Sunday, May 9, 2010

A Reform Jew Discussed on an Orthodox Blog Reflects

By Susan Esther Barnes

On Thursday last week I was browsing a few blog posts I came across on JRants, and I chose to make a comment on a post on an Orthodox Jewish blog that said some things about Reform Judaism about which I disagreed. The author responded, I made a clarification and an additional comment, and suddenly things took a turn for the surreal when he declared me to be “an amazing human being” and stated his intention to write a post inspired by me.

True to his word, the next day he published a post titled, “Susan.” I have to say, I was a little apprehensive about reading the post. In our prejudice, we in the Reform community sometimes expect contempt from the Orthodox, but this was not the case. The post and the many comments after it were all gracious and respectful.

It starts, “From tragedy there is sometimes greatness. The tragedy is intermarriage. The greatness is that it produced a person like Susan.”

At first, I was flattered. After only a brief online exchange, he had concluded that I am amazing and great. Pretty cool. It wasn’t until that evening that I realized what a backhanded compliment it was. After all, in these same three sentences he did manage to say that the marriage of my father to my mother was a tragedy. It eventually occurred to me that one might take this as an insult.

I realized this potential insult had no emotional impact on me not only because the blog’s author clearly didn’t intend to insult me, but because his assertion that intermarriage is a tragedy is one I automatically dismiss as simply a difference of opinion. If I were to list the largest tragedies to befall the Jewish people over the last 100 years, intermarriage would not even be in the running.

I suspect part of this comes from our different experiences of intermarriage. If an Orthodox Jew marries a non-Jew, it is a tragedy. It becomes a tragedy because the Orthodox Jew is shunned by his or her community. If the Jew who intermarries is a man, his daughter is not considered to be Jewish, even if, as the author states in his blog, she goes to synagogue every week. Thus, the number of Jews is diminished and sincere people who want to be part of the Jewish community are rejected.

On the other hand, if a Reform Jew intermarries, he or she may remain part of the Jewish community, and his or her children, if raised as Jews, are also considered to be Jews. Thus, there is no tragedy.

The author assumes on his blog that the reason Reform Jews decided to welcome as Jewish children of patrilinial descent was “to stop the hemorrhaging.” It does not seem to occur to him that it was done out of compassion, out of righteousness, out of the recognition that it is wrong to cast someone out because they fell in love with the “wrong” person or through an accident of birth.

There is an assumption among the Orthodox that any Jew who marries outside the faith is lost to Judaism. In my experience, the opposite is true. We have many committed Jewish families in which one parent is Jewish and their children are Jewish. I even know several couples in which the non-Jewish spouse eventually converted to Judaism. It is a blessing, not a tragedy.

I then came to suspect that the author’s expression of admiration toward me, and his invitation to me to explore Orthodoxy, were not actually flattering at all. What he seems to appreciate about me is my sincerity about Judaism and my desire to follow mitzvot (commandments). I suspect he is inspired by me because he thinks that, surrounded by the secular and the uncommitted, I have somehow found a desire to be serious and to commit.

So here is the thing I suspect some Orthodox Jews may find hard to believe, but it is true. Reform Judaism is not “Judaism Lite.” Yes, there are many unaffiliated secular Jews. I would suggest they are unaffiliated, not Reform. There are also many affiliated Jews who would not call themselves religious, and who only go to synagogue on Yom Kippur. There are Jews who intermarry. Reform Judaism holds the door open to all of these people, and encourages them to find a deeper spiritual path.

But among the backbone of the Reform Jewish community, I am neither the most committed nor am I unique. Reform Judaism provides a deep, meaningful Jewish experience, including meaningful prayer, serious study, and the observance of mitzvot. Without this, there would not be enough money to support the many Reform congregations in this country. Without this, nobody in their right mind would want to become a member of the Reform clergy.

In his blog, the author suggests I convert to Orthodoxy so I can be acknowledged as Jewish by all Jews, rather than just a subset of Jews. He correctly surmises that I would like to be recognized as Jewish by everyone.

What he does not seem to realize is that recognition as a Jew is not what motivates me. What has motivated me, ever since I first heard the word “God” as a child, is the desire to have a close relationship with God. As a Reform Jew, I have exactly that. As an Orthodox Jew I would not, because the Orthodox hold several important beliefs with which I strongly disagree. As an Orthodox Jew I would need to do things I believe to be morally wrong, and as such I would be distancing myself from God.

So the Orthodox follow one set of rules, and the Reform Jews follow another. Who is right? It reminds me of a story about the House of Shammai and the House of Hillel, two Jewish houses of learning which often disagreed with each other on points of law. In this story, they appeal to Heaven to tell them which one is right. The answer is that the House of Shammai is right and the House of Hillel is also right.

How can this be? I suggest that the path is not the same for everyone. If Orthodoxy brings you closer to God, it is right for you. If Orthodoxy doesn’t work for you but Reform Judaism brings you closer to God, then that is where you should be. If you’re not religious or some other religion works for you, go for it. None of us holds ultimate truth in our pocket. The best we can do is to sincerely explore what we believe to be right, and to courageously follow our convictions.

As we sang on Shabbat evening after services at a gathering in a congregant’s home as I was pondering all this,

Kol ha-olam kulo gesher tzar m’od
V’ha-ikkar lo l’faheid k’lal

The whole world is a narrow bridge
And the essential thing is not to fear at all


  1. I've always loved this image.

    You're climbing a mountain. When you start near the bottom, you're deep in the forest, you feel alone. As you climb higher, the trees begin to clear and you encounter the occasional fellow traveler, perhaps walking together, perhaps parting ways for a time. Higher still, you become aware that the mountain is covered with pathways, all of which lead upwards, all of which carry many different travelers. You realize that everyone's who's climbing is headed for the same place.

    See you at the top.

  2. Well written, but the sad fact is that the chances of you having Jewish grandchildren or great-grandchildren are slim.

  3. Fred -

    Thank you for the beautiful image.

  4. Susan said, "As an Orthodox Jew I would need to do things I believe to be morally wrong, and as such I would be distancing myself from God."

    As a non-Jew reading this, I was curious as to the moral distinctions that you mention.

  5. Anonymous -

    Your comment about any potential grandchildren or great-grandchildren is, of course, pure speculation. We don't know what will happen with your grandchildren and great grandchildren, or those of intermarried couples. We strive to provide them with a meaningful Jewish experience, and trust they will want to do the same for their children. This is no different than what happens with the children of in-married couples.

  6. Elaine -

    For instance, if I were an Orthodox Jew, I would be told that I can't eat in my mother's home because she is not Jewish and therefore does not keep a kosher kitchen. I believe that refusing to eat in my mother's home would be hurtful to her, and would break the commandment to "Honor your father and your mother."

    Both hurting my mother and breaking such a central commandment would, I believe, make me feel I am doing something morally wrong, and would make me feel more distant from God, who I believe, wants me to do that which is kind, compassionate, and morally right.

  7. This comment has been removed by the author.

  8. Dear Susan,

    I am a bit puzzled about what in Orthodoxy you so strongly disagree with. Perhaps there are some misunderstandings about it???

    Be that as it may, I assure you that I had nothing but the purest of intent in praising you. I'm sorry you took any offense at all.

    I do see intermarriage as a tragedy because of the turmoil and uncertainty that results for the offspring of a mixed marriage since there is no universal acceptance of their status as a Jew. Orthodxy cannot accept – no matter how much it wishes it could – patrilineal descent. Orthodoxy believes in a Torah whose laws are both just and immutable. At the same time we also understand that not every Torah law is explicable. Nonetheless God did not give us a set of laws on one day only to be abrogated in total on another. That is what Reform has done. They have done away with the requirement to do Mitzvos. One of those Mitzvos is written in the Torah (Deuteronomy 7:3-4). ‘Lo SiSchaten Bam’. Do not intermarry with them (non Jews).

    It is not that we don't value non Jews. We certainly do! All human beings are created in the image of God and we are required to treat every human being with dignity and respect. But for His own reasons, God forbade His people whom He elevated in holiness to intermarry with people who have not been elevated to that level of holiness.

    Not that Orthodox Jews always act on par with their holy status. God only knows that we do not live up to what He expects of us. But that is a separate issue and one which I frequently visit on my blog.

    Though many Halachos require interpretation which can lead to disputes and opposite conclusions - some are very clearly spelled out. They are core Halachos. That's why we consider intermarriage a tragedy. It is a violation of a commandment. Orthodoxy believes that we have no right to change a direct commandment – whether we understand it or not; whether we like it or not. It is the word of God. Orthodoxy believes that Judaism is a religion of duties and obligations toward God and not necessarily always about what feels right.

    I am still 100% certain of your sincerity and apologize if you interpret my post in any way disrespectful of you. It was not my intent at all and I apologize if I have offended you.

    I completely understand why you see things differently. I also respect your decision to remain loyal to your own philosophy and values. But I still invite you do a little more exploration of Orthodoxy. I truly believe that there is a lot good there which you are simply not aware of.

  9. Harry -

    Truly, I did not take any offense, and I apologize for giving the impression that I did. I believe in your sincerity and your kind wishes toward me.

    The Torah also says we should make various kinds of animal sacrifices at the Temple. We don't do that any more. The law is not immutable. It also says we should stone to death unruly children, and we don't do that either.

    Deuteronomy 7:1 says "...dislodge many nations before you - the Hittites, Girgashites, Amorites, Canaanites, Perizzites, Hivites, and Jebusites, seven nations much larger than you -"

    So Deuteronomy 7:3 refers to those nations listed, not necessarily to all other nations.

    Not that I think I will convince you that intermarriage is okay. But as you said, many things are open to interpretation.

  10. Also, I am quite convinced there is a lot of good about Orthodoxy, some I am aware of and some I am not aware of. You, Harry, are one of those good things of which I have recently become aware.

  11. Thank you for responding to my comment. I appreciate your kindness. At this point I think It would be counter-productinve to discuss the issues you have just raised. I would just breifly say that there is a reason why those things ( e.g. animal sacrifces in the holy Temple)are not done today. It would take me far to long to go into deatil about them.

    I will just end with my best wishes and a hope that you look into how Orthodoxy responds to them.

    Be well


  12. The most important point Susan makes is that Reform - or other American variations - is not "Judaism lite." Lke Orthodoxy, it has a fully-fledged theology, a theology that leads to specific forms of practice. Like Orthodoxy, it has more and less devoted followers. It's becoming clear, I think, that the definition of a Jew is changing in contemporary America. At no earlier point in our history did those who married outside the Jewish community intend to remain part of the community. Even less did their children seek to understand themselves as Jews, and contribute to the building of Judaism. That is what is happening now; the American Jewish community will have to work out how to adapt to the new reality.

  13. Susan said "I believe that refusing to eat in my mother's home would be hurtful to her, and would break the commandment to "Honor your father and your mother.""

    Isn't the initial question whether one believes in the laws of kashrut. Only if someone believes in the laws of kashrut would he or she reach the point of analyzing whether those laws are imposed by God and/or man and how mandatory they are or aren't. Only at that point can a rational determination be made whether those laws should be waived if they hurt your mother's fealings. Wouldn't it be accurate to say that your position (as well as the accepted Reform position) is that the laws of kashrut are never mandatory and, therefore, it would seem to follow that they would alway be superceded if it would hurt your mother's feelings? In other words, your difference with Orthodoxy on this issue is not how important honoring your mother is, but how much importance you attribute to the laws of kashrut.

    With regard to the question of who is a jew, I have always thought that the Reform position on this issue seems a bit contradicatory. On the one hand the Reform position is to be open to admitting anyone desired to be associated with the jewish religion, be it jewish mother, jewish father, non-jewish spouse, etc. On the other hand most Reform rabbis still seem to insist on some formalities such as immersion in a "mikvah." What bothers me about this is does the Reform movement believe that there are some God-given guidelines in determining who is a jew, or is it a man-made free for all. If there are no God-given guidelines, why impose any formal requirements? Why prohibit someone from converting if he or she has a true desire to become part of judaism but is not prepared to reject his or her belief in Jesus?

    I fully agree with your comment about Reform not being a version of Judaism lite. Rather Reform and Orthodoxy are simply two separate religions both based on Judaism (without getting into whether either of them more closely follows the original version of Judaism). However, if that is correct, then I don't understand why the Reform movement gets so worked up by the fact that the Orthodox movement won't accept Reform conversions or the Reform definition of who is a jew. They are essentially two different religions and the Reform movement has no more right to dictate terms to the Orthodox movement than the Orthodox movement has the right to dicate terms to the Reform movement. As an orthodox jew, I certainly feel a greater sense of kinship with Reform, Conservative and even unaffiliated jews than with, say, Catholics. However, I do not view the two movements as being interchangeable in any way. Of course there should be mutual respect among the groups, no less than there should be mutual respect between Jews, Christians and Muslims.

  14. I should qualify my earlier statement about most Reform Rabbis insisting on some conversion formalities, by noting that I did not conduct any survey. That just represents the views expressed by the handful of Reform Rabbis that I discussed this issue with.

  15. Anonymous -

    As I originally stated, my difference with Orthodoxy is that if I were to become Orthodox, I would be told I must do things that I believe to be wrong. It isn't just about how important kashrut is. The conflict between kashrut and honoring my parents who don't follow kashrut is just one example.

    I'm not sure what you mean when you say that Reform Judaism is "open to admitting anyone desired to be associated with the Jewish religion." We certianly welcome anyone to attend services and other events at our synagogue regardless of whether or not they are Jewish. We do not recognize as Jewish those who are a non-Jewish spouse, but they are certainly welcome as part of the community.

    The choice regarding the definition of who is Jewish is not between "God-given guidelines" and "a man-made free-for-all." I don't recall it being written anywhere in the Torah what the rules are regarding who is Jewish and who is not. Rules like matrilineal descent, requirements for a beit din, etc., were made up by fallible human beings after the Torah was written. In the Torah, all Ruth had to do was to declare our people as her people and thus she became Jewish, as evidenced by the fact that her descendant became King David. Reform Judaism has specfic guidelines about who is and who isn't Jewish and how to convert to Judaism for those who are interested. The rules the Reform Jewish people made up are just different than the rules the Orthodox Jewish people made up. In neither case is it a free-for-all.

    You believe Reform and Orthodox are two separate religions. I believe they are the same religion practiced in different ways. In general, I don't see Reform Jews getting "worked up" about whether we're viewed as Jewish by Orthodox Jews. I'd venture a guess that, for American Reform Jews, the question rarely enters our minds. It would be, I imagine, a much bigger issue for Reform Jews in Israel since it would have a bearing on things like their ability to marry.

    I'm not trying to dictate to the Orthodox movement. All I'm doing here is stating things as I see them. You are free to disagree.

  16. Susan, with all due respect, by asserting that Reform and Orthodoxy are the same religion you are dictating to the Orthodox movement. I believe you are entitled to ask for respect by the Orthodox movement, but not recognition. Just as the Orthodox movement is not entitled to ask for recognition by the Reform movement. Whether a movement recognizes another should be based on its internal policies and beliefs. If the Reform movement recognizes the legitimacy of the Orthodox movement then I'm glad, but there is no inherent right to demand mutual recognition.

    With respect to the situation in Israel, I agree that the status is problematic for the non-Orthodox. However, for better or for worse, the Reform movement doesn't seem to be challenging the lack of separation of churh and state or request that there be parrallel tracks (or perhpas multiple parrallel tracks) of religious courts both of which should be recognized by the government. Instead they seem to be asking to participate in the current system and demanding Orthodox recognition of Reform halacha. That is inappropriate in my view because, as I noted, movements have a right to demand respect, not recognition. Demanding recognition is essentially dictating beliefs to other movements.

    As an orthodox jew, I cannot recognize the legitimacy of Reform beliefs, but I can and do respect the Reform movement and feel a sense of kinship because of the mutual roots of both movements. I ask for no more and no less from the Reform movement.

  17. Anonymous -

    I said, "You believe Reform and Orthodox are two separate religions. I believe they are the same religion practiced in different ways. " I also said, "You are free to disagree." This is not dictating to you specifically or to the Orthodox in general. It is stating things as I see it. You, and anyone else, are free to disagree.

    I do not now, nor have I ever, lived in Israel. I don't feel I am qualified to speak to the issue of what Reform Jewish people are, or are not, asking for there.

    I wish you well.

  18. I would like to contribute with some relevant quotes about Torah-observance and regarding the reform community:

    ”Tor•âh′ is an indivisible whole. One does his or her utmost to keep all of Tor•âh′ as an indivisible—perfect—whole or one is constructively rejecting the indivisible whole—perfectness—of Tor•âh′ . One who rejects even one mi•tzәw•âh′ of Tor•âh′ is rejecting Tor•âh′ in its a wholeness; i.e., (s)he rejects the whole of Tor•âh′ . Christians (and some Jews) who boast they keep Tor•âh′ while practicing selective observance are not keeping Tor•âh′ ; they are rejecting Tor•âh′ —and it is not Judaism.” (quote:

    “Recognizing logic as authority is the opposite of the chaos introduced by rule by intuitive opinion, where every rabbi has an intuitive, and often differing, opinion. Intuitive opinion ranges from Orthodox to Reform – all claiming the authority of Halakhah. Logic as authority locks in the latest logical and scientific understanding of Torah she-bikhtav irregardless of what the rest of society is doing. Thus, while Reform is embracing homosexuality, that's impossible under a logical understanding of Torah she-bikhtav.”
    (Part 1 of 2)

  19. (..)
    To appeal to all educated and knowledgeable intellectuals (goyim as well as Yәhudim — as prophesied), the bәrit lә-am must define Halakhah by discrete mathematical logic that follows directly from the historical documentation of Har Sinai – especially written Torah. The consensus of the Sages, especially Rambam, is that logic is the ultimate earthly authority defining Halakhah. Therefore, this definition of Halakhah, because it relies upon discrete mathematical logic, supersedes any Medievalist and European-assimilated rabbis, whether Orthodox or Ultra-Orthodox. In other words, this Halakhah ismeta-Orthodox (..)

    Medieval-blinkered and European-assimilated middlemen preclude their resulting view of Torâh' ever becoming intellectually viable and relevant to intelligent and educated people in the modern world. However, those who are meta-Orthodox eliminate the dead-ender intermediaries who have driven away 95% of the flock from Torâh'. Thus, meta-Orthodoxy presents Torâh as fresh, always up-to-date and relevant to everyone.”

    “Neither Moses and the Israelis, nor the principles י--ה gave him on Har Sinai, were Medieval or European. Written Torâh' explicitly prohibited additions to it or deletions from it (Dәvarim 4.2; 31.1). Rabbinic authority is limited to interpreting written Torâh' logically. Logic, not the rabbis, is the ultimate authority in interpreting Torâh'. Rabbinic authority derived from, and is limited to, their logical skill. Rabbi originally meant a "master," referring specifically to his training in logic (applied to interpretation, exegesis, etc.). The rabbi's authority derived from his mastery of logic (relative to Torâh'). When rabbi and logic diverge, authority follows logic – not rabbi.
    Therefore, those rabbinic traditions that either contradict written Torâh' or trace only to medieval Europe, rather than having a demonstrated solid logical basis scientifically rooted in Torâh' of Har Sinai, are prohibited by Torâh' and, therefore, cannot be Halakhah! It then follows that when any rabbi presumes to displace Moses and the Israelis of Har Sinai with medievalism and Europe-Yәtziah it constitutes displacement theology – idolatry no less serious than the Egyptian-Yәtziah of the Golden Calf!
    By definition, meta implies not a relaxing of Torah values like the Conservative and Reform (or its more extreme perversion, Christianity) but, rather, an even higher standard of adherence to Halakhah – but as defined to a more rigorous logical and scientific standard. Unlike the Medieval mindset of the European-assimilated Ultra-Orthodox, meta-Orthodox implies Halakhah derived logically and scientifically (according to historical documentation, archeology, etc.) — directly from Har Sinai. Derived thusly, Halakhah will always be as modern and relevant as tomorrow, to every person in their personal daily life practice and challenges.”

    (quote: Pishtah Keihah; available at (Part 2 of 2)

  20. Anders -

    Thank you for your interesting comments.

    First, I must ask you not to insult Christians or others here. There is nothing wrong with being a Christian. Our tradition teaches that any non-Jew who follows the Noahide laws, as the Christians do, will have a place in the world-to-come. Calling Christianity a perversion is lashon hara.

    I certainly agree that logic should be applied to Torah. However, if it is true as you claim that anyone who rejects one part of Torah rejects it all and is therefore not Jewish, then logically there are no Jews. Nobody follows all the laws of the Torah. Nobody follows the laws of sacrifice at the Temple because there is no more Temple, even though Jerusalem is in Israel and the Temple presumably could be rebuilt. True, trying to destroy the mosque there to build it on the Temple Mount would create horrible conflict, but a Temple could be built elsewhere in Jerusalem.

    Also, nobody (I hope) follows the law to stone to death an unruly child, nor do I see people being killed for gathering wood on Shabbat. So we all chose to reject at least some laws.

    Reform Judaism, rather than dictating which Torah laws to follow and which to reject, recognizes that nobody follows them all, and encourages us to keep trying out new ones as we explore which ones help us along our spriritual path.

  21. Nice post, I guess. While I agree that not all intermarriage leads to a straying from Judaism, I am case in point Reform Jew marries Thai Buddhist and now Chassidic Jewish family, but it does cause problem and tensions for many families as its tough to become and remain an Orthodox family, by marriage or birth. I believe Reform Judaism makes it easy to become a "Jewish family as there are really no norms or traditions. Each to his or her own I would say. Reform Judaism is a good starting place for many interfaith or even converted Jewish families. If it fits for you for the long haul then great.

    True enlightenment and happiness comes from hard work. I know I went from Reform Jew, non-kosher etc.. to

    I have nothing against Reform Judaism as a religiouse institution. I just don't agree with many of its practises and doctrines, so its not for me. If works for you, great.

  22. By the way you posted "including meaningful prayer, serious study, and the observance of mitzvot"

    I would say Prayer yes. Serious study, at individual level and maybe in some communities, but not the norm, and Mitzvot definitely not emphasized. Actually most are probably not looked at at all. At least institutionally. Just my experience

  23. Mottel -
    Thank you for your comment.

    It is not true that Reform Judaism has no norms or traditions. Reform Judaism follows many of the same norms and tradtions as other Jewish denominations, such as studying the same hebrew texts, saying many of the same Hebrew prayers, observing the same holidays, observing life cycles like bar mitzvah, shiva, etc.

  24. Mottel -

    I admit I haven't visited at a lot of Reform synagogues, but all of those at which I have studied included serious prayer, and all of them encourage congregants to follow mitzvot.

    For instance, Reform synagogues usually have Torah study and other classes, for people of all ages. In addition, most Reform Jewish homes have a mezuzah on the front door and follow many of the mitzvot concerned with major holidays, etc.

    I think the biggest difference is that Reform doesn't emphasize many of the the man-made laws of halacha, and we could argue whether or not those count as mitzvot.

  25. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.