An Acquired Taste

By Stuart Schoffman

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Reprinted with permission of The Jerusalem Report. Visit www.jrep.com.

The tension between exclusion and universalism, which Reform Judaism has settled in favor of the latter, has complicated our tradition since ancient times. Strict boundaries have preserved Jewish identity. But they have also left Jews open to the charge of clannishness and xenophobia, as well as exacerbated internecine divisions that weaken the Jewish people.

A few weeks ago I attended a Bat Mitzvah at a Reform temple in California. The prayer book announced itself as “gender-sensitive;” the golden-voiced cantor and one of the two rabbis were women. An accompanying brochure explained the service to newcomers: Prayer is not a perfomance you watch, it is participatory; it may take a few sessions to get into the swing. (Indeed I knew only some of the melodies, and was struck by the user friendly abridgement of the liturgy, which made Kol HaNeshama [a Reform synagogue in Jerusalem] look downright Lithuanian.) The most impressive part of the brochure was a series of testimonials–people explaining why they come to shul: A sense of belonging, a returning to roots, a connection with ancestors–these were the ideas repeated over and over. Who can deny that God dwells in such a place? As it says in the Talmud, Tractate Megillah: Wherever the Jews have been exiled, the shekhinah, the divine presence, has gone with them.

As the Bat Mitzvah girl chanted the Torah portion and Haftarah with consummate poise and expertise, I was reminded that American Reform, so glibly accused of promoting Jewish assimilation, in fact does exactly the opposite. The girl’s mother was a convert to Judaism, and a large number of non-Jewish relatives were in attendance. Familiar as I am with Israeli Reform Judaism, I had never before attended a service in which gentiles took part–not by blessing or handling the Torah, but by opening the ark and participating in a Friday night candle-lighting ceremony. Some Jews would seize upon this as confirmation of the fundamental heresy of Reform Judaism. I found it deeply moving, a living fulfillment of the Torah’s repeated commandment to embrace, respect and include the stranger, the Other, the ger— “because you were strangers in the land of Egypt.”

Here in Israel, most people delude themselves into thinking that none of this is germane in a Jewish country. But in practice, a national ethos that recognizes only one interpretation of Jewish rules marginalizes the hundreds of thousands of Russian immigrants who aren’t halakhically (according to traditional Jewish law) Jewish (and are disinclined to undergo Orthodox conversion), and buttresses a Jewish worldview that privileges the elitist, triumphalist strain of our tradition over the empathetic and inclusive one. At a time when our very existence is again at stake, this is an indulgence we can ill afford.





About Stuart Schoffman

Stuart Schoffman is a columnist for The Jerusalem Report.