October 19, 2023
Book: Reform Judaism for the Rest of Us: Faith Versus Political Action
Author: Alexander Maller
Alexander Maller’s book tackles a subject he is passionate about: the future of the Reform Jewish movement in America. Maller is a loyal member of the faith. In a different era, he would have had a chance to provide competent, steady, and inspired leadership from the inside as a lay director.
Maller’s journey started in Cold War Romania. It was a repressive, Marxist, and atheistic regime. It was hostile to all religion (except Marxism). Unfortunately, upon arrival in the US, Maller’s hopes about Reform Judaism were dashed. Maller found a politically partisan, poorly-managed, and doctrinally-contradictory organization. His book is therefore a cross between a statement of faith and a statement of disappointment.
Maller, an architect by trade, next endeavors to methodically fix all the ways Reform Judaism is letting down its members and the Jewish world.
While I agree with Maller’s many concerns about the Reform Jewish movement, I am not as sanguine. Reform Judaism will not be easy to reform. As they say in business, how it begins is how it goes. As Maller himself retells, from the start and through the present day nearly all of the Reform movement’s actions, positions (and equivocations) on major issues have been just wrong.
In some cases, the Reform Movement’s conduct has been downright embarrassing and tragic. Whether on the Holocaust, the establishment of Israeli, Zionism, Halakhah, or Marxism, they never seem to get it right. Maller details the famous 1938 voyage of the Jewish refugee ship, the St. Louis, from Germany. The Reform leadership sat silent and did nothing to help 900 Jews. They were sent back to Germany and to their deaths. Fearing bad publicity, the Reform Movement refused to use their influence to save their own people. They instead created a spectacle of spinelessness which permitted President Franklin Roosevelt to demur.
Sadly, while no group is perfect, there are just too many other tragic examples and historical episodes of moral cowardice in the Reform Movement to recount in this small space. Maller is fair-minded, however, and give tribute where it is due. One example was the Reform Movement’s laudable and extensive role helping the cause of Soviet Jewry in the 1970s and 1980s.
Maller next addresses how the Reform Movement today whitewashes its own history and engages in historical revisionism within its internal publications. The extent of the questionable and dishonest scholarship in a religious organization is jarring.
Also disconcerting is the Reform Movement’s response to honest, critical scholarship. I was already familiar with the Reform Movement’s tendency to attack well-meaning critics instead of answering them constructively. That was the case with Jonathan Neumann’s superb book, To Heal The World, How The Jewish Left Corrupts Judaism and Endanger Israel (All Point Books, 2018).
Maller also describes with sadness how the Reform Movement’s internal executive and bureaucratic leadership dismantled or neutered internal organizational power structures that they did not control. Today, leadership in the Reform Movement rarely emanates from the congregational level. Congregations and lay leaders have little clout. The movement is not democratic and power has become highly-centralized, generally unaccountable, and arguably authoritarian in many respects.
Despite its history, its flaws, and its warts, Maller remains loyal to the Reform Movement. One chapter of the book even outlines how Reform Judaism can increase its trivial presence in Israel. This is despite Maller’s acknowledgement that some of the Reform Movement’s positions are antithetical to Israeli’s interests and national security.
Maller discusses why many Israeli Jews are uncomfortable with the Reform Movement. Most Reform Jews seem to know little about Middle East history, Arab irredentism, and Arab violence (on full display last week with 1,400 of us murdered). Yet they seem to have strong opinions on just about everything. It is therefore unclear to me why Maller would want Reform Judaism to flourish in Israel. He praises Israeli’s relative internal harmony and unity as it relates to Israeli’s Jewish community.
While I respect Maller’s scholarship I found myself unable to embrace Maller’s premise. I believe certain things are just too costly to repair. As Maller eloquently documents, Reform Judaism has not been a force for Jewish unity, Jewish pride, peoplehood, or even reliable scholarship.
Instead, Reform Judaism seems to mint a new type of member who. This member, if he does not dominate the movement, he certainly seems to predominate. He is often discontent, contemptuous of his own traditions, ignorant of his own history, usually illiterate in the Jewish language, and unable to understand or appreciate who we really are. Yet all the same, he is ready to carry any banner, shout almost any platitude, and march in lock step for whatever cause is in vogue at his local State Capital.
Like Maller, I spent decades in the Reform Movement. Just as with the Romanian Jewish community of Maller’s youth, today’s Reform Movement has been drained. Most of its free-thinkers, non-leftists, and natural leaders like Maller have found a better life elsewhere.