Rethinking the Reform Problem in Israel

In my Modern Jewish History class we transitioned today from talking about Western Europe and Jewish participation in the Enlightenment through Haskalah to talking about Eastern Europe and the creation of Chasidism with an emphasis on the Chasidic knack for staying strong in the face of modernity while traditional Orthodoxy was dwindled by the march of Enlightenment. In the midst of it I had something of an epiphany about the nature of the problem faced by Reform Judaism in Israel.

Reform Judaism, whatever it is now, comes from a historical legacy of assimilation. Western European Jews, especially those in Germany, Hungary, and Austria sought a way to maintain a Jewish identity that was compatible with becoming German (or Austrian or Hungarian or whatever). Moses Mendelssohn had tried something similar to that already, bifurcating his identity into an intensely observant Jew in the home and a secular member of Berlin’s academic elite on the street. Living as a two different people at once is unnatural and hard to do. As a result, only two generations later, all of his grandchildren died as converted gentiles, unable or unwilling to carry out his two-way identity. The other solution to essentially the same problem was reform the tradition. This way, people could be Germans who attend synagogue, a new type of Jew. They have a single identity that is compatible with both a Jewish home life and a German work life. Though I would argue that this is not the point of contemporary Reform ideology, one must agree that this is how it began.

Zionism began in earnest basically at the behest of an Austrian Jew, Theodore Herzl. Though Jewish nationalism in its political form of Zionism was arguable a Western European invention, and thus of the same origin as Reform Judaism, the politically Jews of the East, especially those from the Pale of Settlement, latched on to Zionism in a big way. It was the Easterners who became the major olim and they continue to be, with the ongoing influx of Jews from the former Soviet Union. Thus, though the Jews of Western Europe created Zionism, the Jews to their East populated Zionism and, at least initially (prior to the migration of the Mizrachim to Israel), populated Israel.

In Eastern Europe, no Jews wanted to join the society around them. In the West a desire to do that inspired the formulation of Reform. In the East, Jews became secular, but not through Reform of the religion. They abandoned Jewish religion, but embraced Jewish culture, creating the first real Hebrew and Yiddish modern literature, including everything from plays to newspapers to novels to poetry. The people who created that left in large numbers to found a new Jewish culture in Israel, which those in the West stayed put, content. Secular Jewish culture of the East thus came to Israel from the very get go, while the religious reform of the West stayed put and did not reach Israel until much later.

It is because Israel is truly an extension of Eastern European Jewish culture quite disconnected from the Western version of Jewish culture that Reform can gain no foothold in Israel. The West expressed a largely secular version of Jewish identity through reforming ritual and religion, while the East did it through creation of a secular Jewish culture with its own literature, the tradition of which extends into the Israeli present in the form of Yehudah Amichai and Hadag Nachash. Both approaches fulfill essentially the same need.

Israel fills the need through the Eastern tradition. So what the hell do they need with Reform Judaism?

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