First of all, let’s just set aside for a moment the ridiculousness of mentioning Islamic extremists in every other breath – really, I have to say (I never thought I’d defend Beck in any way whatsoever) that really, his comments weren’t about Reform Jews being terrorists. While his comments were completely inane, his point was that Reform Jews are primarily a political organization rather than a religious one. How many ways this is a stupid comment leaves me gasping, but it’s not what most people seem to have taken it as – i.e. a claim that Reform Jews are terrorists.
However, the level of stupidity remains pretty high:
1. Reform Judaism is not a political organization.
The now-taken-down Jonathan Marks piece (for which an apology was issued, but not by Marks) seems to have gotten what Beck was saying (without actually saying anything worthwhile). The claim he makes is that because Reform Jews tend to take certain kinds of political positions, that must mean that Reform Judaism isn’t a religion. Now, there are LOTS of things that I disagree with the Reform movement about. Religiously speaking, nearly everything, in fact. Having grown up Reform, though, and coming from a still-Reform family, I can surely say that knowledgeable Reform Jews are practicing a religion, not a political platform.
What’s really wrong here though is the premises that underlie Beck’s claim: Christians have a particular view of what it means to be a religion – it isn’t necessarily one that matches up well with Judaism. Because Christianity is the dominant ( i.e. more populous) religion in the USA, it is that view of religion which most people understand. But it’s not the only one. That view of religion claims that it is belief which is the central driving force behind spirituality. Let me be clear: I am NOT claiming that Christians think that one should not do what they call “works” -what I am saying is that “works” are derived from belief for Christians. For Jews, on the other hand, spirituality is derived from praxis – behaving a particular way.
Just in case anyone missed it, what Beck did was criticize Reform Judaism for being more like traditional Judaism – grounding its spirituality in behavior, That makes Marks’ piece particularly ironic. While I don’t think that what has come to be called “Tikkun Olam” (I won’t get into the difficulties of using that term here) is anywhere near enough for Jewish practice (I don’t have to, I’m not a Reform Jew), for Reform Jews, where it is in fact the mitzvot bein adam l’chavero (between one person and another) which are considered obligatory, their engagement in making sure that other human beings are treated with justice is, in fact, exactly what they ought to be doing. For Marks to say that it’s somehow a lack only shows his profound lack of understanding of both Reform Judaism and Judaism in general. In fact, to serve human beings through observance of mitzvot between one human and another are -if really engaged in as a regular practice- profoundly spiritual acts for Jews. For Reform Jews (by the way Mr. Marks “Reform” not “reformed” – just because you don’t agree with them doesn’t mean you have to stoop to writing their name incorrectly), to engage in work to make sure that working people get a just wage (for example) is what lays the grounding for them to be able to say the Shema and be, as the rabbinic understanding is, an “eid” -a witness- for God.
2. Not just for the Reform
While it’s ironic enough to have to break down why it’s part of a spiritual practice for Reform Jews to help their fellow humans and increase justice in the world, let’s not lose sight of the fact that these are obligatory for all, not just Reform, Jews. For Jews who are aligned with more traditional interpretations of Jewish law – in which halacha (Jewish law) is obligatory – it’s important to remember that Judaism for halachic Jews ( for whatever part of the spectrum they’re in) obliges us to also make no distinction between mitzvot bein adam l’makom and mitzvot bein adam l’chavero – obligations between one human and another and obligations between a human and God- those Jews who consider themselves traditional, halachic, Orthodox, Conservative, Mizrachi, Sephardi, Masorti, Hareidi or whatever are not doing what they are supposed to if they don’t act for the benefit of their fellow human beings. Simply keeping shabbat and kashrut isn’t even vaguely near enough. It may not technically be a violation of kashrut to allow workers at the slaughterhouse to be underpaid, but there’s a HUGE body of literature that very carefully lays out the mutual obligations (read: mitzvot – commandments or obligations) between an employee and employer, and, -I want to make sure this is very clear- the obligation for Jews who see another Jew violating Jewish law – Jews are required to take action against Jews who violate the rights of workers because those laws are quite carefully spelt out in the Jewish legal works from the Talmud on.
So what’s the obligation if a non-Jew violates the rights of another non-Jew?
Well, you might get some people arguing that there isn’t one, but I think that’s a very difficult argument to make. Aside from the specific strictures that are laid out for Jews interacting with one another, there are plenty of general strictures that require an observant Jew to go beyond the minimum in assuring justice for others, for treating non-Jews with respect and dignity, and for working towards making the general society that we live in as Jews a just society – even the Noahide laws (laws that God commanded to non-Jews, there are seven of them) specify that no one can live in a society that doesn’t have a just legal system.
3. And Islam?
Well, I’m not an expert, so if anyone who is Muslim is reading this and I get it wrong, please forgive me. But from what I’ve learned from Muslims, Islam is very similar to traditional Judaism in that it is behavior focused. The goal is submission to God’s desire, which is accomplished through the five pillars. But the five pillars, as in Judaism, are just the beginning of how one expresses one’s devotion to God – there are all kinds of details, like one’s diet, and so on. but let’s also be clear about this: Islamic extremism is not a religion. As a matter of fact, there is a good amount of evidence that Islamic extremism may clothe itself in the language of religion, but the masterminds behind it tend not to be so very religious, but come from secular, often western-educated backgrounds. Like most extremism, Islamic extremism is not about submission to God, but about developing and maintaining earthly power and control over others – and that doesn’t make Islamic extremism significantly different from Christian, Jewish, Sikh or Hindu (name your favorite extremism) fanatics, who are not actually working to perfect themselves and their society, but to maintain control over others – women, people of other colors or races or nationalities, or who look, behave or believe differently – or for that matter, people of “your own group” whom you can manipulate into being ugly to others for no good reason.
In that sense, it isn’t Reform Judaism which is most like extremist Islam, but Beck and Marks, you may be familiar with a group that is very much like it. In fact, I believe I’ve heard of a group at this very minute working hard to deprive a large group of Americans of the ability to negotiate a fair wage for themselves. Say, that wouldn’t be one of yours, would it?