January 2, 2005

The Politics of the Reform Jewish Movement

I've commented a few times on Velveteen Rabbi, and emailed back and forth with Rachel, the Blogmistress. (I must add that Rachel is very kind and willing to listen, and seems like a good, spiritual and interesting person -- which is one reason I undertook this effort.) At one point in the dialogue, I expressed my distaste for what I assumed was the politics of the Reform Jewish movement.

In thinking about the issue, I realized that I did not have more than anecdotal and impressionistic information about what the official positions endorsed by this movement were.

So I decided to look into the matter. On the Web, the best source I found was Tzedek V'Shalom (roughly, Wisdom and Peace. TVS is the political house organ of organized Reform Judaism. It carries the heading "The Justice and Peace Newsletter of the Commission on Social Action of Reform Judaism."

To start with, I was put off by three phrases in the title itself:

  1. Social Action. This phrase to me connotes at least a left-liberal mindset. Aside from the resemblance between "social" and "socialism," "social action" connotes "activism," with pickets, sti-ins, teach-ins and the like. The phrase reeks of the movement left.

  2. Justice. This term in and of itself is fine. But "justice" and "social justice" historically have been used by the Left, and in particular the Communism Party, as a less confrontational term for the class struggle. "Justice" may also connote egalitarianism. Goethe was right when he said words to the effect that he who promises simultaneously freedom and equality is a dreamer or a mountebank.

  3. Peace. "Peace," like "justice," is a concept that has long been exploited by those who sympathized with totalitarian governments, especially Stalinist states, and defined the "peace movement" as one that opposed resistance to them and their designs.

The proof of the pudding, however, is not in the title, but in the actual activities and positions involved. To examine these, I looked at the last three issues, Winter, Spring and Fall 2004. The publication is bland and institutional, describes activities rather than justifying the substance of the positions taken, and constantly reminds me of the annoying Jewish practice of naming everything after some benefactor and usually a spouse. But it's sufficient for characterizing the official politics of the movement. I'm going to go through the identified activities and positions one by one, leaving out the purely institutional stuff, like bios of new officers.

The nuclear disarmament of Iran and North Korea would be a good thing; of the US, a terrible thing. But the movement for nuclear disarmament treaties is a throwback to an ineffective way of dealing with nuclear issues during the Cold War.
Interfaith dialogue activitiesI have no political bone to pick with this sort of thing.
Abortion.The organization both opposed prohibiting partial birth abortion and supported the March for Choice.
Supporting global anti-AIDS and other public health efforts.I can't quarrel with the general concept.
Support for the "assault weapons" ban.Gun control is silly as a crime-fighting measure and oppressive as a political concept. There's nothing in the Jewish tradition that opposes self-defense; on the contrary. One way in which Jews were historically repressed was that they were forbidded to bear arms.
Opposing school vouchers.Although probably no panacea, school vouchers could enable families and children to escape the worst public schools. It might also help Jewish day scools. Opposition to school vouchers is everywhere led by teachers' unions, who generally oppose measures to make teachers and administrators accountable.
Support for nuclear disarmament.
Volunteer programs in predominantly black high schools in D.C.No doubt a worthy causse.
Support for a two-state solution for Israel and the Palestinians.This concept seems reasonable, but might prove utopian.
Support for increasing the minimum wage.This is a "feel good" measure that makes no economic sense. The best way to help low-wage workers in this country is to suppress illegal immigration and restrict legal immigration. The Reform Jews in fact are pro-immigration as another throwback -- to the immigrant ancestry of American Jews and the restrictions on Jewish refugee entry into this country during the Hitler years. This reasoning has no relevance today.
Support for gay marriage and for the integration of practicing homosexuals into synagogues.These are two different issues. Abandoning thousands of years of tradition, not to speak of Biblical texts, in order to impose same-sex marriage is risky business with unknown consequences. Accepting open homosexuality and claiming to be in the Jewish tradition is like playing the flute standing on one's head.
Get out the vote activity.People who are reasonably well-informed should vote. Whether this activity is as far as a non-profit can go in supporting the ill-starred Sen. Kerry is a matter for pure speculation.
Building homes in Orange Gounty and helping farmers in El Salvador.No quarrel with this.
Support for Ethiopians who claim Jewish ancestry and wish to go to Israel.Again, no quarrel with this.
Opposition to the genocide in Darfur, Sudan.This is a good cause, in which our President and Secretary Powell have joined. They get no credit here.
Anti-poverty work.This was hard to decipher. There are plenty of direct aid programs of one kind or another mentioned. But there's also a bit of "root causes" rhetoric. Perhaps by "root causes" they mean alcoholism, crime, and mental illness. More likely they support more government programs, that have proven so ineffective, generally, in the past. It's hard to tell.

What is more depressing than the predictable positions such as reflexive anti-gun and pro-abortion positions, even to the extreme of supporting partial-birth abortion (in an age when a 1/2 pound baby may be viable), is the complete neglect of the fact that our country is at war in Afghanistan and Iraq, fighting movements and people that are profoundly and murderously anti-Jewish. Where are the programs to provide aid and comfort to our soldiers and marines, for example?

The only mention of the war is support for the Supreme Court cases that challenge holding certain prisoners and denying them certain rights. This view of the matter may be justified, but the lack of focus on the central struggle of our time suggests either a division in the ranks (which I suspect), or opposition to the President and his policies.

Summary. At the beginning of my reading I thought perhaps I had been wrong, that the movement is cautious, and focuses on community work, Habitat for Humanity type projects, and direct aid to the needy at home and abroad. Although those are part of the picture, the political agenda endorsed by the movement is in fact that of the far left wing of the Democratic Party, including such anachronisms as nuclear disarmament, nonsensical proposals like the "assualt weapons" ban, and silly populist gestures like raising the minimum wage.

There appears (from these three issues of one publication) to be no willingness to look deeply into the knee-jerk liberalism now out of favor with the voters, to programs that could be effective, such as school vouchers.

What is even more depressing is that based on my limited by real knowledge, few if any of the political positions (as opposed to the good works) have anything to do with either the Torah or the Jewish religious tradition. Does Reform do anything more than put a Jewish veneer on traditional left-liberalism and a march to the values of the secular left?

Good question, but since I am not and never have been affiliated with Reform Judaism, and haven't studied it enough, it wouldn't be fair for me to attempt an answer the last couple of questions.

What I can say is tha I can't imagine making a religious connection whose poltical dimension seems to approach the horrid politics of the Nation magazine.

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