My colleagues in the Reform movement reacted harshly to the statement of Israeli Chief Rabbi Shlomo Amar that on the High Holy Days it would be better for a Jew to pray by himself or herself than with Reform Jews.
I understand their furor, but my own response is actually the opposite: I would like to thank Rabbi Amar for helping Israel’s Reform movement and for advancing the cause of religious freedom in the Jewish state.
In the first place, he has provided confirmation of what I know but many Jews in the world do not: Reform Judaism is growing and thriving in the State of Israel. Yes, it is still a relatively small movement, but it now has Reform centers in each of Israel’s major cities, a network of schools, a youth movement, and a thriving rabbinical school for Israeli students. On Yom Kippur and Rosh Hashana this year, as in years past, thousands of Israelis, in search of a creative and egalitarian approach to prayer at Judaism’s holiest season, flocked to Reform congregations. In other words, they did precisely what Rabbi Amar asked them not to do but expected that they would do; Amar warned against Reform Judaism because he is aware that more and more Israelis are taking it seriously.
In the second place, he has given us yet another reason why Israel’s chief rabbinate needs to be dismantled. Judaism is a vibrant, dynamic and contentious tradition, rooted in Torah and mitzva; what it needs right now is deep learning, clear thinking and abiding faith. What it does not need is an artificial, government-sponsored religious bureaucracy, originally created by the British as an instrument to further their colonial ambitions. Even the Orthodox community in Israel pays little attention to the chief rabbinate, and if we survey the Jewish world, we see that Jewish religion — Orthodoxy most definitely included — is thriving in those places where it is decentralized and where free market forces encourage Jewish fervor and energy. The contempt-spouting Rabbi Amar is one more reminder that Judaism would be well served by putting the chief rabbinate out of its misery.
In the third place, he has drawn our attention to Jewish faith at its best by giving us an example of Jewish faith at its worst. “Faith is at its best,” writes Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, “when it becomes a counter-cultural force; when it has no power, only influence, and no authority except what it earns.”
I am not saying that Rabbi Sacks was speaking negatively of the chief rabbinate; he was not. But his words are powerful and right. Jews are hungry for “counter-cultural” Judaism; the pettiness of religious bureaucrats exhausts their energy and tries their souls. Let us all, wherever we stand on the Jewish spectrum, keep in mind our obligation to pursue the holy, to open our minds to Torah in new and “counter-cultural” ways, and to earn the trust of those that we serve.
(Rabbi Eric Yoffie is the immediate past president of the Union for Reform Judaism.)