The Reform Movement Left Me

Written by: Rabbi Cary Kozberg for WhiteRoseMagazine

THANKS to the man on a blue notebook, I became a rabbi instead of a doctor. 

That blue notebook was called a machberet, and it was given out to students in afternoon Hebrew Schools during the 1950s. On the front was the likeness of Maimonides, the renowned 12th century rabbi. Until I was a freshman in college, my total knowledge of Maimonides was the little I remembered from Hebrew School: he was a famous rabbi, philosopher, and physician who lived in medieval Spain.  

Until I was a freshman in college, I had planned to become a doctor. My high school and college freshman course work included the required math and science courses. But because a high GPA was a requirement for acceptance into medical school, I searched for electives that would help me maintain at least a 3.5 GPA. I heard about a course entitled “The History of the Jews in Spain,” which was reputed to be “an easy A,” requiring only class attendance and a term paper.  

Planning to become a physician, I decided to write my term paper on “Maimonides as Physician.” As I began my research, I discovered an abbreviated translation of his most famous philosophical work, A Guide for the Perplexed. 

It was 1970, and the political and social upheaval occurring in this country at that time was causing a lot of people to be “perplexed.” That perplexity was echoed in a popular song of the time: “There’s somethin’ happenin’ here/What it is ain’t exactly clear.” My biggest concerns at the time were getting good grades, getting through my fraternity’s pledge program, and getting dates for Saturday night. When it came to “perplexing” questions, I was like the son at the Passover seder who doesn’t even know how to ask.

The writings of the man on the blue machberet changed all that. I began to ask questions I had never even considered—questions that people had been wrestling with for millennia, but were a jolting “wake up call” to this 18-year-old kid: Why are we here? Why is there evil? If there is evil, how can God allow it? What exactly is God’s role in this world, and what is ours?” Realizing that what I was reading was offering answers to these questions made them all the more compelling. 

I was raised in home that was a kind of religious “mixed marriage.” My dad’s parents were Orthodox immigrants from Russia; my mother’s family was totally assimilated and she had no Jewish education. The compromise was joining a Conservative synagogue where my dad could pray in Hebrew with his head covered, and there was enough English to keep my mother’s attention. Our Jewish observance was limited to Shabbat candles, a fairly strict Passover observance, and observing two days of Rosh Hashanah and of course Yom Kippur. I looked forward to my Bar Mitzvah but chose not to continue my formal Jewish education after Confirmation. All my friends were Jewish, but the Jewish youth organization we belonged to did not really stress Judaism per se. In short, Judaism to me was more of a somewhat cherished hobby, and not the life commitment that it would eventually become.

With the encouragement of my rabbi, I spent the summer of 1970 at a summer program for college students at the Jewish Theological Seminary. Returning from that summer, I came home more religiously observant and eager to begin pre-rabbinic studies. I changed my major from Biology to Hebrew Studies, with the hope of entering JTS’s rabbinical program after college graduation.

But a funny thing happened on the way to becoming a Conservative rabbi; I became a Reform rabbi.

Back then, JTS expected prospective students to have a minimum of Talmud knowledge before being accepted into its rabbinic program. Those lacking this knowledge had to take an extra year or two of preparatory work. I was prepared to make the commitment, but then a recruiter from the Reform movement’s Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion came to my campus. Out of curiosity, I met with him. When I told him of my background and journey, he assured me I was the kind of student HUC was looking for. When I asked if my newly acquired level of religious observance might not make me such a “good fit” in a movement that had jettisoned so much of traditional Jewish practice and belief, he assured me that the Reform movement was “re-forming” itself in some significant ways. He pointed out that: 

* The “classical Reform” familiar to many non-Reform Jews (e.g., services reminiscent of church worship, yarmulkes/head coverings and tallesim/prayer shawls discouraged, dietary laws rejected) was becoming less the norm. Yarmulkes were showing up in Reform synagogues, and guitars were being introduced to supplement—or even replace—the Protestant-sounding organ.

 * The Reform movement’s historical ambivalence regarding a Jewish state had significantly changed after Israel’s victory in 1967. Reform rabbis were now preaching full-throated support of Israel, and many were introducing more Hebrew into worship services. 

* Many HUC students were also becoming more religiously observant—covering their heads during prayer, keeping kosher, even putting on t’fillin/phylacteries. Some, he assured me, were even more observant than I was. (Several fellow students eventually joined the Conservative movement; one went through HUC’s five-year rabbinical program while living as an Orthodox Jew. He eventually became a Chabad rabbi.)

Finally, he added: “In order to strengthen their Hebrew skills, our students are now required to spend the first year in Israel. We don’t have a ‘prior knowledge’ requirement to be accepted into our program, but we’ll give you the skills to learn as much Talmud and other traditional texts as you want.”

This was an offer I couldn’t refuse.

To be sure, everything he told me during that conversation was true. During my time at HUC, my level of religious observance never made me feel out of place. Back then, the Reform movement was committed to true religious diversity, and to creating a “big tent” that included different approaches to Judaism, from “radical” to “classical” to “traditional.” This diversity became evident when the new Reform prayerbook Gates of Prayer—with its ten different Erev Shabbat services—replaced the Union Prayerbook

Back then, the Reform movement was committed to true religious diversity, and to creating a “big tent” that included different approaches to Judaism, from “radical” to “classical” to “traditional.”

During my time at HUC, I gravitated to those teachers whose understanding of Reform Judaism was more committed to holding onto traditional Jewish beliefs and practices. They themselves had been raised as Orthodox Jews (some with Orthodox s’micha/ordination), but their exposure to 20th century modernity had led them away from their Orthodox roots.  Nevertheless, unlike advocates of “classical Reform,” their embrace of modernity had not erased their commitment to traditional core beliefs and practices. Acknowledging that “personal autonomy” was the watchword of enlightened Western culture, they sought to create a synthesis of personal autonomy and commitment to the requirements of the Sinai Covenant, as delineated in the teachings of the Torah and the Sages. From them I learned that: 

* An authentic Reform Jew was an informed Jew; 

* While personal autonomy is a positive value, Jewish religious choices are authentically “Jewish” only if they are demonstrably connected to the Covenant our people made with God at Sinai; 

* “God, Torah, and the people of Israel” were still at the heart of Reform Judaism and nothing in Jewish tradition should be a priori foreign to a Reform Jew; 

* Struggling to maintain a dynamic balance between covenantal commitment and personal freedom is the challenge a serious Reform Jew faces daily. 

Throughout my rabbinic career, I believed that these are what defined me as a Reform Jew.  Since my ordination in 1977, I’ve served as a rabbi in both Reform and Conservative congregations, a campus Hillel director, and a health-care chaplain. Although most of my work has not been in Reform congregations, I continued to belong to the Central Conference of American Rabbis (the professional organization of the Reform rabbinate). I always considered myself a Reform rabbi and a Reform Jew.

That is, until a few years ago.  

A few years ago, it became apparent that Reform Judaism—through the efforts of its rabbinic and lay leaders—was moving away from these core Jewish beliefs. Although the words “God, Torah, and the people of Israel” were still invoked, they were now equivocal terms, with meanings very different from the traditional ones.  It was reminiscent of 1885 when Reform Judaism set down its principles in the Pittsburgh Platform. That statement affirmed a decidedly progressive approach to religious belief and observance, one that called for adapting to “the views and habits of modern civilization.”

Once upon a time, that approach encouraged creating a “big tent” in which debate and discussion would help modern Jews better understand what G-d wants from us. 

But as today’s Reform leaders have increasingly embraced the values and worldview of contemporary progressivism, the “big tent” that once accommodated diverse beliefs and approaches has metamorphosized into a confining cement bunker of theological and political progressive orthodoxy. That orthodoxy has one objective: the promotion of “social justice.”

The notion of “social justice” is not an organic Jewish concept, but rather has its beginnings in Catholic theology.  Nevertheless, progressive Jews have “Judaized” it by identifying it (albeit inaccurately) with the rabbinic notion of tikkun olam. Literally meaning “repair of the world” and identified with inaugurating the Kingdom of the Almighty (malkhut Shaddai) here on earth, tikkun olam was understood by the Talmudic Sages to be efforts to make the world more humane, more “menschlikh.” Today, tikkun olam is promoted 1) as a mitzvah given at Sinai that virtually trumps all other mitzvot—including the ones Reform Jews usually ignore; and 2) often without any reference to the Kingdom of the Almighty. Moreover, tikkun olam/social justice is the larger rubric under which other “adjective-added” justices are promoted (environmental justice, transgender justice, restorative justice, etc.). This is at odds with Jewish teachings, because nowhere in Jewish religious texts are adjectives ever used when “justice” is discussed.  

As today’s Reform leaders have increasingly embraced the values and worldview of contemporary progressivism, the “big tent” that once accommodated diverse beliefs and approaches has metamorphosized into a confining cement bunker of theological and political progressive orthodoxy. That orthodoxy has one objective: the promotion of “social justice.”

From my perspective, it is Reform’s singular devotion to this tenet that has caused it to be a movement in which noun and adjective are reversed: whereas Reform Judaism used to be a synonym for “progressive Judaism,” now it is a religion of “Jewish Progressivism.” And that greatly concerns me.  

It greatly concerns me that the age-old, honored rabbinic methodology of discussion and debate to learn and deduce holy behavior is no longer encouraged. Indeed, Reform rabbis who dissent and challenge progressive (“woke”) wisdom discussed in online chats have been admonished, personally attacked, sometimes suspended, and even excommunicated/expelled from the conversations.

Whereas Reform Judaism used to be a synonym for “progressive Judaism,” now it is a religion of “Jewish Progressivism.”

It greatly concerns me that a Reform rabbi would tell an adult Bat Mitzvah student that, despite Hebrew’s use of masculine pronouns when referring to God, she had to remove them from her speech because the synagogue only permitted “gender-neutral” language be used when referring to the Deity.

It greatly concerns me that rather than teaching her students that “nothing in Jewish tradition should be a priori foreign to a Reform Jew,” the teacher of that same class told her students that when it comes to certain commandments/observances, “we Reform Jews don’t do that.”

It greatly concerns me that during an online Shavuot discussion about the meaning of the covenantal obligations originating at Sinai, an HUC faculty member would declare categorically “but we Reform Jews have been given autonomy.”

It greatly concerns me that there are Reform rabbis who discourage brit milah, declaring that circumcision is “barbaric.”

It greatly concerns me that Reform’s commitment to social justice promotes universalism and “inclusivity” over Jewish particularism and the mandate that we Jews remain “a separate people” and focus on caring for our own before caring for others. 

It greatly concerns me that the invited speaker at an HUC rabbinic graduation ceremony would call for an end to endogamy (marrying within one’s own group), with the response of “academic freedom” in response to criticisms of the speaker’s remarks.

It greatly concerns me that the singular focus on “inclusivity” now allows non-Jews to take leadership positions in synagogues and has resulted in some Reform synagogues removing all references to “chosen-ness” from worship services, lest guests and non-Jewish family members be offended.

It greatly concerns me that, rooted in progressive political ideology: 

* Reform clergy—rabbis and cantors—are increasingly becoming “anti-Zionist,” publicly labeling Israel an “apartheid state,” and continuing to engage in actions that help and support Israel’s implacable enemies.

* Rabbis are preaching from their pulpits the doctrine of Critical Race Theory, which includes the nefarious lie that Jews, by virtue of sometimes “passing as white,” are automatically racist.

* The Reform movement’s political lobbying organization, Religious Action Center, invited the well-known and unapologetic anti-Semite Al Sharpton as a keynote speaker.

* A Reform rabbi, choosing to virtue-signal “welcoming the stranger” and throwing caution to the wind, invited a terrorist into his synagogue and almost got himself and his congregants killed.

* A member of URJ’s board expressed on social media his wish for the painful death of a sitting President and was not removed from his Board position, but merely “reprimanded.”

These are specific examples of how Reform Judaism is embracing the values and teachings of political progressivism, while moving away from Jewish values and teachings derived from Jewish texts. They are examples of a massive failure of Jewish moral leadership from spiritual leaders, too many of whom are rarely “spiritual” or “leaders.” Their teachings and actions have weakened our people and our people’s commitment to our unique covenant with God, at a time when we need more, not less, spiritual strength and confidence in that legacy bequeathed to us by our ancestors.

Reform Judaism is embracing the values and teachings of political progressivism, while moving away from Jewish values and teachings derived from Jewish texts.

But what most concerns me is not just how they have moved us away, but how far they will move Reform away before it is no longer recognizably a Jewish movement.   

It’s happened before.

When Jews lived in the Greco-Roman diaspora around the Mediterranean Sea, there were different Judaisms (sic) practiced, many significantly influenced by the cultural Hellenism of the time. Those Judaisms ultimately disappeared on their own or became so inundated by members and influences of the outside culture as to break with the Jewish community and its traditions, evolving into faith systems that sought to eclipse the mother faith. 

Fast forward 2000 years and it is easy to see the circumstances in which history could repeat itself.  Should that happen, God forbid, wherever the man on the blue notebook is—he will be very, very blue indeed.  

As will so many of us.

Join us as we challenge the establishment Jewish leaders and the donors who have supported and enabled them but failed to hold them accountable.