November 28, 2011
Dear David Mamet: Reform Judaism doesn’t surrender
Read David Mamet’s opinion piece here: Conflict, choice and surrender
David Mamet’s recent, meandering tirade demands a response, even if cogency permits only a partial rejoinder. So, I will limit myself to where he begins and I where I “live,” with the Reform Movement.
He accuses Reform Judaism of categorically surrendering “Hebrew, the Talmud, kashrut, ritual, the Eastern European Jews, and currently toys with condemnation of its co-religionaries in Israel.” Thence, Mr. Mamet connects the Reform Movement to anti-Israel sentiment located on a spectrum that spans naïveté and, implicitly, self-hatred.
In the end, his condemnation avoids facts and invokes, in their stead, inapposite truisms. If “Napoleon taught us the logical end of purely defensive warfare is surrender,” Mamet has yet to demonstrate that Reform Judaism does indeed surrender. He omits the evidence, because it contradicts his argument.
The Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, which educates and trains clergy and leadership for the Reform Movement and beyond, maintains a campus in Jerusalem. There, we send all of our non-Israeli rabbinical, cantorial and education students for a full academic year, as we have since 1970. Despite market pressures to ease up on this requirement, HUC-JIR has held firm, because in part in defines us.
In Jerusalem, we also run a program for Israeli Reform rabbis, who invigorate Israeli Judaism with the progressive values (Hebraic and Zionist values) to which most Israelis subscribe. These committed leaders split the horns of the false Israeli dilemma between religious and secular life. And in so doing, they put Jewish religion at the heart—rather than at the margins— of the project of the Jewish State.
Reform Judaism also created the Israel Religious Action Center and the Association of Reform Zionists of America (find their link under the “Israel” tab at URJ.org), both dedicated not only to the core Zionist goal of a thriving Jewish State but also to its Jewish soul.
In ritual and halakhic terms, Mr. Mamet offers nothing more than an anachronistic caricature, and in so doing, debases the Jewish communal conversation. Hebrew is a staple in Reform services, as is the millennial tradition of mutual aid. In theory, we are more flexible on matters of halakha than other non-Orthodox movements, but it’s not clear to me that our practice differs all that much. Shabbat services in Reform synagogues are lively affairs. Torah study for adults and religious schools for children flourish, and Reform Jews’ connectedness to Judaism—traditional and progressive—thickens day by day.
As for our condemnation of fellow Jews in Israel: It is true that we will condemn someone for gratuitous violence, as we did in response to the recent arson attack on an Israeli mosque. And it is true that we will argue with fellow Jews for much less. But Mr. Mamet chooses to overlook the crucial fact that we argue with our coreligionists and, I trust, they requite le-shem shamayim, for the sake of heaven. We struggle with God Himself for the same purpose, namely, to work out the relationship between the sanctity of our Covenant, on the one hand, and the messy frailty of our worldly experience, on the other. Reform Judaism will not apologize for willingly, zealously engaging in that struggle, including both its traditional and modern aspects.
For the sake of that argument, allow me to concede that it is true that in the nineteenth century, the Reform Movement did begin to take major steps in distancing itself from traditional forms of Judaism. It is also true that a large part of the American Reform Movement was non- or anti-Zionist leading up to 1948. For that very reason, Stephen S. Wise created a Reform alternative, known as the Jewish Institute of Religion, an avowedly Zionist academy. Following Israeli independence, the Hebrew Union College merged with the Jewish Institute of Religion, embracing its Zionism.
The same Stephen S. Wise founded the American Jewish Congress, a more aggressive advocacy group than the older American Jewish Committee, which preferred a more staid form of stadlanut. In both guises, however, the Reform Movement—together with American Jews of all stripes—pursued the interests of immigrants from Eastern Europe both prior to and during the Holocaust. Likewise widespread solidarity characterized all American Jews’ aid for our brethren held captive in the Soviet Union.
Reform Judaism dedicates the human and financial resources to, and stakes its political and social capital on, those efforts. If you are affiliated with a Reform synagogue, you are directly supporting them.
Let us, therefore, examine the notion of “surrender,” attributed to us by Mr. Mamet. Reform Judaism is the plurality of affiliated North-American Jewry, actively furthering the interests “Hebrew, the Talmud, kashrut, ritual, the Eastern European Jews, and [our] co-religionaries in Israel.” Far from surrendering these things, the Reform Movement does the hard work of bring North-American Jewry closer to them.
Mr. Mamet may not like our style. Fortunately for him, Reform Judaism will not accede to a monopolization of the Jewish conversation.