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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.

Categories: Emanuel Congregation Interdenominational JUDAISM

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Mike Doyle

I’m an #OpenlyAutistic gay, Hispanic, urbanist, Disney World fan, New York native, politically independent, Jewish blogger in Chicago. I believe in social justice, big cities, and public transit. I write words and raise money for nonprofits. I’ve written this blog since 2005. And counting...

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16 replies

  1. Belated, but kudos to Rabbi Fuchs, I think, for being willing to listen to some valid criticisms. I’m not sure about the Shoah not “resonating” with the under-40s, though, Michael. I’m sure there are many for whom this is the case, but then (Baruch Hashem) there are many Jews who were around in the 40s in countries that weren’t affected by Hitler’s butchers – the UK, for example, was at war with Nazi Germany but, thank God, was never invaded. As a 34-year old I have always had the kind of horrid fascination with the Holocaust that one has with a car crash (sorry if that sounds cheap, I would never dare to cheapen the Shoah). I’m not looking for sympathy – I think most people who know me personally would describe me as a cheerful person – but as a disabled, socialist, queer Jew-by-choice I would probably be in the firing line on many levels if this were to happen again – and not only must we not hold post-war Germans responsible for the Holocaust (though I would argue we CAN hold them responsible for making sure it never happens again at German hands), but we must also remember that a Shoah can and could be perpetrated against any people (including the Palestinians and the Germans), BY any people, including the Palestinians, British, Americans, or, yes, Israelis in particular or Jews in general. Let’s all remember that anytime a Jew victimises a Palestinian for being a Palestinian, a German born after the Shoah for the calamity of the Shoah, or a Jew for being a Jew, (the sins don’t end at ethnicities), we chalk one up for Adolf.

  2. Right now Orthodox rabbis in Israel are up in arms because the government is considering recognizing Conservative and Reform rabbis. There’s some pretty vitriolic stuff being said about the legitimacy of those movements.

    In light of that–and what you’ve said (and I heard in my Reform shul)–I can’t help but think about the fall of Jerusalem in 70 A.D. Any Orthodox rabbi will tell you that God withdrew his protection from the city because the different factions of Jews inside it couldn’t get along. And any historian will tell you that the city fell because the different factions of Jews inside it couldn’t unite in the face of a common enemy.

    And now, when Israel is fighting for its existence against Iran and the U.N.–and when the legitimacy of our control over Jerusalem is being questioned by the world–I can’t help but remember the fall of Jerusalem in 70 A.D. when I see Jewish denominations fighting amongst themselves.

    It makes me want to fall on my knees and plead with God not to take Jerusalem (and Israel) away again.

  3. Thanks for your thoughtful criticism and presenting a perspective for me to consider which is clearly so different from my own. I can’t say this was easy or fun for me to read, but it will help me shape future presentations. Thank you for taking my thoughts seriously enough to prepare this analysis. Shabbat Shalom and good luck as you continue your own Jewish spiritual journey!

  4. Thank you for your wonderful blog. I am from Russia and going through a Reform conversion now. There are only two forms of Judaism in our city-Reform and Chabad. Many Jewish people have a guilt that they can not live as Chabad lives. They can see only white and black, so the most of them leave Judaism.

    A Reform synagoge is too small but thanks to Hashem that it is. I go there despite of all difficulties.

    1. Thanks for commenting, Rina. I have a Russian Jewish friend and neighbor (and fellow congregation member!), and she has noted to be how refreshing she finds it that there are so many different approaches to Judaism present in the U.S. and how easy it is to be publicly Jewish. I wish you a wonderful conversion journey! Keep me posted about it!

  5. Thanks for this powerful and heartfelt post. Kol hakavod. I very much resonate with what you’ve said here.

    As a side note re: the end of the post, where you talk about considering the rabbinate — for what it’s worth, I had an amazing experience at a transdenominational seminary, of which there are now three (ALEPH, AJR, and Hebrew College.) If you decide that you want to pursue the rabbinate but aren’t sure that a specific denominational seminary is the right home for you, these three are worth exploring.

    1. Thanks for your suggestions here–I’ve been thinking along these lines, too. Thank you also for chronicling your rabbinical school experiences on your blog–reading your posts have been very helpful, as well!

  6. I didn’t stay for Rabbi Fuch’s talk (babysitting doesn’t help with a little one who needs to be IN BED!) – so I can’t comment first hand on his talk.

    But I want to add my two cents in your commentary about the Shoah. (Ironically you speak of the “under-40” and “over-60” – and I’m neither…)

    Rabbi Fuch is speaking from the perspective of the over 60 (I can safely infer) – and from my experience being raised by a member of that generation – I don’t know that it’s safe to say “They heard it all before”. My mom was born in 1938. She was the age my daughter is now when it was happening. She was a teenager as many of the survivors emigrated to the US and Israel. To us the Shoah is something abstract – something out of history. To that generation it is a part of their lives – a real thing. It’s a memory of Aunt Violet who perished at Auschwitz.

    Now – I’m not necessarily disagreeing with you . I do tire of hearing the “Holocaust Card” played in places where it’s not appropriate, and perhaps this is one of those cases.

    But I cut some slack to people – especially American Jews – of a certain generation. My mom had a real hard time when I went on tour to Germany a couple times for music. She will never own a German car – avoid German products and has a distrust of many Germans.

    Germany will ALWAYS owe that generation. They will owe until they can bring Aunt Violet back; which is to say – they can never do enough. It’s a personal thing. Obviously I’m not speaking in the renumerative sense of “owing” money. (And again I didn’t hear his speech so I can’t comment on the context beyond what you wrote…)

    On some level – it can transcend generations. For example, personally, I believe there is a certain level of collective guilt to what happened to the Native Americans. None of my ancecestors came to North America until after 1890?; but I do have certain privleges as a Hetrosexual White Male in this culture based on certain historical facts. That these happened before I was born or any of my ancestors were here doesn’t mean that I don’t benefit from this privlege…

    Anyway – great blog post. I don’t even disagree with much of what you said – I just wanted to put my two cents in…

    1. Thanks for commenting, Dan. What I meant by having “heard it all before” was literally having heard this same pitch over and over in other fundraising contexts. The emotions may still be fresh for some of us, but the pitch is not. I will disagree, though, about German culpability. The generations that perpetrated the crimes were never able to do enough and could never have done enough. Their children aren’t responsible, beyond returning money and property taken by–and acknowledging and as a national officially regretting the actions of–their forebears.

      As soon as we label an entire nation–as the rest of the world right now does with Israel and as many Jews and Israelis do with the Palestinians–we poison any potential for healing, understanding, and peace. I truly believe that.

  7. Good for you Mike, for not falling into the “us-vs.-them” mindset – there’s plenty the Reform movement can learn from the Orthodoxy, and we should not let their animosity towards us prevent us from doing so.

    I would just differ with you on one small point: you refer to Chabad as adhering to “a highly traditional Orthodox Judaism”. While this is true in terms of form, theologically speaking Lubavitcher chassidism is little more than neo-gnostic paganism, further removed from traditional Judaism than Reform. Read their “Tanya”, the foundational text of their particular ideology – it reads like something out of L. Ron Hubbard. They really are the Scientologists of Judaism, and are only tolerated as part of the Orthodoxy for political reasons. Not that I would want to change this, mind you – I think there’s room for everyone under the Jewish tent. Just wish they’d extend us the same courtesy…

    I look forward to your next column.

    1. Thanks for reading, Yohan. I would say of Chabad, we can also learn from them without necessarily adopting their theology, just like other streams of Orthodoxy.

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