Reform Judaism and the Judaism of Reform Jews: A Conservative Perspective

Article excerpt

A JEWISH RIP VAN WINKLE WHO HAD FALLEN ASLEEP IN 1955 and awoke half a century later would be dumbfounded by the reversal of fortune experienced by each of the major Jewish religious movements. Who could have imagined in the middle of the twentieth century that Orthodoxy, which had been written off as a fossil, would regenerate with such dynamism and increasingly come under the sway of haredi and Hassidic groups, rather than the modern Orthodox? Who could have foretold that the Conservative movement, which had occupied a broad swathe at the center of the American Jewish community and had outpaced all the other movements at mid-century, would lose significant populations to either end of the spectrum and find itself hemmed in on both sides? And who could have foreseen in the mid-fifties that the plurality of synagogue-affiliated American Jews would join Reform temples that their forebears would have regarded as alien, if not "goyish"?

Although it was not his primary intention to explain why Reform Judaism is now the largest of the religious movements, Dana Evan Kaplan provides some suggestive answers in his book, American Reform Judaism: An Introduction. His chapters on "The Outreach Campaign" trace the history of Reform's embrace of intermarried Jews and their families, a population that now constitutes approximately 30 percent of Reform synagogue members, according to the 2000 National Jewish Populations Study. By virtually cornering this particular market, the Reform movement insured its own growth.

Beyond that fateful decision, the movement embarked on a deliberate program in the 1990s (and perhaps even before) to transform Reform synagogue life. Kaplan surveys the clearly focused campaign to revolutionize religious services, led by what was then called the Union of American Hebrew Congregations. Movement leaders called upon cantors to foster congregational participation rather than rely upon choirs to sing to the congregation; the organ was replaced by string and wind instruments to further encourage singing; congregations eschewed the high church formality of the Union Prayer Book and even the Gates of Prayer, replacing them with liturgical compilations of their own devising; rabbis substituted free-wheeling discussions in place of formal sermons; and congregants were drawn to a more personalized service, featuring petitionary prayers such as the mi sheberach for healing. The texture, sounds, and choreography of weekly Sabbath services, though not necessarily of High Holiday prayers, were deliberately altered.

Simultaneously, the movement has also re-thought its approaches to Jewish education: some Reform temples now aspire to become "communities of learners," involving all members in Jewish study and in the nurturing of young people. Family education occupies center-stage, bringing multiple generations together for Jewish learning. Reform temples are upgrading their adult education offerings and encouraging their members to sign up for Melton and Meah courses. And the Reform camping movement continues to produce new leaders. There is even a small movement to nurture day schools under Reform auspices, a project that would have been inconceivable fifty years ago. Where once the movement trumpeted social action, it now proclaims the virtues of Jewish education.

As to religious practice, movement leaders defined their agenda as the pursuit of "change in both directions"--they continued to re-appropriate previously discarded rituals, even as they re-calibrated the movement to embrace innovation. Kashrut, Tashlich, and Sukkot were now acceptable within the Reform context, which once had explicitly rejected them as retrograde. As to innovations, Reform was the first to ordain women as rabbis and invest them as cantors; it recognized the parity of homosexual relationships with heterosexual marriages; and it downgraded the importance of marriage as a basis for family life.

Despite these bold steps, the Reform movement, in Kaplan's view, suffers from an inability to inspire its adherents. …