Can Reform Jews Keep the Faith?

Time after time, Reform Judaism's new leader made one point: It's obvious that millions of modern Jews are hungry for faith.

"They are tired of the cult of novelty and the caprices of modern fashion," said Rabbi Eric Yoffie, during the June 8 rites in which he was installed as president of the Union of American Hebrew Congregations. "They are tired of a world in which the heroes for their children are Bart Simpson and Madonna. They are overwhelmed by an avalanche of images and specialized information so dizzying that it stuns the brain. And they can't help but feel that whenever they find a moment to themselves, someone turns up the speed on the treadmill of their lives."

Where, he asked, will these sophisticated, cynical and skeptical people take their dilemmas, their "yearning for the sacred" and their children?

To answer that question, leaders of North America's 850 Reform congregations must face other issues. For starters, they must teach that "fervent prayer in a Reform synagogue should not been seen as eccentric or embarrassing," he said. Educators must insist that Jewish education can have both scholastic and spiritual content. Reform Jews must talk openly about Judaism in terms of religious faith, as opposed to merely secular culture.

Why? There are 3.5 million unaffiliated Jews in North America. While liberal leaders say they want to reach outsiders and assist in their spiritual journeys, that may not be how matters look to others, said Yoffie, the movement's first president who was raised as a Reform Jew.

"Which religious movement takes the greatest interest in the spiritual life of the unaffiliated? Who finds them on campus, or in out-of-the-way places? Who instructs them in the lighting of Shabbat candles and in all manner of Jewish rituals? Who reaches out to them with classes and audiotapes and satellite TV?"

While some Reform groups are getting the job done, more are not, he said. What the rabbi left unsaid is that Orthodox Jews and traditionalists have excelled where liberals have not -- reaching the mission field of secular Judaism.

Reform leaders should not be surprised, because liberalism stunted the faith of many, according to conservative David Klinghoffer. In a National Review article that included an ironic dissection of his bar mitzvah in a Reform synagogue, he accused reformers of swapping politics for faith, abandoning Jewish morality and, in general, peddling a kind of Judaism Lite.

The key, he said, is Reform's ideology, a "theoretical contraption asserting the existence of God while denying that the Jews or any other people possess a document containing clearly revealed instructions from Him." The result is "kitsch religion," he said, a Judaism that is "influenced less by the traditions of the Oral Torah than by the editorial page of the New York Times."

Klinghoffer said an angry Reform rabbi, writing in New York's Jewish Times, summed it all up: "We have become a vacuous, no- demand, no-standards, no-requirements, no-guilt, do-good enterprise of sloppy sentimentality: a liberal Protestant Christianity without Jesus."

As the former leader of Reform Judaism's Commission on Social Action, Yoffie was quick to defend the movement's work on behalf of liberal political and moral causes. He also said Jewish pluralism must recognize that there are "many kinds of authentic Jews -- less traditional and more traditional, activist and contemplative, believing and unbelieving."

But this doesn't mean that the way to reach unaffiliated Jews is by "erasing boundaries and eliminating distinctions," he said. There must be some differences between those who claim Jewish faith and secularists who do not.

"The warning I was trying to give is this: Some people have said that Jewish community life is enough, that Jewish culture is enough. It isn't," he said, days after his installation service. "If you extract the Jewish element -- if you extract the element of religious faith -- from Jewish life, then there isn't enough there to sustain a sense of Jewish identity that will live in future generations. ... We must believe that and teach that."