Global, Religion

Germans Learn There's More Than One Way to Be Jewish

Liberal Judaism may have been born in Germany, but until recently, Reform/Progressive synagogues were denied membership in the Central Council for Jews in Germany, the body that oversees the distribution of federal funding and membership funds to congregations across the country.
Earlier this year, the Council — which previously included only Orthodox organizations — accepted more than 10 liberal congregations into the fold. The World Union for Progressive Judaism (WUPJ) had threatened to sue.
Now, there’s this: Representatives from WUPJ met recently with German Chancellor Angela Merkel.
From JTA:

“It was an opportunity for us to engage in some discussion with her as to how the Jewish population stands today, both religiously and civically,” said Rabbi Uri Regev, president of the World Union.

In 1933, Reform Judaism made up more than half of German Jewry. Looks like things may be looking up again.

13 thoughts on “Germans Learn There's More Than One Way to Be Jewish

  1. Dude, Reform in 1933 was very little like Reform now.
    Reform in 33 was all about, let’s try to act more like goyim cause then they’ll like us and there won’t be any anti-Semitism. Lets deny all notion of Jewish peoplehood and try avoid all ties to “ritual”, cause then we’ll be accepted as full Germans who just happen to have a different faith.
    Of course, this whole viewpoint (if not most of its adherents) got destroyed with the Shoah.
    Reform is totally different animal now.

  2. Just to make a note for historical correctness. The original Reform movement in the 1930’s was a response to assimilation, not a move towards it (although that might have been the end result). The idea was that we were losing Jews to secular society so the Reformers decided to change things to try to keep people associated with Judaism. I think they took the wrong approach (and Conservatism was the natural response to this). Reform Judaism today has taken a dramatic swing back toward traditional Judaism, although the clergy is more traditional than the congregations in general. My hope is that the trending of Reform Judaism to more traditional modes will continue as the generation that grew up with Organs and a disdain for Keppahs and Hebrew become the minority in the movement.

  3. The “original” Reform movement goes a lot farther back than the 1930s. I’d date it at least to the early 1840s, to luminaries such as Abraham Geiger. The ideologues of Reform were actually not all that concerned about antisemitism. You should read some of his critiques of Christianity. Pretty deadly stuff, especially toward the end of his life. They were, however, about presenting Judaism as one of Germany’s other confessions, and most of them were German nationalists, in the 1848 sense.

  4. shmuel-
    Your comment is so inaccurate that I don’t know where to begin. (I dare you to tell Rabbi Leo Baeck to his face that German Reform Judaism in 1933 was about “let’s try to act more like goyim”.) Fortunately, Lev and Amos have already begun. The original Reform movement (in the 19th century, not 1933) was about responding to the fact that Jews wanted to integrate into German/American society. At the time, outward signs of Jewish identity were mutually exclusive with integrating into the larger society, so people were giving up Judaism entirely. Reform Judaism, by altering these outward practices, provided a way for people to be simultaneously Jewish and German/American.
    What changed this wasn’t the Shoah; it was the shift in Western culture from homogeneity towards multiculturalism. I can’t speak to today’s Germany, but in today’s US there is no dichotomy between being Jewish and being American; it is possible to be fully both. This is true in part because early Reform Judaism was so successful in enabling Jews to integrate into mainstream American society, making mainstream American society more multicultural. Because they made compromises about outward Jewish expression, these compromises are no longer necessary. Modern Orthodox Jews in 2006 who wear a kipah to the office and leave early on Fridays should thank Classical Reform Jews for making this possible.

  5. Lev-
    A “swing back toward traditional Judaism” may be how the shift in Reform appears from a Conservative or Orthodox perspective, but I do not think that is an accurate depiction of the Reform movement’s internal discourse. The Classical Reform faction is on the “right” of today’s Reform movement (small-c conservative and small-o orthodox, wanting to maintain things exactly as they were in 1885, sometimes justifying this with appeals to tradition for tradition’s sake), while those who embrace Hebrew, kashrut, etc. are on the “left” of the movement (small-p progressive, holding that the movement’s traditions must evolve in order to adapt to changing circumstances).
    Anecdotally, I believe that in today’s Reform movement, kashrut, Hebrew, and other things sometimes labeled as “traditional practices” are positively correlated with support for feminism, same-sex marriage, and progressive political views.

  6. Charles-
    “Retains” its pluralism?! Classical Reform was less pluralistic regarding ritual practice than Orthodoxy is. Go into a Classical Reform synagogue and try standing up when the congregation is sitting, or vice versa, and see how people respond. Try telling a 1950s Reform community that you keep kosher. (This may require a time machine.)
    The contemporary Reform movement, by embracing a variety of practices, is more pluralistic than it has ever been.
    As for Israel, the only way to truly return to a previous era, is to, well, return to a previous era. (See comment above about the time machine.)

  7. BZ – you are right! Today’s reform is more pluralistic, in allowing for a great diversity of practices. But in some ways it is less diverse. Where is Elmer Berger’s place in today’s Reform movement?

  8. Whatever happened to, “you shall not turn to the right or left but do exactly as they tell you or otherwise you will be put to death” or something in this vein.
    Or does this Torah commandment only mean that a reform Jew must obey a reform rabbi and an orthodox Jew must obey an orthodox rabbi? How do you reconcile this “pluralism” with the Torah demand for conformity?

  9. you shall not turn to the right or left but do exactly as they tell you or otherwise you will be put to death
    the torah says an eye for an eye. the rabbis say it means monetary compensation. is that to the right or the left? the torah says you should put people to death. the rabbis say if a sanhedrin rules in 70 years to execute someone, it should be considered an evil sanhedrin. is that to the right or to the left? what is to the right and to the left is debatable… through torah you can assert any direction as being the straight path.
    as the kotzker rebbe said, “you know what walks in the middle of the road? a donkey.”

  10. Yeah, Shmuel, I am no fan of Reform Judaism, but the 1930s version is different from the one of the 19th century. The latter had more to do with Enlightenment ideals and total assimilation, and varied slightly by region. Maybe that’s the one that you’re referring to. But it’s changed since then, especially since so many of those Reform Jews from the 19th century intermarried, converted, and just downright assimilated.
    There needs to be communication across the board among Jewish congregations. Dr. Norman Lamm and his mentor Rabbi Soloveitchik zt”l did not agree with Conservative and Reform Judaism, understandably, but they stood for Jewish unity. It is almost as if they could foresee some of the problems that exist today.
    For example, during the 80s, Dr. Lamm and American rabbis of all denominations had a whole agreement worked out with the Rabbinate of Israel regarding the question of “Who is a Jew?” Had it worked out, then no one would ever have to question any type of conversion ever again, basically. What happened? Some right-wing Jews such as a Rabbi Sherer, I believe, fought that proposal because it gave legitimacy to non-Orthodox Judaism, among other regions. What’s even more sick is that he was proud of it! Thanks to Rabbi Sherer, Orthodox Jews cannot really trust Conservative or Reform conversion. (no offense to Conservative and Reform Jews…you know what I’m saying though and I think you can understand the benefits of the Synagogue Council of America’s proposals)
    May the Rav’s (and others’) visionof Jewish unity become a reality soon.

  11. 1. I don’t think you understood my point. The Torah says you shall go to the judge or priest at that time and place an obey his ruling. I have understood that this means you have to obey them even if they tell you left is right.
    Regardless “reform Judaism” at it’s founding was the minority. At the very start it only had a congregation of one, Abraham Geiger himself. This “rabbi” then went against the rulings of all other rabbi’s alive at that time, who were orthodox. How did mr Geiger justify himself against opposition. How can one man go against the rulings of the entire Jewish leadership and still claim he is not violating the above mentioned commandment from the Torah?
    “through torah you can assert any direction as being the straight path”
    Obviously there are limits. I am pretty sure you can’t say that there is no G-d.
    Another point. If interpreting Torah was really as flexible
    as you claim I am sure a lot of Orthodox rabbi’s would have found a way to declare {liberal, reform, conservative} Jews not-Jewish, the same way reform has managed to declare non-jews, jewish. The fact that orthodox rabbi’s have not done this shows a certain integrity on their part and an understanding of the limitations of their interpretative flexibility. An integrity reform obviously does not have.

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