A ‘New School’ of Reform rabbis, under 45, are creating a new religion that is not Judaism
I grew up feeling comfortable in a Reform Temple. I was active in its educational and youth activities. Almost all of my friends felt very alienated from the Temple, but I often felt at home there. In fact, from 1969 thru 1972 I spent three years studying at the Reform rabbinical school- Hebrew Union College (HUC) .In the fall of 1972 I left because, after years of spiritual searching, I decided I wanted the real thing and decided to live the life of an Orthodox Jew.
Last week I decided to ‘return to my roots’, and sat for three hours in the library of the Jerusalem branch of HUC (where I studied for a year in 1970-71). Out of intellectual and sociological curiosity I wanted to update myself on ‘what 2021 Reform Judaism is really about’. On internet sites I had been following news bits about trends in the Reform Movement, but I now wanted, first hand, to get a deeper, more objective understanding of its current character. I used my time to read their rabbinic journals on the topics of Reform conversion, Reform ‘religious law and ritual’, and skimmed the library’s recently acquired books on the Israel-Arab conflict.
I left after three hours quite depressed and shocked. The updated version of Reform "Judaism" was more progressively radical than I had imagined. Reform rabbis under the age of 45- 50 are creating a new religion that is simply not Judaism.
The Reform Movement throughout its almost 200 year history promoted a version of Judaism that was basically atheistic humanism clothed in an outer garment of some basic Jewish religious ritual and teachings taken from our Biblical prophets. But the Reform 'Judaism’ now being created by younger clergy is a new religion that is simply fundamentalistic, progressive liberalism dressed in the skimpiest bikini of Jewish religious tradition.
This updated, sad inquiry only made more starkly clear that liberal post modern society is beset by a by a rapidly spreading epidemic virus of progressive liberalism . Jews who want to remain true to their religion must inoculate themselves with a vaccination of a Torah based social culture.
The ‘Old School’ of Reform Judaism
Up until 40 years ago- the end of the 1970’s- ( until we start reaching 40-70% rates of intermarriage) Reform Jews were all ethnic, halakhic Jews (with two Jewish parents).They were second-third generation American Jews who wanted to assimilate and ‘ economically succeed’ at almost any price. Yet, as second-third generation American Jews, they still felt a fairly strong inner need to maintain an ongoing bond with their ethnic past, and wanted their main primary social relationships to be with other Jews. They were avid consumers of secular Jewish social culture (humor, recreation, and food, food,food).
And Reform Jewish Temples existed to provide these second –third generation Jews with a Jewish social gathering place that met such needs. For example your average Reform Temple tried to provide youth activities, a Sisterhood, a Men’s Club, sometimes a gym and pool, Friday night Oneg Shabbat, High Holiday services, weddings, funerals, and bar/bat mitzvas with Jewish outer trappings, and hopefully a charismatic rabbi who gave short, exciting sermons on social justice, and maybe also was a good pastoral counselor. Reform Temples provided all of these social services demanding absolutely no personal commitment to any form of ongoing religious practices. The Reform Movement thus provided good, healthy, institutionalized ethnic Jewish socializing with only the barest trappings of religious tradition, and absolutely no spirituality (which is why I left). ’Old School’ Reform Judaism was the good life.
And from 1955-60 until 1995 there was a tremendous demand among third generation American Jews for the highly ethnic, pseudo religious services of Reform Temples. American Conservative Judaism hit its hey day from 1950 to 1970 and then declined, and Reform represented the face of the vast majority of American Jews from 1970 till twenty years ago. For American Jews for whom even the Reform Temple was ‘too religious’ there ethnic Jewish socializing in Jewish Community Centers, Jewish country or beach clubs, or Jewish hotels.
Despite its highly diluted, non demanding form of religious practice I would still hold that the Reform Movement was Jewish in the same way that the Jewish Bund, secular Jewish socialists or Zionists, and Yiddish culturalists were Jewish, for the simple sociological reason that the members of these social organizations still had two Jewish parents (up until the mid 70’s) and thus were halakhically Jewish. Also they still possessed a strong ethnic identity. “Old School” Reform Jews were still generationally close to their ethnic immigrant past (up until the 70’s there were still grandparents who had ‘just gotten off the boat’, and for whom Yiddish was their ‘mamalashon”)
The 2021 ‘New School’ of Reform 'Judaism'- a new religion, Judeo Progressive Liberalism (JPL)
Older Reform rabbis may deny it, but the Reform Judaism described above (the one within which I grew up) is DEAD, RIP. It has been killed by
1) intermarriage rates of up to 70- 80% amongst the offspring of the second-third generation Reform Jews described above
2) the growing secularity and deinstitutionalization of post modern society, and now most significantly,
3) the epidemic virus of progressive liberalism.
The 2021 version of progressive liberalism is a highly ideological, sect-like, secular religion that has ‘kidnapped’ the ‘Old School’ Reform Judaism described above. The progressive liberalism of 2021 has transformed “Old School” Reform Judaism into a new, non Jewish religion, one I will term for this article Judeo Progressive Liberalism (JPL).
Judeo Progressive Liberalism is a non-Jewish religion because its canons actively deny three basic tenets of the Jewish religion. JPL actively
1) denies the historic peoplehood of the Jewish people,
2) it actively denies the priority and superior religious legitimacy of the two gender-two parent family, and
3) it ignores even the possibility of a metaphysical spiritual dimension to our lives. JPL is almost exclusively focused on the ‘this- world’ question of ‘social ‘justice’.
JPL’s denial of Jewish peoplehood:
'Old School' Reform Judaism was based on an ethnic sense of peoplehood. And Orthodox- Rabbinic Judaism requires for conversion an exclusive, lifelong commitment to see one’s personal destiny fatefully bound up with the historical-divine destiny of the most persecuted people in human history, the Jewish People.
In contrast to “Old School Reform’ and Rabbinic Judaism, the religion of Judeo Progressive Liberalism preaches the radical liberal creeds of inclusiveness, diversity and intersectionality, all of which forcefully act to deconstruct the social phenomenon of peoplehood.
In practice, all one needs to become a convert to JPL is to attend a few communal-religious 'happenings, (like a Friday night Sabbath meal), take a 12 week course on Jewish history and religion, read three books on Judaism, dip into a mikvah attended by a Reform rabbi, and you are now “Jewish’. You are allowed, and even encouraged, to mix your new-found Jewish self identity with-other previous ethnic –gender identities (thus practicing the pseudo ‘mitzvot’ of inclusiveness and diversity).
Most significant, it makes no difference if your adoption of this partial Jewish self-identity becomes transitional to a certain life stage. For example, if you have a Jewish partner and divorce, move to a place where there is no Reform congregation or if your Reform rabbi is boring, or if you lose interest in social justice activism, you are free to ‘revoke’ your ‘conversion’ without guilt. Progressive liberalism treats ‘being Jewish ’as an individual, life stage-self identity ‘trip’. “Being Jewish’ is individualhood and not peoplehood, and in this way JPR imitates Christianity, and has very little empathy for Zionism.
JPL is creating a gentile, ‘mixed multitude’ (erev rav) like the one that accompanied the Jewish people when they left Egypt. Around 60- 70% of the participants in Reform Temples are not halakhically Jewish.
The 'rabbi' is not allowed to talk against intermarriage because, one, it is useless and irrelevant given the Reform norm of intermarriage, and, two, it will hurt the feelings of a majority of the congregation.
Judeo progressive liberalism’s denial of Jewish familyhood:
The Jewish people have survived and have been spiritually creative during 2000 years of cruel exile because of the health and strength of the two parent-two gender Jewish family. Gentile history books repeatedly testify that Jewish families were characterized by their unique, high level of marital fidelity.
However, today in the JP Reform Temple it is forbidden to espouse and teach the superior, religious legitimacy of the traditional two parent-two gender family mode. It is strictly forbidden. If you do so you will be accused of the cardinal sin of ‘racist’ homophobia. A disproportionate percentage of younger Reform 'rabbis' and rabbinical students are not two- parent, two gender oriented in their personal family. Urban Reform Temples tend to attract participants who do not benefit from being a part of multi- generational, two parent-two gender family.
Please understand. I am not judging the legitimacy or social benefits of family models that differ from the Jewish model. I am, however, arguing that you can not call such models ‘religiously Jewish’. When alternative familyhood models are actively promoted and defended in the JPL Temple, they are simply creeds and canons of a new and different religion - the religion of Judeo progressive liberalism.
Judeo progressive liberalism ignores or denies the metaphysical, spiritual dimension of religious worship
Throughout history Judaism based its religious worship on the absolute premise of establishing a relationship with a spiritual, metaphysical Divine Presence Who intervenes in history on a personal and covenantal level
In contrast, the JPL religion ignores the question of a metaphysical Divine presence in this world, and its ‘theology’ focuses almost exclusive the question of social justice, mistakenly called ’tikun olam’. It defines ‘social justice’ as working to achieve a more equitable distribution of material resources and social power structuralism among oppressed minority groups. It selectively quotes Biblical passages to root this social philosophy in the Jewish religious tradition. Heavily influenced by postmodern moral relativism, and a Cultural Marxism that focuses on man’s more basic (lower) drives of materialism and sexual identity, JPL simply ignores metaphysical questions.
"Old School” Reform Judaism also taught a very humanistic, almost atheistic definition of Divine presence. It also very heavily focused on the goal of ‘social justice’. For example, fifty years ago when I attended the Reform rabbinical school maybe only ten percent of the faculty believed that a Jew could have a personal relationship with a Divine Presence. Fifty years ago already my Reform Temple hosted leaders of the Black civil rights movement during Sabbath prayers and we all sang together the hymnal ‘We Shall Overcome’.
However, the difference between ‘Old school’ Judaism and Judeo progressive liberalism is that fifty years ago American society was still more religious, and less secular, in its outlook and makeup. The question of a Divine Presence, and Jewish prayer, at least preoccupied and bothered Reform rabbinic leaders. They debated the question, even if their answer was minimalistic.
Today the world is more secular and the question of a metaphysical Divine Presence does not seem to be a real issue for JPL religious leaders. According to JPL, the ‘Divine’ is understood as a strong subjective, individual commitment to go beyond one’s self centeredness, and devote oneself, with significant personal sacrifice, to the task of creating a more equitable, just society.
Again, I do not argue that this cannot be considered a legitimate deserving postmodern theology. I just argue that it is just far, far removed from our Jewish religious tradition. I have the feeling that for ‘Old School’ Reform Judaism the ‘question of G-d’ was a real living dilemma, and for Judeo progressive liberalism it is not even a question.
Conclusion: We must inoculate ourselves against the virus of 2021 progressive liberalism and inoculate ourselves with a Torah social culture
I have related in detail the very sad story of progressive liberalism’s hijacking of the Old School Reform Movement and transforming it into a new, non Jewish, religion in order to promote the dangerous power of progressive liberalism. Just as it has hijacked the academia, the media, the Democratic Party, and now many corporate boardrooms, progressive liberalism has also successfully taken the last vestige Judaism out of Reform Judaism.
As detailed above, progressive liberalism is a real threat to the most basic elements of traditional and religious Judaism. And we must combat it and protect ourselves, with vigor and determination. We must create and promote a Torah social culture. This means building a personal, family, social, work, recreation and art, and national life that is based not only doing mitzvot, but also bringing the social cultural content of the mitzvot to all areas of our daily life.
Progressive liberalism is on the rampage. Torah Jews must also be creative and proactive in promoting a life of Torah.
Dr. Chaim C. Cohen, whose PhD. is from Hebrew U., is a social worker and teacher at the Hebrew Univ. School of Social Work, and Efrata College. He lives in Psagot, Binyamin.