As I’ve written here before, I was reared in and received ordination from the Reform movement. My experiences in Reform Judaism were often richly fulfilling. While I have taken my leave of the ideology of Reform Judaism, I continue to support its goals of modernizing Judaism and working for a pluralistic Jewish world.
So imagine my frustration when I read the latest HuffPost blog from Rabbi Eric Yoffie, president of the Union for Reform Judaism. In a post titled “The Self-Delusion of Secular Jews,” he derides the logic behind those who call themselves “proud secular Jews.” He has had many such conversations with them – mostly in Reform synagogues – and found that they “pride themselves on thinking clearly and critically,” refusing “to accept the dictates of the divine or the absolutes of the Jewish religion — or any religion.”
Sounding more like he fancies himself the Reformische Rebbe than the head of a modern liberal movement, he asserts:
Their act of belonging — and belonging to a people that for most of its history has been set apart and oppressed — is not reasonable at all; it is, in fact, a supreme act of irrationality, and yes, of faith. The very people who speak the language of personal freedom are subordinating their own personal freedom to the Jewish enterprise. Those who reject religious commitment in the name of self-expression are accepting, at least in some measure, the commitment of Jewish belonging.
And when I point this out, and note that their Jewish identification contradicts their idea of critical thinking and unalloyed reason as the ultimate good, they tend to reply that, well, they are not identifying at all with religion but with the Jewish people.
…[E]mbracing a people is no more rational an act than embracing God or religion. It too is an act of faith.
I will grant Yoffie that there is some irrationality in remaining connected to the much-despised people of Israel. But it is most certainly not an act of faith.
Perhaps the emotional and kinship bonds that I feel for the Jewish people are irrational, but they are most certainly real. There is no human being who does not experience such connections. We evolved as social and tribal creatures. It is what comes naturally to us.
The faith that is required for religious belief is different in every way.
The most significant difference is that the Jewish people actually exists. So while my attachment to them may be irrational, there is at least something real that is the object of my affections and concerns.
Now unless Yoffie has some unique powers never before successfully demonstrated by any theologian or religious apologist, he cannot prove that God exists. It is possible that he does and it is possible that he does not. But there’s no proof. This is why belief in God requires faith. There’s no evidence.
Yoffie’s next argument is even more ludicrous:
[T]he second problem is that the Jewish people cannot be separated from God. The Jews came into being as a people at Sinai, waiting in readiness for the revelation of Torah; they are not now, and have never been, simply another ethnic grouping. For Jews, Jewish ethnicity does not stand apart from faith and community does not stand apart from Jewish law. Absent their religious essence, the Jewish people withers and dies.
First of all, and Yoffie knows this as well as I do, nothing happened at Sinai. How do I know that he knows this? He learned it in the same place that I did. Sinai is a myth. The Jews did not come into being at Sinai or receive any magical revelation there any more than they wandered around the desert for forty years. Moreover, as Mordecai Kaplan so ably taught, we Jews are most undeniably “simply another ethnic” group.
Secondly, I would ask Yoffie the same basic question I ask every religious Jew from every religious movement. What is the “religious essence” of the Jewish people? If it’s so extremely crucial that without it we shall wither and die, then I expect some clarification.
Is it monotheism? Great, there’s one God. That is not a “religious essence.” Christianity has one God. So does Islam.
Even if we just focus on what the Jews believe, we come up with a whole lot of different and contradictory Gods. There is the loving social justice God of the Reform. There is the mystical God of the Hasidim. There is the bossy, homo-hating God of Orthodox Jews and the tender, homo-loving God of the rest of them. There is the God who will not put up with women singing and the God whose praises are sung by women cantors.
What kind of “essence” is this? Jewish believers can’t even work out basic issues like whether God cares about how we eat, dress or employ electricity on Saturdays.
He goes on to describe how most secular Jews he talks to like Jewish values such as “social justice, hospitality and mentschlikeit (decency).” I would argue that these are good HUMAN values that you don’t need to be Jewish to understand. What makes them Jewish are the stories we tell and the language we use to relate them. Like calling decency “mentschlikeit.”
In short, “secular Jews” and “cultural Jews” may think that they can wring the holiness out of their Jewish identity and practice, but they cannot. Jewish socialists tried and failed; secular Zionists tried and failed. And every other attempt to create this separation has failed as well. The Jews as a people and a culture do not exist in isolation. God has made a covenant with them, and this covenant provides the ground for all Jewish existence.
I would suggest to Yoffie that not only did secular Zionists not fail, they were wildly successful. The State of Israel was founded as a secular democratic nation and, I might add, against the will of many Reform and Orthodox believers.
In fact – and Yoffie should understand this better than anyone – it is not an overabundance of secularism that endangers Israel’s future. It is the smug self-righteousness of its aspiring theocrats. Secular Zionism has no problem with Reform Rabbi Anat Hoffman praying at the Wall with her tallit. It’s Yoffie’s fellow faithful, with their vaunted shared “religious essence,” who arranged for her multiple arrests.
I expect more from the head of the Reform movement than to wield the sword of God as if he were some liberal Judah Maccabee. Why he feels it necessary to write off an enormous segment of the Jewish community and grind our point of view under the heel of God is beyond my comprehension.
Perhaps next time he wants to talk about the delusions of secular Jews, he might talk to some secular Jewish thinkers. I’m sure he would hope for the same courtesy from someone making such bold pronouncements about Reform Judaism. I’m pretty sure that he’s heard of Humanistic Judaism. Our number’s in the phone book and everything.
As for his final point, I can confidently assert that I do not ground my Jewish existence in any covenant with God because God is a fictional character. Yet somehow, I – and all of my fellow secular Jews – quite clearly exist.