religion. Second, the collection of controversies and prescriptions commonly designated by the name Talmud possess for us no authority from either the doctrinal or the practical standpoint. Third, a Messiah who is to lead back the Israelites to the land of Palestine is neither expected nor desired by us; we know no fatherland but that to which we belong by birth or citizenship.
Thus it is no exaggeration to say that Reform was anti-Judaism, or at least all that our Mesorah knows and reveres as Judaism, from its inception. Even the name “Orthodox” was invented by them in order to denote the Jews left trapped in the “old” ways. Rabbi Shamshon Rephael Hirsch wrote in 1854:
It was not the ‘Orthodox’ Jews who introduced the word ‘orthodoxy’ into Jewish discussion. It was the modern ‘progressive’ Jews who first applied this name to ‘old’, ‘backward’ Jews as a derogatory term. This name was at first resented by ‘old’ Jews. And rightly so. ‘Orthodox’ Judaism does not know any varieties of Judaism. It conceives Judaism as one and indivisible.
Reform in America
In North America, the Reformers encountered little opposition. When Isaac Mayer Wise moved from Radnitz, Prussia to lead a congregation in Albany, the synagogue Board of Directors fired him for attempting to institute mixed seating and a mixed choir — but his supporters immediately formed a new congregation. He later moved to Cincinnati, where he once again took an Orthodox synagogue and made it Reform, this time without a backlash.
In 1847, Wise wrote a prayer book which he called Minhag America, convinced that all American congregations would soon be Reform. The movement itself followed suit: the Reform rabbinic organization identifies itself as the Central Conference of American Rabbis (CCAR), while its seminary is the Hebrew Union College (HUC). The organization of Reform congregations was similarly dubbed the Union of American Hebrew Congregations at its founding in 1873, only changing its name to the Union for Reform Judaism 130 years later.
In 1883, the HUC celebrated the ordination of its first graduating class with a special Graduation Dinner — and Wise’s dream of a united American Judaism under the Reform banner shattered at the moment of its culmination. Rabbis from New York, offered an epicurean variety of sheratzim (shellfish and amphibian non-Kosher foods), fled the room.
Several of these rabbis then created the Conservative movement, which initially intended to “conserve” Jewish religious tradition — several of its founders were instrumental in forming the Orthodox Jewish Congregational Union of America, today known as the OU. Yet with prescient insight, Rabbi JD Eisenstein wrote that “the objective of Conservatism and the law of the Radicals lead to the same path, the only difference between them is time.”
The Conservative movement has historically followed all of Reform’s changes, after a suitable time delay during which they unearth “halachic” reasoning for doing so. While Reform congregants drove on Shabbos from the time they purchased their first automobile, the Conservative movement permitted this only in the 1950’s, and then only in order to get to synagogue. Yet the decision of the Reform movement to ordain women as rabbis in the 1970s was followed by the Conservatives barely a decade later. The Reform accepted Rabbinical students pursuing alternative lifestyles in the late 1980s; the Conservatives followed seventeen years later.
The exception that proves the rule is the case of patrilineal descent, Reform’s decision to identify the child of a Jewish father as Jewish as long as he or she is sent to Hebrew school. In this one case, even Reform Rabbis quietly acknowledge that this was a terrible mistake, as it opened the gates to intermarriage without even a rudimentary “conversion” on the part of the non-Jewish wife.
W. Gunther Plaut was the leader of Toronto’s Holy Blossom Temple for several decades and a leading Reform thinker. In a 1968 essay paradoxically entitled “The Halacha of Reform,” he wrote that “there is no such thing as a Jewish theological principle, policy, or doctrine.” The only thing one can say about “key Reform theological beliefs” is that there are very few of them — one of the few exceptions being the abandonment of traditional Judaism in favor of Western mores. This makes the way the Conservative movement has followed suit still less comprehensible, given its purported adherence to some form of Halacha.
The Gemara at the end of Sotah (and Sanhedrin 97a) says that before Moshiach, “the face of the generation will be like the face of a dog.” One explanation given by Chaza”l is that the leaders of the generation will behave like a dog on its owner’s leash — leading the way until it realizes that its master has turned a corner. A moment later, the dog is once again leading, but in the new direction its owner has chosen.
Understood in this way, Chaza”l perfectly describe the genre of leadership provided by the liberal movements. In each generation they have followed then-current Western mores, adding as much Jewish thought as is in vogue at the time. As a result, the founders of these movements would be stunned and appalled to find that after barely 150 years, both movements endorse women rabbis and invite non-Jews up to the Bimah (and as members of Synagogue Ritual Committees), support deviant personal practices and even encouraged the redefinition of marriage. The Conservative movement will not permit its rabbis to perform and “bless” an intermarriage. Yet.
Over the past 132 years, the Reform CCAR in particular issued a series of platform statements, notable primarily for their lack of a consistent set of core beliefs. Attitudes towards the most basic elements of Judaism, such as Torah, Israel, and Jewish Peoplehood, were modified, revised, and ultimately contradicted.
Recall that in 1843 in Frankfurt, the founders stated that “the collection of controversies and prescriptions commonly designated by the name Talmud possess for us no authority from either the doctrinal or the practical standpoint.” In 1885 in Pittsburgh, however, the movement declared about the “Mosaic legislation” that “we accept as binding only its moral laws, and maintain only such ceremonies as elevate and sanctify our lives, but reject all such as are not adapted to the views and habits of modern civilization.” This language apparently recognizes the authority of Torah and Talmud in all “moral” matters, barely 40 years later. And in 1937 they made this explicit: “The Torah, both written and oral, enshrines Israel’s ever-growing consciousness of God and of the moral law. It preserves the historical precedents, sanctions and norms of Jewish life, and seeks to mould it in the patterns of goodness and of holiness.”
The 1885 platform rejects most practical observance as “apt rather to obstruct than to further modern spiritual elevation,” and pledged to “maintain only such ceremonies as elevate and sanctify our lives.” By 1937 they had reversed course once again, stating that “Judaism as a way of life requires in addition to its moral and spiritual demands, the preservation of the Sabbath, festivals and Holy Days, the retention and development of such customs, symbols and ceremonies as possess inspirational value, the cultivation of distinctive forms of religious art and music and the use of Hebrew, together with the vernacular, in our worship and instruction.”
In 1885, as in 1843, they wrote that “we consider ourselves no longer a nation, but a religious community.” By 1937 they had changed their minds, referring to the “Jewish people” and even saying that “it is by its religion and for its religion that the Jewish people has lived.” And at their 1976 conference, they took It for granted that we should discuss “the Jews as a people” and “the survival of the Jewish people.”
In 1885, they expected “neither a return to Palestine, nor… the restoration of any of the laws concerning the Jewish state.” Yet in 1937, they waxed poetic: “In the rehabilitation of Palestine, the land hallowed by memories and hopes, we behold the promise of renewed life for many of our brethren. We affirm the obligation of all Jewry to aid in its upbuilding as a Jewish homeland by endeavoring to make it not only a haven of refuge for the oppressed but also a center of Jewish culture and spiritual life.” Their 1976 platform, to be sure, celebrated the state of Israel, and declared that “we have both a stake and a responsibility in building the State of Israel, assuring its security and defining its Jewish character.”
Much of this, they admit themselves. In 1997 the movement issued a platform “dedicated exclusively to the relationship between Reform Judaism and Zionism,” in which it acknowledged that in 1937 the movement had reversed positions on both Jewish peoplehood and the desirability of a Jewish state.
In 1995, Temple Emanu-El of New York City celebrated 150 years since its formation. In honor of this event, it is reported that the Temple sought out descendents of the founders, to bring them to celebrate Shabbat HaGadol at the Temple and join in marking their sesquicentennial.
This plan was abandoned, however, when the Temple realized that it was unable to locate descendents of the founders who were Jews.
While it is uncertain whether this report is accurate, the underlying phenomenon certainly is. As discussed previously, in the late Nineteenth Century the overwhelming majority of Jews in America were affiliated with the Reform movement — roughly 250,000 in 1880, at a time when the average American family had over four children. Over 1,500,000 Jews, if not 2,000,000, should stem from those 250,000. But in actuality, it is exceedingly rare to find a Jewish person able to trace his or her ancestry back to the Reform Jews of that era. The overwhelming majority assimilated, and today identify as non-Jews.
In 2013, the Pew Research Foundation published “A Portrait of Jewish Americans,” the results of a detailed survey of American Jewish life. The Foundation discovered that although more than one-third of Jewish Americans identify themselves as part of the Reform movement, just 14% of American Jews actually belong to Reform Temples. The Conservative movement has lost 40% of its members in merely the past few decades — today, only 18% of American Jews describe themselves as affiliated with this once-dominant American movement, and merely 11% of American Jews are members of its synagogues.
So these movements which claim to speak for “American Jewry” actually have merely one in every four American Jews as synagogue members. And their members rarely attend — only 17% of self identified Reform Jews attend synagogue on even a monthly basis, as do less than half (40%) of Conservative Jews.
Even worse, young people between 18 and 34 comprise less than 10% of the membership of Reform and Conservative congregations. The fastest-growing group of Jews today is the “Jews of no religion.” And according to recent estimates, nearly 70% of American non-Orthodox Jews are choosing to marry non-Jewish partners.
Taking the Battle to Israel
It is only in this context that the increasing provocations and efforts to transform Judaism in Israel can truly be understood. Non-Orthodox leaders are desperate for a cause around which to rally their vanishing troops. They are unable to find a positive Jewish message to inspire their audiences, so instead claim to be fighting for civil and women’s rights in Israel.
In a future installment, we will iy”H explore in greater detail this effort by the American liberal movements to transform Israel, and why the effects could in fact be catastrophic. We will also look at their allies, the “Women of the Wall” and even the split-off “Original Women of the Wall,” and the claim of these groups to wish to merely pray in accordance with their own practice. For in the end, their agenda is not merely to obtain legitimacy for liberal Jewish rabbis, but to obstruct the burgeoning growth of Torah observance in the state of Israel.