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I am not one to criticize the Reform Movement. Not because I think they are beyond criticism. But because they are so out of my orbit of mandatory ritual – that any criticism from me would be entirely meaningless to a movement that doesn’t mandate it. They do not believe in the binding nature of Halacha. And until recent times they rejected virtually all ritual – claiming only the ethos of Judaism to be valid.

In recent times they have done a 180 with respect to the ritual observance. They finally realized that avoiding all ritual left them bereft of any Jewish identity.


Nonetheless there is a debate in Reform between liberal factions who want to stick with the old tradition of rejecting all ritual (How ironic is that! …sticking to a tradition?!) and a newer breed of rabbis on the right of the Reform Movement who want to re-embrace ritual albeit on a voluntary basis. That seems to be taking hold to a certain degree.

Some Reform Jews are indeed beginning to observe Jewish rituals. When ritual becomes voluntary, it becomes easier to observe. There is no sense of responsibility or guilt if it is not done. This is why the Talmud teaches us that a metzuveh v’oseh (a person who is commanded to perform a ritual and complies by doing it) is greater than an eino metzuveh v’oseh (A person who is not commanded to do the Mitzvah but does it anyway). The metzuvah v’oseh feels the “strain” of obligation on his shoulders. The eino metzuveh v’oseh does not.

In this way a Reform Jew can pick and choose which ritual seems more meaningful to them and reject those that aren’t. Either way there is no sense of obligation, burden, or guilt attached.

Where it was once taboo, Reform rabbis can now be found wearing a kipa on their heads. Hebrew has been reintroduced into their prayer services. Torah is talked about more frequently and its study encouraged. In short there are more than a few elements of ritual that are being promoted by Reform rabbis and accepted by Reform Jews.

I have always felt that this was a positive development. Mitoch shelo l’shma bah l’shma. The more Mitzvos one does that are meaningful to them even if they only considered voluntary, the closer they become to being truly observant. Former Reform Movement head, Rabbi Eric Yoffie is of the newer breed of Reform rabbis that encourages mitzvah observance. This is how he raised his children. If I recall correctly one or more of his children are now Orthodox. And he is quite proud of them.

But all is not rosy. There is a pull in the other direction… all with good intentions. It is a pull based on sensitivities to others. The motivation is noble. But their innovations based on them are tragic. Redefining “who is a Jew” to include people of patrilineal descent (those born of a Jewish father and a non Jewish mother) is one such innovation. It increases their numbers but not with Halachicly definable Jews- which include only those born of a Jewish mother or sincere Halachic converts.

The latest such innovation is a move generated by Reform Rabbi Ellen Lippmann. She is “married” to a non Jewish woman who terms herself a “permanently lapsed Irish Catholic.” In an open letter published in the Forward she urges that their rabbinical seminary (The Hebrew Union College – HUC) policy barring intermarried students from entering their rabbinate be changed. It is not enough, she says, that intermarried couples be accepted into their temples. It should be reflected in the policies of their schools as well. While there is still resistance by some of their leadership, it seems like their future includes intermarried rabbis.

How absurd this is. It follows a trend that began with ordaining women; to ordaining GLBTs (gay, lesbian, bi-sexual, and transgender people) and is now trending toward ordaining intermarried couples. Like I said, I am in no position to dictate policy to a movement in Judaism that is non-Halachic. But it is the height of folly to be going in this direction.

Why, I would ask, stop there? If Reform Judaism is to be true to its ideals of ecumenism and an ethos free of prejudice, why not let a non-Jew become a rabbi? As long as they renounce the divinity of Jesus why bar them? That would be discriminatory! Non-Jews can be trained in pastoral duties. They could counsel Jews just as easily as non-Jews. Let them be educated at their rabbinic seminary. There are some pretty talented non-Jews out there that can be very spiritual and trained in Judaism’s ethos. These non Jewish Reform rabbis would not after all be required to do any mitzvos since even Jewish Reform rabbis aren’t.

This is of course ridiculous and they would never do this. But as absurd as this is, the argument is valid. Furthermore if ritual observance is voluntary, why not just drop the whole charade and just call anyone with an ethical perspective on life a Reform Jew? The only caveat (for the moment) being that they reject the divinity of Jesus. Once they do that – they can be called a Jew if they live an ethical lifestyle. Why stop with patrilineal decent? On the other hand why call yourself Jewish at all? What’s the point?

And yet there is that pull to the right that encourages observance on a voluntary basis. The battle rages on in their circles.

As Orthodox Jews – why should we care what happens in Reform Judaism? Because Kol Yisroel areivim zeh lazeh. We have a responsibility to our fellow Jews to keep them as Jewish and observant as humanly possible. I therefore add my own protest to this idea. To the extent that they increase mitzvah observance we ought to encourage them. To the extent they they move further away from Judaism we ought to discourage them. The one thing we should not be is apathetic.

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  1. I have an open letter to Union College of my own:

    May 19, 2013.

    Dear Rabbi Ellenson:

    I am a Reform Jew, and like about half of secular American Jews, I am intermarried. I read with a great deal of anguish an article in The Forward by Rabbi Ellen Lippmann in which she stated that under the current rules of Hebrew Union College, one cannot be admitted nor receive ordination either as a rabbi or as a cantor from your institution if one is married to a non-Jewish spouse or “in a committed relationship” with a non-Jew, either as a rabbi or as a cantor. (I thought that the prime requirement for being a cantor is that one can sing.) Mrs. Lippmann further stated that one must sign a pledge to that effect. This rule must be relatively recent, as Mrs. Lippmann herself has a non-Jewish partner.

    I checked your school’s website, and there it was, in black and white. Elsewhere, it also stated that Hebrew Union College does not discriminate on the basis of race, religion, or sexual preference.

    hat if this were a Christian divinity college, and one of its rules was that in order to become a chaplain, you couldn’t have a Jewish spouse? The ADL would be up in arms, and rightfully so. Quite frankly, the religion of your students’ dating partners is nobody’s damned business.

    Additionally, who defines who is and who is not a Jew? Would it be Hermann Goering, who infamously said, “Wer Jude ist, bestimme ich”? Moreover, just what is a “committed relationship?” Would a one-night stand be OK? How about a week? Just who will enforce this? The Mossad? Shin Bet? The Gestapo? The latter was quite effective at it. I’m sure there are some former Gestapo members still alive, drinking their Schnapps in Das Vaterland. Should these alter kockers be unretired?

    A few years ago, I visited the Skirball Museum in Los Angeles, where the original copy of the Nazi Nuremberg Laws is on exhibit. I understand the Skirball Museum is affiliated with your institution. Perhaps the next time I visit Los Angeles, I’ll hang a copy of your institution’s edict right next to it. I cannot think of a better place to display it.

    I understand you’re retiring in 2014. It would be a wonderful thing for your legacy if you consigned this particular piece of racist nonsense to the dustbin of history.


    Dan Silagi

  2. I once did a Purim shtick on Union Hebrew College. It offered rabbi ordination with 3 years of part time studies using the Christian Union Theological Seminary faculty and facilities. They would be trained in leading High Holiday services and ceremonies including conversions to anf from Judaism. But allas along came an Academy of Jewish Religion which actually has a 3 year part time ordination called "non-denominational" that made what I thought was a rediculous joke into a realty.

  3. Hmm, I may be of Hebraic descent and I have often said that if I were not a Christian, I would be a Jew, but I would opt for the more Biblical/Torah branch as I would be as out of place as a Reformed Jew as I would a Liberal Christian.

  4. There have always been people and movements that are irrational and heretical based upon false assumptions and distorted logic. Let us look to the source of all truth to guide- the Torah that Hashem gave us. He created us and he gave us the directions to live by. We are not smarter than Hashem. Can any reform Jew claim that he or she is? Then why are you making up a religion contrary to the one Hashem gave us?

  5. I met a conservative rabbi who was fired from his post because (when asked to convert a young non Jewish man so he could marry a young Jewish woman (whose father was the biggest macher in the synagogue) he refused because he asked the young man if he still believed in Jesus (to which the young man answered yes).

  6. He shouldn't have been fired. But this isn't really the issue; it's whether people like Harry Maryles (and you) have the right to make it THEIR business to tell other Jews how to practice or not practice their religion.

    I don't tell you not to be observant. I don't try to force you to eat a BLT. Woe to the person who tries to grab a ham sandwich out of my hand.

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