One Reform Rabbi’s God Survey

One Reform Rabbi’s God Survey June 26, 2012

It may surprise you to learn that I am a member of the Reform rabbinate.  At least officially.  Of course, on matters of ideology I am no Reform Jew, at least not in any way that matters to today’s definition of Reform Judaism

I’ve written before about the tragic mistake made by official Reform Judaism when it rejected the membership of a humanistic Cincinnati congregation.  Since then, the Reform movement has become an increasingly inhospitable home for non-believing Jews.

So imagine my surprise when I opened the Summer 2012 issue of Reform Judaism magazine and found Rabbi Mark Dov Shapiro’s article, “The God Survey.”

He polled his congregation in Springfield, Massachusetts only to find that a significant number of his congregants were non-believers or barely believers.  Fifteen percent said flat-out that there is no God (33% of men, 8% of women) and of those in their twenties, 25% agreed that there is no God.

Keep in mind that these responses are from congregational members who cared enough to take the time to respond to their rabbi!  I would venture to guess – though it is an educated guess – that this is just the tip of the iceberg.

Of those who did believe, most identified God as “love” or “hope.”  Most also believed that to the extent that God acts at all in these guises of love and hope, it is only through human beings.  Rabbi Shapiro comes to a radically honest conclusion:

I find it significant that this metaphor of God as hope or love is largely absent from Reform liturgy.  No wonder that some people feel disenfranchised coming to services where the prevailing God metaphor is Melech or Ruler.  Broadening the vocabulary of worship to include new God language for the majority of my congregants may be my next step as a rabbi.

While I certainly differ on the significance of any “God metaphor,” I can appreciate the dawning realization coming upon this rabbi.  His movement is severely out of touch.

The Reform movement is largely directed by people who think that more traditional religious behavior and language is the key to success.  Its new prayer book is its most traditional to date.  Its predecessor provided a (mostly) non-theistic service among its many choices.  Such open minded options are completely gone in the new version as it instead marks a return to traditional language, including the resurrection of the dead.

I don’t know if this trend comes from true belief or from a desperate response to the rising popularity of Orthodoxy.  In any case, the movement has become increasingly deaf to the beliefs of many, if not most, of its constantly decreasing membership.

Speaking of membership, I spoke to a friend of mine who is a member of a large Reform temple.  She informed me that based upon her modest middle class family income, her temple dues are now $3,000 plus $1,000 more for one religious school tuition.  Meanwhile, the senior rabbi has a very secure contract that pays him in the mid-six figures.

Reform Judaism is clearly built upon a shifting hill of sand.  It has virtually no shot at surviving in a world where more and more Jews are non-believers and/or “Just Jewish.”  It is led by a high priesthood of out-of-touch, elitist and wildly overpaid clergy who are pushing its theology rightward.  It is little wonder that young non-Orthodox Jews view affiliation as an unaffordable and undesired luxury.  Reform Jewish leaders will soon discover that they have created a hollow version of Orthodoxy, minus the sincerity and commitment.

Given the great good that Reform Judaism brought to the Jewish enterprise, I certainly hope it evolves in the right direction before it collapses.

Meanwhile I’ll put my money on Humanistic Judaism.  We may not have Reform’s enormous infrastructure, but we make up for it with a relevant message for millions of Jews.

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  • The last congregation I was active in made it a point that finances should be no barrier to participation. It was a nondenominational egalitarian shul with emphasis on scholarship and wrestling with traditional liturgy. Since moving away from Phoenix, I’ve not found any congregation that simply said “come” without getting into the finances of it all. One reform shul even asked on its membership form if you were a Jew-by-choice, and if so, who performed your conversion ceremony. WTF?? Since when did that matter?

  • David

    “but we make up for it with a relevant message for millions of Jews.”

    What message is that, exactly? I have read your blog and it seems that it is mostly a tirade against Haredim, reform Jews, and anyone whose views you disagree with. Shouldn’t Humanistic Judaism have a positive message that inspires us to act better each day, rather than just haranguing others?

    Also, your core principles on this blog states: “Jewish identity is best preserved in a free, pluralistic environment.” Can you define what pluralism means to you? It seems that your goal is to change everyone to become humanistic, which seems to be anti-pluralistic; pluralism would accept different movements with different views, whereas on the contrary, it seems that most of your blog is spent attacking other movements.

    • Rabbi Jeffrey Falick


      First of all, thank you for reading and commenting.

      You are certainly correct that I have devoted a great deal of blog space to Haredim. I also sometimes address liberal theistic ideas and practices. I would not characterize my writing as “tirades,” particularly when I’m dealing with the liberal movements. I would prefer to use the word “critique.” If you look a little deeper on my blog, you will see that I have devoted much more space to other issues.

      I’ll admit that I’ve struggled with how much to write about liberal theistic Judaism. I think that I’ve struck a pretty fair balance of critique and praise for their many and wonderful contributions to Jewish life. Checking back, I don’t see more than 15 or 20 posts addressing Reform or Conservative Judaism at all. As for the Haredim, I certainly do not hold back. I view Haredi Judaism as a living fossil that is harming Jewish individuals and the Jewish community. I wish that they were a small problem; they are not. Especially in Israel they present an enormous challenge. I won’t apologize for spending time on them.

      Which brings me to your point about pluralism.

      Pluralism is a concept that is employed in different ways and for different agendas. My approach is this: I accept the freedom of every person and Jew to believe and practice their religions and lives as they see fit. But that does not mean that they have the right to use governmental or other types of coercion to force their rules and views on others, to be funded by the state or to shirk their obligations as citizens. Part of my mission as a secular humanist is to point this out and I use my blog as an outlet to do that. When we see injustice – against any minority – it is our ehtical obligation to speak out.

      No secular humanist is looking “to change everyone to become humanistic.” We are pushing a secular agenda with policy-making criteria that are based exclusively upon secular values. If I have to “harangue” people in order to make that happen, then that’s what I’ll do. As for Humanistic Judaism, we know that we are a highly ideological niche movement. We also pose no threat to the success of any other movement. To the extent that they are threatened, it is due to the fact that a large majority of American Jews does not hew to their theistic worldview. That’s their problem and I think that I can be excused for mentioning it now and then. They’ve certainly spilled their share of ink about atheists and secular humanists.

      Humanistic Judaism does not offer pabulum about the human condition. We offer a vision of how personal responsibility and the proper use of reason can help us to live better individual and communal lives. We also offer a form of Jewish celebration and identity that is consistent with our naturalist position.

      I do plan to spend more of my time writing about this inspiring and positive message and I hope you’ll check back in the future.