By Daniel J. Samet
Politics preoccupies secular Jewish communities like nothing else. Take the current impeachment saga, which for most Reform Jews is a means to exorcise the devil incarnate they don’t believe in. Opposition to the Trump administration and an embrace of the social-justice Left define the branch of Judaism with which I affiliate. Voting anything other than Democratic is unthinkable in virtually all Reform congregations.
Yet the enthusiasm for political causes the movement engenders is nowhere to be found in its approach to traditional Judaism. The dogma of tikkun olam — repairing the world — not Jewish liturgy or thought, now reigns supreme in the Reform movement.
A Reform service purports to be a Jewish experience but should more aptly be termed “woke worship.” What it represents is more and more synonymous with the left-wing causes of the secular world. A cost of this focus is that Reform congregations teach little about the theology and culture that sustained the Jewish people for millennia.
I don’t think I’m alone in arguing that left-wing views shouldn’t be a sine qua non for membership in the Reform movement. Neither should be conservative views in Orthodox synagogues. But in Reform Judaism’s case we confront that very phenomenon.
Congregants come to be served progressive ideology, not traditional Judaism — the faith’s liturgy, scripture and theology. If the main purpose of Jewish houses of worship is to serve the left-wing causes promoted by our elite secular institutions, then what is the point of showing up?
My misgivings illuminate a larger and much more serious quandary facing Reform Judaism. The country’s largest Jewish branch, ever in the process of remaking itself, should think deeply about congregants’ ties to Judaism. For the several million Reform Jews, engagement with a synagogue increasingly comes in a political form, not a religious one.
It’s understandable why a secular progressive creed has taken hold at my synagogue, Temple Sinai, which was founded by Balfour Brickner, a luminary in the Reform movement who championed left-wing causes. Temple Sinai runs regular social action campaigns and, in 2017, declared itself a “sanctuary synagogue” in announcing its non-compliance with federal immigration law. Whereas Reform Judaism does a deficient job of giving adherents a religious education, it does an excellent job of making them activists.
One need look no further than the Religious Action Center, the movement’s lobbying arm. Its legislative agenda gives priority to immigrant rights and racial justice — this comes as no surprise to those familiar with the Left’s “Great Awokening.”
Reform Jews certainly belong in this category and approach politics with the religious zeal of their haredi cousins. Social causes may deserve the attention of Reform synagogues, but they should not detract from or overshadow their religious utility. As it stands, the balance between the two is disproportionate.
I do not urge caution about Reform synagogues’ unvarnished progressivism because these policies do more harm than good — which they often do. Rather I do so because if a synagogue’s political function subsumes its religious one, then it loses its essential purpose. In their advocacy, synagogues are strengthening the progressivism that congregants imbibe through the media, higher education and Hollywood. Reform congregations exist merely to reinforce the left-wing messages of our country’s liberal elite institutions.
In the process, the movement abets some ungodly causes. One Chicago synagogue has welcomed the group Jewish Voice for Peace, described as a “radical, anti-Israel activist group” by the Anti-Defamation League. Social justice warriors have embarked on a crusade against Immigration and Customs Enforcement in the name of Judaism while citing the Holocaust. I’ll leave it to reasonable people to judge whether it is fair to equate the systemic murder of 12 million people to a sovereign country exercising its right to detain those unlawfully present within its borders. But to the well-educated Reform Jewish mind, it may well be.
Temple Sinai and like-minded congregations are clearly motivated by good intentions and a desire to improve the world. I and so many others feel drawn to Reform Judaism for its views on the halachah. But in discarding so many traditional practices, the movement jeopardizes the essence of what makes it Jewish in the first place.
Daniel J. Samet is a member of Temple Sinai and works in foreign policy.