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The Reform Movement must progress from being a collection of social clubs for liberal 60 year olds

by Shmuel Rosner

December 16, 2011 | 2:59 am

Rabbi Dana Evan Kaplan

Rabbi Dana Evan Kaplan is the rabbi of Congregation Kahal Kadosh Shaare Shalom, the United Congregation of Israelites, in Kingston, Jamaica and teaches Judaism at the United Theological College of the University of the West Indies. His books include Contemporary American Judaism; Transformation and Renewal (Columbia University Press, 2009 and 2011), the Cambridge Companion to American Judaism (Cambridge University Press, 2005), American Reform Judaism (Rutgers University Press, 2005, 2003), Platforms and Prayer Books : Theological and Liturgical Perspectives on Reform Judaism (Rowman & Littlefield, 2002) and Contemporary Debates in American Reform Judaism: Conflicting Visions (Routledge, 2001).

Kaplan has lived and worked in South Africa, Australia, and Israel, as well as the United States. He travels extensively and is a fan of scuba diving and hiking. On the occasion of the Reform Movement’s Biennial Conference, Rabbi Kaplan speaks about a few of the issues and challenges the Movement is facing.

What’s the biggest challenge facing the Reform movement - and how is it different than the biggest challenge facing the American Jewish community as a whole?

The Reform Movement needs to develop a coherent theology and begin a campaign to make Reform Jews aware of this theology. Religious belief is at the core of religion and with no specific beliefs; the Reform Movement is a collection of social clubs for politically liberal sixty year olds. 

In order to understand the situation today, let us briefly review the background.  During the latter half of the nineteenth century, American Judaism split into a number of different groupings, frequently referred to as denominations. This process was based on a number of sociological and historical factors as well as theological, liturgical and ceremonial differences. The Reform Movement became known as the bastion of upper class Central European Jews who supposedly rejected ethnic and national identification in favor of a purely religious understanding of Jewish identity. 

The Jews were the carriers of the mission of Israel which was necessary to bring the insights of ethical monotheism to the world. Rabbi David Einhorn explained that Jews could not intermarry because that would dilute their religious message and make it harder for them to fulfill their role in world history. But as Yaakov Ariel and others have shown, the early American Reform Jews were really much more ethnic than they let on. Even then, religion was just one aspect of culture. 

Nevertheless, classical Reform Judaism stressed religious faith. Reform Judaism differed dramatically from orthodoxy, but it was just as insistent that its way was the way of Torah. Confirmation students studied catechisms that explained exactly what Judaism taught and how Reform Jews should practice. But by the 1930s and certainly by the 1960s, this religious certainty had been lost. As Reform Jews became more diverse and the world became a more difficult place to understand, the variety of Reform Jewish theologies multiplied. By the time the Central Conference of American Rabbis (CCAR) published a new prayer book in the mid-1970s, there was so little consensus that they had to include ten different Friday night services with nearly identical structures just so that they could incorporate different theologies into them.

This brings us back to the current situation. In my view, the Reform Movement needs to establish a clear and compelling belief system. It needs to be based on the validity of biblical scholarship and the search for spirituality, but it can be any one of a number of different theological positions. The important thing is that it be compelling, by which I mean that it must clearly and logically explain why Reform Jews should be willing to sacrifice for the God of Israel. It must therefore be sufficiently “high cost” to demand some degree of sacrifice without being so demanding that it would drive most people away. At a time when most people feel that we are at the beginning of a fundamental shift in world consciousness, I believe that it is the right time for the Reform Movement to reorientate itself.

Do you think Reform Judaism today is more traditional or less so than it was 20, 50, 100 years ago? Should it be more traditional?

The key word in your question is “traditional.”  For some people, traditional means closer to orthodoxy and it is therefore more traditional to wear a Kippah rather than to pray bare headed. For others in the Reform Movement, tradition refers to the Classical Reform tradition. They hope to restore, at least in part, the Reform Judaism that existed at the end of the nineteenth and early part of the twentieth centuries. 

Speaking personally, the key factor is not whether the Movement adopts more traditional ceremonial practices or not. Adding traditional practices is not meaningful if it is just a matter of succumbing to pressure from people who were raised in the Conservative Movement. We are just substituting one set of ceremonial practices for another. The critical challenge facing the Reform Movement is “how do we develop a religious faith that is vibrant and compelling?”  If we truly believe in the God of Israel, then we must be willing to not only pray as a community but also study the word of God in order to understand what our religious tradition is really saying.

Tradition practices without religious understanding can become an empty shell which drives spiritually- sensitive people away. That is one of the reasons that so many of the generation that came of age in the 1960s and 1970s rejected Judaism in favor of Buddhism and other Eastern approaches to spirituality.  We need a coherent religious narrative that can help us to understand our daily struggles in a Jewish context. We need a compelling belief system to help us to build a personal relationship with God so that we can derive both comfort and meaning from our religious tradition.

We need to understand what we are doing and why, and I see little evidence that Reform Jews today are significantly better educated Jewishly than they were 20, 50 or 100 years ago. Unfortunately, attempts to turn Reform temples into “learning communities” have had only limited success. The reason for this is obvious. Unless Reform Jews are indoctrinated – and I use that word in the values neutral sense – into a compelling theological system that can motivate individuals to sacrifice for their religion, congregants will tend to do only those things that bring them short term reward. Long term adult education is not one of those short term rewards. So we continually spin our wheels, desperately clutching at panaceas that promise innovation and change but fail to change human behavior over the long term. Thus I think that the debate over more tradition versus greater innovation is a red herring which distracts us from the truly important questions.

How significant is the change of guard at the helm of UJR, and why?

This question has yet to be answered. Here again, a bit of background may be helpful. There was a great deal of political maneuvering over the past few years. The Rabbinic Vision Initiative (RVI) led by Rabbi Peter Rubenstein of the Central Synagogue in Manhattan put together a devastating critique of URJ management procedures. What was notable to me was that the critique focused entirely on practical matters; there was not a single reference to theological obscurity. And that is completely consistent with the RVI’s agenda, which is to reorganize the URJ so that it functions more efficiently and effectively. I agree that this is of urgent importance. However, without a reappraisal of the core beliefs that we are teaching (or not teaching), reorganizations are not going to solve the Movement’s problems. 

There was a lot of criticism that the seventeen original members of the RVI were all senior rabbis at very large congregations and that their organization was therefore inherently antidemocratic. I was present at the CCAR conference in New Orleans when Rabbi Paul Kipnes stood up on a chair at the conclusion of an RVI information session and delivered one such critique. But my concern is with the results and I think that it was necessary to build a small but influential pressure group that could negotiate with the URJ effectively over an eighteen month period. I think that Rubenstein’s approach was the right one.  My question is why it was necessary at all.

The new leadership decision has to be seen in the context of the catastrophic restructuring decision.  The URJ announced a restructuring plan in March 2009 which closed all fourteen regional offices, replacing them with four Congregational Support Centers. While they admitted that part of the reason was the economic downturn which had hurt their financial circumstances, the URJ leaders emphasized that the reorganization plan had been germinating for a long time. Whatever the actual facts, most congregations found the new structure to be of little use. 

Temples that had had regional offices nearby now found that they had to talk with someone hundreds of miles away. The promised teams of specialists who replaced program departments were indeed available but were too remote to be of use in most situations. Congregational representatives, who were assigned to each congregation, varied widely in background and ability. My personal experience with my temple’s congregational representative was extremely negative, even bitter. On the whole, the restructuring decision made it clear that there needed to be a dramatic change and it needed to happen as soon as possible. I do believe that the new leadership will be more successful at building an effective organization, if only because the URJ has already been cut up like sushi and they will have the ability to rebuild it with a more efficient model in mind.

Another problem is the approach to fundraising. The URJ is the umbrella body of the 900 or so Reform congregations in the United States and receives its funding from MUM dues that each temple pays based on a complicated formula. This means that the congregations are responsible for fundraising and the URJ is given its budget, approximately half of which it passed on to Hebrew Union College – Jewish Institute of Religion. 

This financial structure dates back to the late nineteenth century, when Rabbi Isaac Mayer Wise lobbied for and conceptualized a congregational body that was called the Union of American Hebrew Congregations (UAHC). The main purpose of the UAHC was to raise money for the creation of an American rabbinical school. But things have changed drastically in the world of philanthropy over the last 130 years. The URJ needs to become a major fundraising organization. All board members need to be willing to give generously and to solicit others to do so as well. The days when the URJ can sit and talk for hours about interesting but trivial matters are hopefully long gone.

We can expect to see a greater emphasis on youth programming since this has been a noticeable weakness over the past decade or so. The URJ had just opened a specialty camp for sports and if it is successful, they can be expected to open additional summer camps along the same lines. They will try to come up with new strategies for their youth groups as well as for post bar mitzvah informal educational programs. 

There will be significant administrative changes. There will not be a significant push to clarify the meaning of Reform Judaism. If the economic environment of the country improves, the Movement will stabilize. If the economy tanks, all bets are off.

Is it not the time of post-denominational Judaism? Would it not be better to rid of all “movements” and just practice Judaism?

Just to define our terms, let me suggest that American Jews who tell pollsters that they are “non-denominational” are saying that they are alienated from all of the existing approaches to Judaism.  Likewise when they say that they are “secular,” we are surmising that they are not ideologically committed to a philosophy of secularism but are primarily indicating their alienation from religion.  While some optimists may see an identification as “just Jewish” as refreshingly non-partisan, it is more likely to mean that the person acknowledges that they have Jewish background but have absolutely no involvement with Judaism as a religion. While the Posen Foundation may find that just fine, I think that it is a serious problem that indicates the existence of a major crisis.

In contrast, the adjective “post-denominational” usually refers to Jews who are seriously grappling with Judaism, however they conceive of it, outside of a denominational framework. Many of the post denominational “independent minyanim” are composed largely of young people who had been raised in the Conservative Movement and now prefer to pray in small lay led groups. This is certainly an interesting phenomenon but I think that its impact has been significantly overstated. Other post denominational institutions and programs aim specifically to bring representatives of the different movements together to try to overcome the perceived lack of communication. Unfortunately, this lack of communication is between the main stream orthodox and everyone else and since only isolated, mostly liberal-leaning orthodox leaders will participate in these programs, the impact on that problem is minimal. Many of these programs do, however, foster out of the box thinking that may prove to be critical as we face an increasingly competitive “religious marketplace” in the years ahead.

I myself have participated in a number of these educational programs including the “From Good to Great” program sponsored by the STAR Foundation and the “Rabbis Without Borders” fellowship program which I am currently participating in. The Rabbis Without Borders program is an example of a post denominational program that is not seeking to eradicate differences between the movements but rather to focus on aims and goals that transcend denominational differences. They are trying to help the 21 rabbis selected for the current cohort to imagine creative ways to bring Jewish concepts to new and diverse audiences. As we study with authors, thinkers and trendsetters, we are being encouraged to identify the modalities through which people build meaning in their lives. If we can understand the emotional and psychological dynamics underlying people’s decision making process, we will hopefully be better equipped to teach Judaism beyond the borders of our respective communities and denominations.

Judaism has been and should be a universal faith. Jewish tradition has much to teach every person.  Nevertheless, the idea that we could get rid of all the denominations and just practice Judaism is impossible because “Judaism” is a set of texts and traditions rather than a religion in the American meaning of the term. In my view, for an American religion to be compelling today, it has to present clearly defined beliefs in a manner that can be understood by people relatively quickly. In the case of Reform Judaism, we need to present what we believe and why those beliefs are crucial for successfully living our lives. This clear definition of what Judaism says about God, Torah and Israel has to be “denominational” because it is interpreting our tradition in a specific manner.
That said, I am a big fan of many of the innovations pioneered by proponents of post denominational Judaism. Many of the most interesting new religious ceremonies have emerged out of post-denominational contexts and have been later adopted by mainstream denominational synagogues. I have been tremendously impressed by the Jewish Renewal Movement and by its spiritual leader, Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi. While they have increasingly developed the organizational structure of a denomination, they have had a major influence on American Judaism as a whole, as I describe in my book on contemporary American Judaism.

Should the American branch of the Reform movement be more involved with Israel? Should and can it make Reform congregants more involved with Israel? Why and how?

When the now outgoing president of the Union for Reform Judaism (then called the Union of the American Hebrew Congregations) Rabbi Eric H. Yoffie was just six months in his position, he told the UAHC trustees that “We intend nothing else than to bring into being a new Israeli Judaism, which will draw Israelis with irresistible force to a renewal of practice and belief.” I think that the Movement has made herculean efforts at doing just that. While the results have been limited, HUC-JIR has graduated large numbers of new Israeli-born and Israeli-trained Reform rabbis who have attempted to establish new congregations as well as all types of innovative educational and religious programs. 

This is important for the “American branch of the Reform Movement,” as you phrase it, because if we cannot succeed in building a vibrant Reform Movement in Israel, the long term legitimacy of the entire Movement will suffer. On the other hand, if we can achieve full and equal recognition as a branch of Judaism in the State of Israel, this will give us a legitimacy in circles that had previously scorned us and a political standing we can only dream about at the present time.
As you astutely pointed out in your review of my most recent book, Contemporary American Judaism: Transformation and Renewal, I put relatively little emphasis on Israel and Zionism. As you also correctly infer, this is not because I personally have little exposure to or involvement with the modern State of Israel. Rather, it is due to the fact that I think that American Judaism generally and Reform Judaism specifically needs to focus on developing a compelling Jewish theology that can provide a religious framework for living our lives. 

While Israel can serve as an inspiration to young adults going on Birthright Israel trips – and that is certainly an important strategy for building Jewish identity in the younger generation – there is a limit to how strong the connection can become because the two groups have so little in common. Nevertheless, it may be possible to create programs that generate common interests and that strategy could be used to increase people to people involvement.

In addition, there is the growing conflict between right and left in the American Jewish community.  While the vast majority of Reform Jews remain moderate in their political views on Israel, most of the leadership has positions that are far more to the left. While I have not done any quantitative research on this question, I asked rabbis attending the most recent CCAR conference whether their personal views were closer to J Street or AIPAC. By the time I stopped counting, 43 said J Street, 4 said AIPAC, several said to the left of J Street, and 1 said half way between the two. When Peter Beinart debated Rabbi Ammiel Hirsch at that same CCAR conference, the crowd seemed overwhelmingly sympathetic with Beinart’s positions.

This debate over Israel policy presents a threat and an opportunity. If congregations can use the issue to generate constructive debate, then it can help to build interest in Israel which can be nurtured. On the other hand, if we are not careful, the hostility that emerged briefly during the URJ presidential nomination process may return with a vengeance.

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