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  • Reform Judaism in Israel:The Anatomy of Weakness
  • Asher Cohen (bio) and Bernard Susser (bio)

Under the striking title "Searching for a Synagogue,1" a well-known Israeli journalist and television personality described his failing quest for a house of worship that would suit his purposes. The article is worthy of attention because its conspicuous author could easily be taken as the very image of the secular Israeli sabra. With no little bitterness, the author tells of his reservations with Orthodox synagogues-reservations that are standard for many liberal secular Israeli Jews. He tells his readers that he occasionally frequents the central Reform synagogue in Tel Aviv (Beit Daniel) but that there too he feels alienated and out of place. "I will probably continue going there," he writes, "but I am not Reform and I don't exactly know what Progressive [Reform] Judaism is." He continues: "Reform Judaism is essentially an American movement." Moreover, the author finds the attempt to Israelize the American movement artificial and unappealing. "Why do we hear songs of Yehudit Ravitz [a popular Israeli singer] and how did Yehuda Amichai [a modern Israeli poet] find his way into the prayer book?"

This discomfiture touches on the central argument of this essay:the basic structural weakness of Reform Judaism in Israel (as opposed to its success in the United States) and the unlikelihood that it will succeed in expanding in the future. Beyond the specific prognosis for Israeli Reform Judaism, we contend that the movement's weakness reflects broadly on the character of Jewish identity in Israel. Secular Jews, despite their ostensible proximity to the more intellectually liberal and halachically latitudinarian Reform movement are not rushing to fill its ranks. They seem to remain attached to Orthodox Judaism even while criticizing it acrimoniously. What lies behind this paradoxical phenomenon will occupy us in what follows.

Beyond the theological and sociological issues just referred to, the historical antipathy of Reform Judaism to Zionism-its change of heart is, after all, only a few decades old-rendered "Progressive Judaism" problematic and suspicious in the eyes of the denizens of the Yishuv (the Jewish community in pre-state Palestine). And perceptions die slowly; historical controversies are rarely settled instantaneously; [End Page 23] some measure of malingering confusion and disorientation persist. Progressive Judaism did indeed outgrow its earlier anti-Zionist formulations but not without some residual historical memories abiding. Even today, when Progressive Judaism has jettisoned its anti-nationalist character, the nationalist Zionists and the more universalist Reform are not entirely synchronized socially or ideologically.

In his comprehensive essay, Ephraim Tabory2 presents a series of possible explanations for the weakness of the Israeli Reform movement. First, there is the official monopoly on Judaism that the Orthodox establishment enjoys. The Reform movement suffers from consistent and long-term bias along a broad range of political, economic and social subjects. The Orthodox rabbinical leadership acts aggressively to stymie the Reform movement whenever it can. Beyond lacking official recognition in matters such as weddings, divorce and conversion, Reform Judaism is also symbolically de-legitimized by the official Orthodox rabbinate. Doubt is cast upon its "authenticity" as a viable Jewish option.

Second, and for our purposes more important, is the structure of alternatives available in the Israeli religious "market." Many Reform leaders observe in exasperation that Israeli Jews are for the most part "Reform Jews in practice"3-even if they are not conscious of their choice. They act like Reform Jews but do not identify with Reform Judaism. This claim is based on research into typical Israeli religious behavior the essential character of which is selectivity and freewheeling choice among the halachic commandments. Like Reform Jews, the great majority of Israeli Jews do not accept Orthodox beliefs and life-styles but nevertheless affiliates with the religious tradition at different levels and in different forms. Why then, Tabory asks, does the Reform movement fail to make religious headway among the Israeli secular and mildly traditional populations while in the United States it is largest of all religious branches?

He finds the answer in the very existence of a Jewish State, which largely obviates the fear of assimilation and prevents the weakening of Jewish identity...


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