In moscowitz, Our Virtual Mishkan

Liberal Judaism Is Dedicated to Identity Formation, Not a Religious Worldview

When it comes to understanding the sometimes fraught relationship between Jewish communities, American and Israeli, Orthodox and liberal, few possess the perspective of Daniel Gordis. All the more so when the matter at hand is so existentially loaded.

American born and American educated, Gordis threw his lot in with Israel by age forty and he has written extensively about Jews, their dilemmas, and their achievements in both countries. A penetrating observer—simultaneously a lover and critic—he is a bridge between the two primary centers of contemporary Jewish life. Before the current shutdown, few shuttled between Israel and North America as often and fruitfully as Gordis did.

About the Author

John Moscowitz is rabbi emeritus at Holy Blossom Temple in Toronto, and the author of Evolution of an Unorthodox Rabbi (Dundurn Press, October 2015).

And now Gordis has made a provocative claim about the relative resilience of Israeli and traditionally religious Jews, on the one hand, and their non-Orthodox, American co-religionists on the other. There is merit to his critique. And I say this as a Reform-ordained rabbi who has served in liberal synagogues in the U.S. and Canada for decades.

Yet before I explore Gordis’s claims, I should make clear that much of the liberal Jewish project on these shores is worth defending. Start with the rabbis themselves, who work diligently to keep Jews in the Jewish tent. In their pastoral capacity, they rarely fail to extend a sincere hand to those in need. By focusing on helping their congregants feel a sense of belonging, they fashion lifecycle ceremonies that reinforce Jewish identity and communal membership. The fact is that, while liberal synagogue life can be thin and wanting, it is also more robust than outsiders assume. For these very reasons, I don’t think non-Orthodox American Judaism is by any means a lost cause. Gordis knows many of the same rabbis and synagogues that I do, and while often critical, he also isn’t shy about giving them their due.

But there are things that we might learn from the Israeli and Orthodox worlds to which Gordis compares us. Above all, Jewish ideas frequently do not grip liberal congregations, or galvanize them to action, which can only happen when a critical mass of the community has committed itself to regular study of sacred texts, and has allowed itself to be shaped by the Jewish tradition’s defining debates.

That latter condition is present, by and large, in traditional Jewish circles, and it is why Gordis believes that they have a resilience that my community lacks. In short, Gordis seems to say that what you have in your head can hold your heart when things go bad. I don’t disagree, but I think it’s necessary to put more effort into understanding why this is so, which can only be done by stepping into the experience of non-Orthodox American Jews.


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