Reform Judaism or New Religion?
Reform group Women of the Wall (Image credit: Michal Patelle (Women of the Wall) [CC BY-SA 3.0], via Wikimedia Commons)
It is very important that the following discussion of Reform Jewry be prefaced by this point: Any Jew born to a Jewish mother is a Jew — period! The aim of this piece is to bring clarity to the ongoing “Kotel War,” and to discern what the struggle is and what it is not.
Truth be told, this is not really a fight over women wearing Tefillin or men and women praying together without a mechitza (separation barrier). The discussion is actually much more profound; perhaps out of loyalty to “political correctness,” everyone is avoiding it.
The primary question is: Can we consider the Reform Movement a Jewish sect, within the framework of the “70 faces to the Torah”? Or should we categorize the Reform Movement as a distinct religion separate from Judaism?
Before going any further, it should be reiterated that, “Any Jew born to a Jewish mother is a Jew — period!” I am not questioning the Jewishness of any Jew who belongs to the Reform Movement. However, I would like to cast doubt on the legitimacy of that movement’s theology.
If a Jew were to “convert” to Christianity or Hare Krishna, the Torah would still view him/her as a Jew, albeit a bad one. That Jew is still obligated to keep all the commandments and can never escape his true identity. On the flip side of the coin, the “conversion” does not turn the adopted religion into Judaism by virtue of the “conversion.” The same holds true for the Reform Movement.
What is Judaism?
If one were to try to encapsulate Judaism in a single sentence, they could choose the verse: The Torah Moshe commanded to us is the legacy of the congregation of Jacob (Deut. 33:4).
In fact, this is one of the very first verses we teach to children, and I still remember my mother singing it to me as a young child. We immediately begin to instill within our children that the Torah and all of its laws and ordinances are our sacred and eternal responsibility.
Throughout the ages, Jews have tried their best to uphold the Torah and the divine covenant, as we collectively declared at Mount Sinai: All that G-d has spoken, we shall do (Ex. 19:8). However, as I will document, the Reform Movement completely denies both the validity and the divinity of the Torah.
What Does Reform Believe?
I would like to begin by reviewing the “Principles for Reform Judaism,” as they are stated on the website of the Reform rabbinical body, the Central Conference of American Rabbis (CCAR):
“We hold that all such Mosaic and rabbinical laws as regulate diet, priestly purity, and dress originated in ages and under the influence of ideas entirely foreign to our present mental and spiritual state. They fail to impress the modern Jew with a spirit of priestly holiness; their observance in our days is apt rather to obstruct than to further modern spiritual elevation.”
— 1885 Pittsburgh Conference
“We are committed to the ongoing study of the whole array of mitzvot (commandments) and to the fulfillment of those that address us as individuals and as a community. Some of these mitzvot, sacred obligations, have long been observed by Reform Jews; others, both ancient and modern, demand renewed attention as the result of the unique context of our own times.”
— 1999 Pittsburgh Convention
While the Reform Movement has certainly softened its language between 1885 and 1999, the message has essentially stayed the same: We will pick the commandments that are relevant to our lives, while discarding those that do not find favor in our eyes.
The Torah’s Position
In stark contrast, however, the Torah states that holiness is derived from the eternal observance of all of G-d’s commandments by the Jewish People.
“They shall make for themselves fringes on the corners of their garments, throughout their generations… So that you shall remember and perform all My commandments and you shall be holy to your G-d.” (Num. 15:38-40)
“But keep My Sabbaths! For it is a sign between Me and you for your generations, to know that I, the Lord, make you holy… for whoever performs work on it, that soul will be cut off from the midst of its people.” (Ex. 31:13-14)
The Torah constantly reminds us that our status as “a kingdom of priests and a holy nation” (Ex. 19:6) is contingent upon the preceding verse: “if you obey Me and keep My covenant” (Ex. 19:5). There is no time limit and the Torah is an eternal truth “throughout their generations.”
Reformism and Judaism — Not the Same Thing
Upon further investigation of Reform beliefs, it becomes clear that they not only challenge the eternal nature of the Torah’s commandments, but even question the existence of G-d. Contained within the “Rabbinic Commentary on the Principles for Reform Judaism” are statements that simply defy the Jewish imagination.
On belief in G-d:
“Reform Judaism does not command common belief… There is room in Reform Judaism, then, for a variety of understandings of G-d’s reality, including individuals who are not sure whether they believe in G-d or think that they do not believe in G-d.”
On Observance of Commandments:
“The classic notion of G-d commanding us – it seems so frontal, so authoritarian, so hierarchical… To others, we may respond, I cannot do this act – in terms of my present moral or communal understanding it seems meaningless, or even wrong.”
On the Temple:
“The Jewish holiness of the Temple Mount is due to its historic significance and not to any hope for rebuilding the Temple, reestablishing sacrificial rites, or restoring any future Jewish worship” (Resolution on the Temple Mount – October 27, 2015)
There is no doubt that in light of these writings — among many others — the Reform Movement cannot be categorized as a Jewish sect. Can any practicing Jew stand before his Creator and declare in regard to His commandments: “I cannot do this act,” or that they are ”meaningless or wrong”? Moreover, by providing space for atheism within their belief system, the Reform theologians deny even the first words of the Ten Commandments: “I am the Lord your G-d.” (Ex. 20:2, Deut. 5:6)
The Reform could be best described as a non-Jewish movement, comprised and officiated by Jews. Just because Jews have banded together to create a new theology does not make that theology a Jewish one.
Reinvigorating a Dying Movement at Israel’s Expense
It is for this reason that the Chief Rabbinate in Israel and the religious parties in the Knesset are fighting tooth and nail to keep the Reform Movement away from the Kotel. If Israel would give formal recognition to the Reform Movement, then why couldn’t Jews for Jesus also demand recognition? After all their members are Jewish as well, so perhaps their theology should also be seen as legitimate?
It would appear that as the Reform pews and coffers empty out due to mass intermarriage — which is also blatantly against the Torah — they need a cause to stimulate their dying movement. Anat Hoffman, a Reform leader of the Women of the Wall group challenging the status at the Kotel, admitted during a BBC interview back in 2013 that the Kotel battle is really about provoking people to question traditional Judaism. (See video from 2:36)
The Reform clergy would do well to find another cause and leave the Kotel and Israel alone. Furthermore, all of our Jewish brothers and sisters who are members of this new religion called Reform should find their way home and proudly declare: “All that G-d has spoken, we shall do… The Torah Moshe commanded for us is the legacy of the congregation of Jacob.”
Yosef Rabin is a professional content writer living in Tel Aviv. Additionally, he serves as Deputy Gabbi of the Great Synagogue of Tel Aviv and is a member of the board. This piece appeared previously on the author’s blog.