The Day of Atonement by its very advent at sunset on the eve of the tenth of the lunar month of Tishré atones for sin and involves repentance—regret for sin, resolution not to repeat it—prayer, and fasting. Not the rites of the day, the prayers of the day, and not the act of refraining from food, drink, and sex, but the advent of the day itself bears that remarkable power. Jews who otherwise do not practice the rites of Judaism observe the prohibitions of the day and find their way to the synagogue.
The advent of the holy day, this year on September 30th, called to mind the practice of many synagogues of giving seats beside the holy ark, where the Torahs are guarded, to persons whom the synagogue community wishes not only to honor but to set as living icons, as models of virtue, before the sight of the assembled faithful.
No one familiar with the aesthetic glories of Orthodox Christianity will take offense at the resort to living icons. But then, the repertoire of candidates will convey a signal too. Last year a Reform synagogue in New York City, Central Synagogue, announced on Yom Kippur that it was planning a special Shabbat service in honor of Marion Wright Edelman and the Children’s Defense Fund. In response to that choice, a congregant—a longtime friend of mine—framed better than I have seen anywhere else the objections to the left-wing political Judaism that Reform synagogues promote, meaning the invocation of religion in the service of bitter partisan causes of the far reaches of otherwise atheist socialism. He sent to Rabbi Peter Rubinstein, the Central Synagogue’s spiritual leader, a whole catalogue of objections:
The Children’s Defense Fund is a deeply political organization, which is a constant advocate for increased government programs, programs that are oftentimes miserable failures. [These include:]
Vaccines for Children and Clinton-Care: The Children’s Defense Fund was one of the earliest proponents of the flawed and failed Vaccines for Children program in 1995. The Balanced Budget Amendment: The Children’s Defense Fund was a major opponent of the Balanced Budget Amendment in 1996. . . . Leaving our kids to pay our debts in the name of children is a dubious proposition. Welfare Reform: Marion Wright Edelman has been a staunch opponent of any effort to reform welfare.
In these and in other positions Marion Wright Edelman has sought to assume the moral high ground by self-righteously speaking in the name of children to constantly promote and defend government programs . . . by using children as the battering ram of the welfare state, her appeal is based . . . on the confusion of intentions with consequences.
Would that this were an isolated incident. Unfortunately, it is part of a disturbing pattern at Central Synagogue and much of institutional leadership of the Reform movement, which, in the name of “social justice,” slides into the pocket of the liberal-left and an intensely political ethos. Usually the political tendencies of the Reform movement are left to referenda at the Union of American Hebrew Congregations, and the synagogue is reserved for the Torah. Are you now saying that the Children’s Defense Fund and its policies are our Torah?
In reply, the rabbi invited the congregant to his office for Torah lessons, which would explain why Mrs. Edelman indeed was the right choice for Reform icon of the year.
At issue once more is the politicization of Judaism by the left. Having lost control of the institutions of politics, discredited in the polls, the left turns to religion, hoping to win by manipulating morality what it cannot gain by persuasion. And the other-than-Orthodox Judaisms—Reform, Reconstructionist, and Conservative—present prime targets. A few anecdotes tell the tale.
When I met a fine Reform rabbi in Boca Raton, the first thing he asked me was, “Are you really a Republican, as people say?” I said, “I don’t know if I make it, but I’ve been voting mostly for Republicans for 30 years, so I suppose that should count, and I still blame myself for picking Lyndon Johnson in 1964!” He: “But why? I never met anyone of that persuasion before.”
A 14-year-old boy complained to his father about Sunday school: “All they ever talk about in ethics class is homosexuality.” The assistant rabbi in that temple is avowedly homosexual. Seeing him leave a small robing room, the same boy remarked to his teacher in all innocence, “Oh, I see Rabbi X, coming out of the closet.” For that he was reprimanded.
What is wrong hardly demands exposition. The real question is, why has a religious movement of reform adopted a new orthodoxy? When “reform” was a verb, the norm was the Torah as received from Sinai, the medium of reform was scholarship, mostly historical, and it sought to identify what was, and is, authentic to Sinai and what was a later accretion. So Reform Judaism (and its companions, Reconstructionist and Conservative Judaisms) joined issue with Orthodoxy on matters of Torah revelation. Then a fixed star guided the process of reform, yielding a Reform Judaism of integrity and stability.
But over time, the process replaced the result, and the sensation of the month overtook theological and legal discourse. Like the politics of Washington — with their infernal power to “enlighten” conservatives beyond all recognition, so that, in “maturing,” the representatives of the right find reason and make left turns—so the politics of theology take their course. Reform leads not to purification, recovery of the essentials of the faith —as the Catholic Reformation would have had it—but to the fissiparous dissolution of everything into nothing. And, moorings cut, the faith can only drift wherever the currents of the moment carry it. There is no rudder left.
But what weakens Reform Judaism carries the possibility of renewal as well, the return of that Judaism and its companions to a dialogue with the Torah viewed as the norm and the source of discipline. Since Reform goes with the flow, the movement of the general culture toward a renewed engagement with the revealed will of God—Christianity toward Scripture, for example—may carry that Judaism in an unanticipated direction. When the general culture turns conservative, as it has. Reform in due course is going to respond. So from the current flavor of the month—say, homosexual rights—Reform will pass on to the next flavor, which, for all we know, may be the affirmation of life even for the unborn. But don’t hold your breath.
Still, reform feeds on change. It is its only constant. After all, for the first century and a half of Reform Judaism, Zionism was anathema, the Jews being viewed solely as a religious community in the model of German Protestant Christianity. But in the past 50 years, Reform has made itself a bastion of Zionism, and found in the state of Israel a principal component of its formulation of Judaic identity.
Who knows—maybe the day will come when, in the aptly named Central Synagogue of New York City, the successor to Marion Wright Edelman will be the heroic William F. Buckley, Jr. But don’t hold your breath.
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