Liberal Judaism and Its Discontents: An Antidote
Rabbi John Moscowitz
SPECIAL TO THE CJN
In my 1976 Hebrew Union College seminary application, I confidently predicted Orthodox Judaism’s demise within two or three generations. Orthodoxy would be finally felled, I suggested, by modernity’s swift sword, its descent assisted by a Reform Judaism that’s far more attuned to the times and its followers than Orthodox Judaism’s sclerotic traditions.
While I wasn’t a Reform Jew ideologically (I lacked any religious ideology, having only a yearning to know), I wanted to ride a winning wave to the rabbinate and the Jewish future. I thus ended up becoming a Reform rabbi. Little did I know that I was about to climb aboard a ship that would eventually ebb more than it would flow. Or, more charitably, that the undulations of the late 20th century would prove too topsy-turvy for an unripe rabbinical student to grasp, much less anticipate.
Today, 40-plus years later, reality is dramatically at odds with my forecast.
Orthodoxy, both in its centrist and haredi variations, is burgeoning and seemingly self-assured, if not a trifle triumphalist. Meanwhile, the liberal Jewish world (largely the Reform and Conservative movements), suffers from ever-declining numbers, an alarmingly thin knowledge of Judaism and a locked-in left-leaning political ideology, rather than a more constrained, less politicized, religious perspective.
Conservative and Reform leaders spend an enormous amount of energy debating the politics of the Jews, particularly those in Israel, and particularly what tilts against our preferred egalitarian ideals. Meanwhile, we reckon too little with a languishing home front: our numbers shrink; our synagogues shift policies and standards to accommodate au courant social trends; Jewish illiteracy is the rarely mentioned elephant in our room; and fewer of us identify with the Jewish people, seeing Jewish nationalism as tribal and even oppressive.
All the while, Israelis tune out our attempts at influencing their decisions. Not long ago, author Daniel Gordis recounted an observation by former Labor MK Einat Wilf. A social and political liberal (and my hope for prime minister one day), Wilf emphasized that, “American Jews seeking an egalitarian prayer space at the Western Wall have no audience in Israel.” Orthodox Jews are opposed to such a prayer space, she asserted, and secular Israeli Jews, while not opposed, just don’t care about what happens at the Kotel. It’s not their world, and they have more existential concerns.
In any event, before you – especially my fellow liberal Jews – have my head, a very brief note of context.
Liberal Judaism accomplishes three things very well: it affords Jews, many of whom are otherwise untethered from community, a sense of belonging; it creates inspiring, often transformative life-cycle moments; and it extends a hand to those in need. None of these are small matters, and they all serve to foster a sense of community.
What my world does not do well, however, is cultivate a vibrant communal life of religious ideas and deep belonging – what sociologists refer to as “thick community.” This, too, is no small matter, as there’s no doubt that the collective Jewish mind, which has been honed by the tradition’s texts and ideas, has uniquely sustained our people throughout our long history. There’s simply no substitute for religious ideas that matter and motivate.
If, in the first generations of both Reform and Conservative Judaism, there was learning and, indeed, loyalty to religious ideas and norms, that’s now been severely attenuated, if it hasn’t disappeared entirely. The powerful currents of modernity are such that it really couldn’t have been otherwise. What has sliced up and thinned out the once relatively thick liberal Jewish community has also threatened and thinned Orthodoxy.
As historian Arthur Hertzberg famously observed almost 60 years ago, “Modernity is the solvent of tradition.” Put in stark terms, the liberal religious world is irretrievably hollowed out and shouldn’t presume to recover any semblance of a praying community. There are exceptions, to be sure, but they are indeed exceptional.
What’s done and gone will not be undone and restored. But we can make a change that has the potential to sustain – and even strengthen – the liberal Jewish milieu.
Significant numbers of liberal Jews making aliyah. Once their numbers build, they will have the ability to have a considerable impact on both Israeli society and liberal Judaism in North America. Hear me out.
Think about what would happen – there and here – if each Reform and Conservative congregation managed to send, on average, one person to Israel each year. Just one.
Galvanized by the leadership of the two movements’ parent bodies – the Union for Reform Judaism and the United Synagogue for Conservative Judaism – a campaign of education and support could promote aliyah as a serious option for liberal Jews.
Would it not be within reach, after the requisite period of organization and education, for Reform and Conservative congregations to help propel Jews toward making aliyah?
If each synagogue were to send one person a year that would mean that there would be around 1,500 Conservative and Reform Jews moving to Israel on an annual basis. Over five years, that’s 7,500 Jews, some 15,000 over 10 years and many of those people would start families in the Holy Land, increasing their numbers even further.
In Israel, 15,000 olim bringing the energy and openness bred in Canada and the United States would have a considerable impact. More Israeli liberal synagogues would flourish. But more importantly, our democratic ways and ethos of tolerance would exponentially increase such impulses in the Jewish state.
And in North America, the synagogue- based programs designed to promote aliyah would inevitably produce their own positive effects: more awareness of, and love for, Israel; an increased level of Hebrew competency; and a greater sense of klal Yisra’el, of belonging to, and being responsible for, all Jews. These programs alone could revitalize adult learning in liberal synagogues.
Furthermore, the bridge between Israel and North American Jewry, now trod regularly by liberal Jewish families visiting back and forth, would be fortified.
The days of prayer as central to the liberal Jewish milieu are long over. But, as counterintuitive as it may sound, knowledge of Hebrew, attachment to Israel and a deepened sense of peoplehood are not necessarily beyond our reach. Significant aliyah from within the liberal Jewish community has the potential to liberalize Israel and revitalize a waning (though still crucial) Diaspora. It’s an antidote awaiting its application.
My prediction of Orthodoxy’s demise was a combination of ignorance and arrogance. It’s a lethal mix, one we can’t afford to repeat today if we wish to sustain Jewish life outside of Israel – and, quite possibly, help make a remarkable country even more so.
John Moscowitz is rabbi emeritus at Holy Blossom Temple in Toronto and author of Evolution of An Unorthodox Rabbi.