Progressive Judaism Versus the World


At least, that’s what the point seemed to be this past Friday during a Shabbat-evening talk at my synagogue by Rabbi Stephen Fuchs, current president of the World Union for Progressive Judaism. The talk was promoted as a discussion about the umbrella organization that represents both Reform and Reconstructionist Judaism to the world–together termed “Progressive Judaism” beyond North America. It turned out to be a bait-and-switch fundraising pitch, which gave me yet one more reason to loathe having to suffer speakers on Shabbat. (Turning Friday evening into an occasional lecture series just cheapens Shabbat and the worship experience, but that’s a post for another time.)

Even after I realized we were sitting through a pitch, though, it was still uplifting to hear about the work that the World Union does internationally to raise the profile of liberal Judaism and to found and strengthen liberal Jewish communities across the globe. Or so I thought. And then the age-old Reform canards came out and once more I felt the sinking feeling that Reform’s institutional leaders just don’t get where the movement’s at anymore.

First, and early on, came the Orthodox bashing. Not just please live up to your own Jewish ethics criticisms as I’ve occasionally groused on this blog about Orthodoxy. But patented, old-school, outright us versus them in a battle for Jewish souls, those scoundrels kind of framing. The World Union had to spread the word about Judaism (not Progressive Judaism, mind you, but Judaism) because “no one else is doing it in these countries.”

(This wasn’t an isolated Orthodox-bashing incident, either. Last year my shul had a similar discussion evening with Rabbi Gary Bretton-Granatoor, the World Union’s vice-president of Philanthropy. Describing the religious divide in Israel between un-observant Jews and charedi, or ultra-Orthodox Jews, Rabbi Bretton-Granatoor said,”You’ve got the seculars on the one side and the whackos on the other.” Emphasis his, not mine.)

I wondered why Rabbi Fuchs said “Judaism” and not “liberal Judaism” or “Progressive Judaism” at key points. Because, actually, Chabad is doing it in all the same countries, and really well. The problem is Chabad is trumpeting a highly traditional Orthodox Judaism and, until the past couple of decades, Progressive Judaism wasn’t out there fostering liberal Judaism in the same places. So liberal Judaism in the former Soviet Union and in many parts of Europe that were cleansed of Jews by the Nazis during the Second World War plays second (third? fourth?) fiddle to entrenched and in many cases governmentally funded Orthodox movements.

In fact, outside of the United States and Israel where the overwhelming number of Jews live, liberal or otherwise, most countries represented by the World Union account for only a few thousand Jews each. This can cut a couple of ways. Either the small numbers in each country may seem relatively unimportant to a room full of American Jews. Or the same room might be moved by hearing real-life stories drawn from these small, few communities to entice people to donate to the World Union and help such communities grow.

Yet, after a lengthy discussion about German, Austrian, and Hungarian Progressive Jewish communities, when someone in the audience asked a simple question–How many Progressive Jews are there in Germany?–Rabbi Fuchs didn’t have an answer. Neither did the World Union’s website. As the talk continued, I spent 10 minutes searching the website on my Android phone in vain for any sort of a country-by-country breakdown of the Progressive Jewish population around the world. The numbers just weren’t there. Also absent–both on the website and in the Rabbi’s talk? Vignettes to put real names and faces to otherwise generic stories about communities in need.

Two enormous missed opportunities.

And then Rabbi Fuchs played the holocaust card. In a room full of Jews of all ages, complaining that the World Union has to “fight” with the governments of many countries to achieve the same recognition and, if available, public funding that local Orthodox movements receive, referring to Germany, he said, in an low and lethal growl, “God knows, they owe us!”

Wow. Just wow.

A little perspective. The World Union’s fight is in the first instance with itself, for being so late to the game. In the second instance, its fight is with Chabad, for being successful in claiming in these countries that Orthodoxy is the only legitimate Judaism and, frankly, for having batter marketing and outreach savvy. In no way should there be a fight of any sort with the governments the World Union needs as future partners. Cynical, jingoistic language aimed at drumming up donations just perpetuates negative, damaging stereotypes–and I doubt makes governmental partners feel any friendlier to the liberal Jewish cause.

Which brings us back to, “God knows, they owe us!” Who owes us, exactly? The adult Germans alive at the end of the Second World War, now almost completely deceased or above the age of 85? Which is just about the age range of the liberal Jews who used to respond to fiery, shame-laden canards like this.

Are Jews owed? Yes, but not in the way Rabbi Fuchs implied. An apology? Absolutely. It already happened in Germany. Restitution and return of Jewish property throughout Central Europe? The battle continues, with successes and failures. A legal channel being opened to allow Progressive congregations to receive governmental funds? As the Rabbi noted, not yet in Hungary, but in Germany, yes.

But not because they “owe us” in the goes-without-speaking manner that Rabbi Fuchs implied. Not unless we’re saying that the progeny of the people who sent our Jewish ancestors to their deaths are responsible for the sins of their fathers and mothers. Because by Jewish standards, they aren’t. What we are owed is equal recognition with Orthodoxy by governments that heard a sooner and better marketing campaign from another worldwide movement–Chabad–that is not politically entrenched with these governments. Playing the holocaust card on these terms is absolutely saddening.

The shock of hearing those words had me wondering who in the room on Friday evening would have responded positively to them? The under-40s who feel no personal emotional resonance with the Shoah beyond some family stories and a visit to Yad Vashem? The over-60s who’ve heard it all before–many, many times? Me, who felt completely turned off by the language and strategy of nearly the entire discussion?

Is this really the best way that Progressive/Reform Judaism has of trying to communicate to a room full of contemporary liberal Jews why our movement matters worldwide? Can’t our movement stand on its own two feet without having to tear into other movements–even if they tear into us–and without pulling out the most unsavory of emotional tactics?

Recently I read One People, Two Worlds, a book from 2001 chronicling a year-long email conversation between a Reform rabbi and an Orthodox rabbi about the bases for their different personal religious views. At one point, the Orthodox rabbi shared a well-worn Midrashic story about a man seated in a boat with another man drilling a hole under his seat. When his boatmate complains, the man tells him to mind his business because he’s only drilling under his own seat. The Orthodox rabbi shared the story as a way to complain that the lack of sharing Orthodoxy’s view of Jewish law by liberal Jews in his mind brings all Jews down.

On Friday evening, Rabbi Fuchs shared the same story from a liberal Jewish perspective to remind us that we’re all responsible for each other on this planet. That includes non-liberal Jews and non-Jews, too. I’d prefer a klal Yisrael–and a brotherhood and sisterhood of humanity–that someday rises together. If, in fact, we are our brother’s keeper, as the Rabbi pointed out on Friday, doesn’t our responsibility towards others include refraining from tearing each other down as we seek to elevate ourselves?

More and more I find myself thinking about rabbinical school, and I seem to be ever more keenly aware of the words and writings I encounter from rabbis of differing movements. I’m starting to wonder whether I would fit into a Reform-based rabbinic program–or whether I would want to. Do I want to be a part of helping the institutions of my movement better reflect the practices, mores, and yearnings of contemporary Reform Jews? Do I want to risk ending up stuck in the same ideological bell jar that drives me up a wall every time I read a Reform website or hear a Reform rabbi expound on “why we’re not like them”?

Except, we are exactly like them. We’re all made in the image of God. We spend our lives over and over forgetting that.

And if we’re lucky, remembering.

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What do you think?