Israel’s Sephardi Chief Rabbi Yitzhak Yosef recently stated that Reform and Conservative Jews practice a different religion. I get his point—but think he’s wrong in two important ways.
The Reform movement started in early-19th century Germany as a response to the Enlightenment. Traditional observance was seen as outdated and preventing Jews from engaging unhindered with the rest of the nation. (Antisemitism continued to pose obstacles.) God’s oneness and the history of the Jewish people remained sacred.
While traditional Jews like Rabbi Yosef saw the Torah as the literal word of God dictated to Moses (except for the last verses of Deuteronomy), early Reform leaders agreed with the new critical/historical view that the Torah had human origins. Seven centuries earlier, the Spanish scholar and grammarian Ibn Ezra (1089-1167) thought as much but only hinted at this fearing excommunication.
In my opinion, early Reform went too far to align German Jews with their Christian neighbors. A suggestion even was made to move Shabbat to Sunday. It never took. As to the Law, the Reform movement saw ritual commandments as optional and emphasized Mosaic ethics. Yet over time—and much to my delight—the Reform movement remained progressive while adopting/adapting many traditional practices.
Conservative Judaism’s formal beginnings in America go back to the early 20th century. The movement sought to bridge the gap between Reform and Orthodoxy. It believed the Torah to be written by people but adhered to the Law while accommodating modern life, such as permitting men and women to sit together and driving to synagogue on Shabbos. It later followed the Reform movement, which in 1972 ordained the first female rabbi.
My parents grew up in loosely Orthodox immigrant New York homes. Secular but very ethnic Jews, they joined a Conservative synagogue—the Conservative movement then America’s largest Jewish denomination—when they moved to Queens. They wanted to support the community and have me become bar-mitzvah. My sister Kay belongs to a Conservative shul on Long Island.
Why am I a longtime Reform congregant?
In 1969, I married a non-Jewish woman. I’d never expected to do so. Carolyn did not consider herself either Catholic or Christian, which would have killed the relationship. She didn’t want to convert but became quite the Jewish mother under the guidance of my mother Blanche and maintains our kosher-style home.
Only the Reform movement would accept us—and our children. We joined Temple Beth-El in San Antonio then San Francisco’s Congregation Sherith Israel. Our story has become increasingly common.
According to MyJewishLearning.com, 35% of American Jews identify as Reform. The Conservative movement has shrunk to 18% while 10% of American Jews are Orthodox in various forms.
Sadly, Rabbi Yosef’s comment flies in the face of a key Jewish principle: Am Yisrael Echad—the people Israel is one. He dismisses the majority of the North American Diaspora. He also helps maintain Orthodoxy’s theocratic stranglehold on religious practice in Israel where, as it happens, the majority of Jews are nonobservant. Regrettably, many secular Israeli Jews adhere to the brain-twisting maxim, “The synagogue I don’t attend is Orthodox.”
I dismiss Rabbi Yosef’s unfortunate and hurtful rant. It betrays Jewish values. I practice Judaism—just not his. Too often, “different” is construed as “wrong” and “inauthentic.”
I wonder what the God of Israel thinks.
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