May 13, 1999
Israel On Broadway
By David Margolis
Here are a few choice opinions about Reform Judaism in America:
Generally speaking, American Reform Jews are lazy about religion and unwilling to disrupt their comfortable lives for the sake of keeping Judaism alive. Their rabbis, who learned from their teachers to legitimize assimilation, have undermined the authority of Torah and tradition; made Judaism into a hunt-and-peck method for vague ethnic identification; and given sanction to mixed marriages and assimilation by embracing the concept of "patrilineal descent."
American Jewry is in a crisis of self-destruction, in short, and only two things might guarantee its survival -- either a real Jewish religion to which individuals make serious and inconvenient commitment, or a real Jewish community, where daily life, both personal and societal, moves according to Jewish rhythms and expresses (or challenges) Jewish values. If American Reform and Conservative Jewry are going to survive without becoming Orthodox, they will have to engage fully with Israel, because only in Israel does such an organic Jewish community exist.
Who is speaking here? It's not one of those intolerant Orthodox rabbis you hear so much about, but the not-so-dulcet tones of a card-carrying Reform rabbi, David J. Forman, the director of the Reform movement's Israel programming. Forman, who has lived in Jerusalem for more than 25 years, goes on to claim that his message, while it may seem an all-out attack on liberal Judaism, represents the views of "a vast number" of Reform professionals in America. "They want me to say what they can't," he says.
Forman is a happy warrior who clearly enjoys being the Peck's bad boy of Israeli Reform, but his intention is earnest. As someone deeply committed to both Judaism and Zionism, he wants American Jews to take seriously the option of aliyah, which he believes is their "only alternative to assimilation." With the Diaspora in steep decline as American Jews slough off history, tradition and communal solidarity, Israel is, now and for the future, the central stage of Jewish life.
That's why he calls his recent book, "Israel On Broadway, America: Off-Broadway." From a strictly Jewish point of view, the Diaspora is the sticks.
Forman's book, published by Gefen, comes adorned with tributes from such luminaries as Alan Dershowitz, A.B. Yehoshua, Israeli President Ezer Weizman and writer Anne Roiphe -- which means, if nothing else, that Forman is formidably well-connected. That's no surprise, for he has been extremely active in Israeli public life. An early Soviet Jewry activist, for a long while, he wrote a regular column in the Jerusalem Post (death threats against him made him give it up) and was also a founder and leading spokesman of Rabbis for Human Rights, an organization that, starting during the infidada, brought together Israeli rabbis of all denominations to protest unfair treatment of Palestinian and Israeli Arabs.
Politically, however, Forman, though a liberal, is hard to predict. He has also been a spokesman on behalf of Israel's MIAs, reprimanded Yasser Arafat for human-rights violations, defended the right of haredim not to serve in the Israeli army, and opposed using "administrative detention" as a tool against right-wing extremists.
As a book, "Israel On Broadway, America: Off-Broadway" is fun, thought-provoking -- and uneven. By its second half, which deals a lot with current events, it becomes repetitive -- one already understands Forman's argument and his remedy. The book also has occasional surprising errors of fact (it does not take 100,000 votes to win a Knesset seat, for example, but only about half that). In several places, Forman allows his own rhetoric to replace actual documentation of data (approximately 25 percent of American Jews have visited Israel, he says, supplying no source for this figure, which I have seen given elsewhere as 15 percent). "American Jewish tourism seems to be decreasing from year to year," he writes. Seems to be? Is it or isn't it?
But Forman's basic argument is a strong one, and non-Orthodox American Jews would do well to reckon with how their communities look, from center stage, to one of their own. Forman certainly thinks that he should be able to perform conversions and marriages in Israel, but he has a healthy sense of why there is so much resistance to legitimizing Reform Judaism even among the non-Orthodox in Israel. I'll let him speak for himself:
"While Israeli Jews are fighting to maintain Jewish survival, American Jews -- and their spiritual leadership -- are doing their best to combat Jewish survival. Many Israelis would rather hand over the religious reins to Orthodoxy, with all that is objectionable in that, than entrust themselves to a brand of Judaism that seems to them self-destructive."
He wrote his book, Forman says, to arouse controversy and to "put Israel and aliyah back on the American Jewish agenda." He may be pushing a rock up a hill, but it's a rock that American Jews ought to measure themselves against.
David Margolis writes from Israel. His can be reached by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.