Whither Reform Judaism

When did we stop caring about Jewish identity? When did we stop caring about Jewish continuity? And why?

When I entered HUC-LA in the fall of 1968, the very first weekend featured an informative seminar on officiating at interfaith marriages. The panel consisted of the eminent Rabbi Max Nussbaum, z’l, of Hollywood Temple Israel, and two others.

Rabbi Nussbaum persuasively represented what was at the time – by a vast margin — the majority position of CCAR rabbis. He explained why he does not officiate. His role, he emphasized, was to create Jewish families and promote Jewish identity.

Another panelist, from the surrounding LA area said he would officiate if the intention of the couple was to have a Jewish home and Jewish children. In other words, he would officiate at an inter-marriage if he felt it would create a Jewish family and foster Jewish identity.

The third position was so outlandishly unusual at the time that they had to import a rabbi all the way from Baltimore to represent it. He stated, “My condition for officiating at a marriage ceremony is that a couple asks me to.”

Little more than half a century later, it seems that this “third position” has become almost mainstream. The evidence is in the online advertisements that many of our colleagues’ post proclaiming themselves eager and happy to perform weddings not only for interfaith couples but in cooperation with clergy of other faiths.

How did we get from where we were in 1968 to where we are today?

One reason is that there are fewer Jews affiliating with congregations, and therefore fewer congregations hiring rabbis. HUC-JIR’s goal in the 80’s, 90’s and to this day seems to be to create as many Reform rabbis as possible without concern for what the job market can carry. The result is that more of our colleagues must find new and creative ways to earn a livelihood. Without question wedding officiation can be a viable avenue.

Then, as has been frequently observed, there is the relatively recent phenomena of “Rabbi Mills,” online “seminaries” offering quick and remote learning processes leading to “ordination.” These “rabbis” in my observation rarely impose conditions on marriage ceremonies they are asked to perform. 

We must also consider the evolutionary development of Outreach. When he first introduced the term in 1978, Rabbi Alexander Schindler, z’l, was very clear: “We oppose intermarriage, but we embrace the intermarried.” Rabbis who worked for the UAHC (which became the URJ) were forbidden to officiate at interfaith ceremonies.

In relatively short order the tension between those two legitimate values – opposing intermarriage while embracing the intermarried — proved difficult if not impossible to maintain. Increasingly, congregations demanded willingness to perform interfaith marriages as a condition of employment.

When, despite my unwillingness to officiate at interfaith marriages, I was invited in 1986 to assume a pulpit in Nashville where my predecessor of 25 years officiated, colleagues from around the country contacted me to ask, “How did you do it?” I doubt I could “do it” today.

Rabbis who changed their position and announced their willingness to officiate reported the joy with which their congregations greeted their decision to become “open-minded” on this important question.

In the wake of “audacious hospitality” recent statements by Reform Rabbis decry any concern with “Jewish identity” and distance themselves from the once universally accepted notion that it is preferable for Jews to marry Jews.

Increasingly too, Rabbis consider it fine for member families to raise their children as both Christians and Jews. Consequently, they willingly perform baby naming or brit milah ceremonies for children who will also be or have been baptized. 

Before long, I fear, the increasingly strong push by many will cause HUC-JIR to welcome as candidates for ordination students with non-Jewish partners. As one younger colleague has shared with me, “It’s not a matter of, “If,” but, “When.”

Some colleagues who believe in these wide-open door innovations happily report upticks in involvement and their ability to reach increasing numbers of Jews. They see these developments as keys to a viable Jewish future.

Since the direction of our movement seems irreversible, I hope they are correct. But I have my doubts. “In The Origins of the Modern Jew Michael Meyer describes Moses Mendelsohn’s effort to live as an Orthodox Jew in the European world of his day as, “an ephemeral solution.”

The prevailing attitudes that are becoming predominant in our movement strike me similarly as an ephemeral solution only.

I cannot see allowing non-Jews to serve as Temple officers, ceasing to talk about the desirability of endogamous marriage, giving Hebrew names to babies also being raised as Christian, or of HUC students with non-Jewish partners becoming rabbis as being in the best interests of Jewish life.

The Story of Balak and Balaam reminds me that no outside force will ever destroy us https://findingourselvesinbiblicalnarratives.net/2015/07/02/before-you-sing-mah-tovu-again-please-read-this-parashat-balak-numbers-222-259/

Although present trends in our movement cause me to worry, that we may destroy ourselves, I cling to hope that we will not.

Despite all we have endured through history, the Eternal One has seen fit to keep our ancient Covenant intact and viable. So, I pray those moving Reform Judaism in the United States in its present direction are wiser than I am. And if they prove not to be, I pray that God will look to the indisputable loftiness of their motives and guide us through the error of their ways.

4 thoughts on “Whither Reform Judaism

  1. Rabbi, I agree with your rationale, and I applaud your resolve not to officiate at a wedding ceremony of a Jewish person and one who is not.

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