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Washington Report
On Middle East Affairs

OCTOBER/NOVEMBER 1999, pages 83-84

Jews and Israel

Reform Judaism Is Abandoning Its Universalist Roots and Embracing Jewish Nationalism

By Allan C. Brownfeld

In recent years, American Reform Judaism has moved dramatically away from its roots in universalism and has reversed its traditional position of opposition to Jewish nationalism, or Zionism. It has moved, in addition, away from its classical religious formulation and in the direction of the very Orthodoxy the original reformers rejected.

In May 1999, by an overwhelming margin, the rabbinical leadership of Reform Judaism approved guiding principles that, The New York Times reported on May 27, “for the first time encourage observances of traditional rituals like wearing skullcaps, keeping kosher, and the wide use of Hebrew that were set aside at the movement’s founding.”

The statement of principles encourages Reform Jews to “make aliyah,” or emigrate permanently to Israel. It discardsthe philosophy of the 1885 Pittsburgh Platform of Reform Judaism that rejected Jewish nationalism and declared that Judaism was a religion of universal values and that Jews were at home in America.

To understand how far Reform Judaism has gone in reversingthe tradition of its founders it is important to understand the philosophy enunciated by the original reformers of the 19th century, both in Europe and in the United States.

The first Reform temple was founded in Hamburg in 1818. The number of prayers recited in German was increased and all prayers referring to the coming of the Messiah or the Return to Zion were omitted. By the 1830s, a new generation of university-educated rabbis arose in Germany and they were increasingly committed to the reformation of Judaism. The most important of these was Abraham Geiger (1810-74).

H.H. Ben-Sasson writes in A History Of The Jewish People that, in Geiger’s view, “the essence of Judaism was the religious universal element. All the remainder was the fruit of historical conditions.”

A major reformation of Judaism began to occur in the United States, as well, in the earlyyears of the 19th century. In 1824, Isaac Harby, a journalist and playwright, and 46 of his fellow Jews petitioned the board of Congregation Beth Elohim in Charleston, South Carolina: “As members of the great family of Israel, [we] cannot consent to place before [our] children examples which are only calculated to darken the mind, and withold from the rising generation the more rational means of worshipping the true God….We wish not to overthrow, but to rebuild; we wish not to destroy...but to reform and revise the evils complained of; we wish not to abandon the institutions of Moses, but to observe and understand them.”

“Jews could be Jews without being ‘a people apart.’”

Reform Jews in America rejected Zionism long before the appearance of Theodor Herzl’s Der Judenstaat in 1896. In 1841, at the temple dedication ceremony of that same Beth Elohim congretation in Charleston, Rabbi Gustav Posnanski declared that “this country is our Palestine, this city our Jerusalem, this house of God our Temple.”

The most important advocate and organizer of the American Reform movement was Isaac Mayer Wise (1819-1900). In 1873, he founded the Union of American Hebrew Congregations, a body which by 1880 was, according to Nathan Glazer in American Judaism, “closer to being the dominant organization in American Jewish life than any other organization has ever been.” Wise was the leading force behind the founding in 1875 of Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati, and he served as its president until his death.

The Prophetic Tradition

“Reform Judaism,” writes Rabbi Elmer Berger, “was designed to strip from Judaism those secondary characteristics which served the separatistic idea of ‘Jewish peoplehood.’ It was also to emphasize the universalities of the Prophetic tradition. Reform Judaism attempted to strengthen and focalize devotion to those universal, spiritual essentials which were, at once, Isaiah’s ‘holiness’ of God and Jeremiah’s profoundly intimate ‘burning fire within.’ In a religion of such emphasis and proportions, Jews could be Jews without being ‘a peopleapart.’”

Isaac Mayer Wise and his contemporaries were, in Berger’s view, “very great men in the history of religious thought... They recognized, as the center of the whole problem, this conflict between the Prophetic and universal interpretation of Judaism and the hankering of some to maintain the hard core of a nationalistic content in the lives of Jews and to use Judaism to serve that purpose.”

Wise criticized the idea of nation and national religion with these words: “The false Messiahs who appeared from time to time among the dispersed and suffering remnants of Judah had no religious purpose in view; all of them were political demagogues or patriotic fantasists with as much religious zeal as was deemed requisiteto agitate the Jewish mind and to win the goodwill of the masses and its leaders for the proposed political end, which was the restoration of Jewish nationality and the conquest of Palestine. All of them failed miserably and left behind them plenty of misery for their thoughtless followers. And yet with that warning of history before them, the party of men called Zionists and admirers of Dr. Herzl’s Judenstaat propose to do the same thing over in our days.”

In 1885 Reform rabbis meeting in Pittsburgh adopted a set of principles which came to be known as the Pittsburgh Platform. The Reform program rejected Jewish nationalism. Its fifth paragraph declared explicitly: “We consider ourselves no longer a nation, but a religious community.” The platform emphasized that Reform Judaism denied Jewish peoplehood and nationalism of any variety.

Professor Thomas Kolsky notes that, “The theology of Reform Judaism was a religion with a universal message. Their faith was founded on optimism…and on almost religious love of America as the promised land. Confident about their future…they objected to efforts to revive Jewish nationalism.”

Isaac Mayer Wise believed that Zionism was merely a reaction to the persecution of Jews in Eastern Europe and was certain that the progress of political emancipation would demonstrate its folly. He believed deeply in the universal mission of the Jews to be a “light unto the nations,” to disseminate the message of ethical monotheism and human brotherhood, which was Judaism’s unique contribution, among the nations, not to be “a people apart.” He dismissed Zionism as a mere aberration.

In 1897, the CCAR adopted a resolution disapproving of any attempt to establish a Jewish state. The resolution declared: “Zion was a precious possession of the past…as such it is a holy memory, but it is not our hope of the future. America is our Zion.”

The Balfour declaration

The issuance of the Balfour Declaration convinced some Reform rabbis of the necessity to take strong measures to fight Zionism. Rabbi Louis Grossman, the president of the CCAR, reacted to this document by reaffirming the standard Reform viewpoint and by reiterating Reform’s opposition to the “idea that Palestine should be considered the homeland of the Jews,” because Jews in the United States were an integral part of the American Nation.

On April 20, 1922, Rabbi David Philipson testified before the Foreign Affairs Committee of the U.S. House of Representatives against the Lodge-Fish Resolution, which gave American approval to “the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people.” He insisted that, “No land can be spoken of as the national home of the Jewish people, as Jews are nationals of many lands.” Above all, Philipson wanted everyone to understand that “Zionists do not speak for all Jews.”

Slowly, however, Reform Judaism began to modify its commitment to universalism and move in the direction of accommodating Jewish nationalism. In 1937, meeting in Columbus, Ohio, the CCAR adopted a new document, “Guiding Principles of Reform Judaism.” Drafted by a group of rabbis, including such Zionist spokesmen as Abba Hillel Silver, James Heller and Barnett Brickner, it stated: “In the rehabilitation of Palestine, the land hallowed by memories and hopes, we behold the promise of renewed life for many of our brethren. We affirm the obligation of all Jewry to aid in its building as a Jewish homeland...”

In 1947, Nelson Glueck succeeded the anti-Zionist Julian Morgenstern as president of Hebrew Union College. Professor Howard M. Sachar notes that, “He moved with alacrity in opening branches of the College in Los Angeles and Jerusalem. At his initiative, all rabbinical candidates were obliged to spend a year at the Jerusalem branch. The shift in emphasis reflected the changing sociology of the Reformers, as of American Jewry altogether. Abandoning its early fixation with Prophetic universalism, Reform from the late 1930s on reflected the impact of the European catastrophe and Zionism.”

In his book A Partisan History of Judaism (1951), Rabbi Elmer Berger writes: “The progress of Reform Judaism was interrupted and is now turning back on itself. It has been captured by, or its leaders have surrendered to, a new rise of ‘Jewish nationalism’…It promises to revive again—even in America—the nationalistic concept of Judaism and to replace the Prophetic universalism which Isaac Mayer Wise and his contemporaries strove so valiantly to organize and articulate.”

Sadly, Berger argued, many Jews tended to give Hitler a posthumous victory by accepting the anti-Semitic idea that it was foolish to believe in emancipation and in all of the liberal ideals for Jews which the 19th century Reformers advocated so strongly: “Germany, they argued ‘was one of the most enlightened nations in the world and look what happened to Jews there.’...They did not stop to think that Germany was not really such a liberal state; that it had been unable to sustain a democratic form of government for anyone—not only Jews—at a time of crisis. They did not stop to realize that the terror which Hitler had unleashed engulfed practically the entire civilized world. They did not ask into the antecedents of those ‘Jewish’ segregationalists who used the world tragedy to advance a political national idea that had existed long before the world ever heard of Hitler....Rather they accepted the hopelessness for Jews that is easily deduced from Hitler’s success. They accepted Hitler’s decree of separation and tried to make of it a virtue and to use it as political capital to win a ‘Jewish’ state.”

Reform Judaism, today, has moved away from its own tradition of universalism back in the direction of an ethnocentric religion which often appears to worshipthe “Jewish people” or the State of Israel, rather than God.

In Miami in 1997, the CCAR adopted a new platform calling clearly for the intertwining of Reform Judaism and Zionism. It declared that Jews constitute a people with “innumerable ties” to the State of Israel, and that the State of Israel “serves uniquely as the spiritual and cultural focal point ofWorld Jewry.” And in May 1999 the new declaration of principles goes so far as encouraging American Reform Jews to move permanently to Israel.

A Reform Rebellion?

There is some indication of a rebellion among those Reform Jews who reject the movement back toward Orthodoxy and an ethnocentric religion. Discussing the original draft of the new statement of principles, Rabbi Robert M. Seltzer, professor of Jewish history at Hunter College of the City of New York, wrote in Reform Judaism (Winter 1998) that it “fails to convey the distinctive ongoing contribution of Reform to modern Judaism: a conscious sifting through the tradition, choosing practices that are consistent with the canons of rational thought, the best of modern knowledge, and the hardwon place of Jews and Judaism at the center of modern Western society.” He said that the 1885 Pittsburgh Platform “is not outdated. In the modern spirit of tolerance, it acknowledges the legitimacy of all religions and especially the ‘providential mission’ of Christianity and Islam. In the Jewish philosophical spirit, it insists on the purity of the Jewish ‘God-idea’ and in the progressive nature of a Judaism ‘ever striving to be in accord with the postulates of Judaism.’”

Washington Jewish Week (June 3, 1999) reports that there has been much opposition among Reform Jews to the new guidelines: “In response to its request for feedback, the Reform Judaism magazine Web site received approximately 70 pages of comments from Reform Jews…Some respondents favored the change, but others were very critical, voicing fears that encouraging traditional mitzvot would soon give way to coercion and blur the lines between Reform and Conservative Judaism.”

Reform Judaism may be unique in that its changes represent a return to the very ideas and practices the original reformers rejected so vehemently. It is a retrogression from an expansive, universal faith in God, who is the God of all men, of every race and nation, to a tribal God, one to whom primitive man looked to help him conquer his enemies and to bestow power and prosperity to his particular tribe.

The Washington Post on May 26 summed up the changes in Reform Judaism as “an historic change in the movement’s principles...redefining it in more traditional religious terms and reversing the direction of what has long been the most progressive and popular wing of American Judaism...In 1885, Reform Judaism’s declaration of principles outlined a way for Jews to blend into modern American life...The new charter reverses this mandate.”

Accceptance of the new principles in Pittsburgh does not end the debate. Members of the clergy and congregants will be invited to write commentaries from which the meaning of the principles will take shape. Only time will tell whether classical Reform Judaism, committed to one universal God and rejecting ethnocentrism and separation for Judaism’s mission as a light to the nations, will survive into the 21st century. If it does not, men and women of all faiths who believe in a God large enough to encompass all of mankind with a vision of a moral and purposeful world will be the losers.

Alan C. Brownfeld is a syndicated columnist and associate editor of the Lincoln Review , a journal published by the Lincoln Institute for Research and Education, and editor of Issues, the quarterly journal of the American Council for Judaism.

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