Although I have chosen to pitch my Jewish tent in the Orthodox camp, I freely acknowledge that it was the liberal streams of Judaism that made it possible for me to find my way from a secular upbringing in an intermarried household to a life of Torah and mitzvah observance. Without the Reform movement, I would have felt too foreign, too ignorant, too out of place, and WAY too far outside the halachic fold to set foot in an Orthodox synagogue. It would have felt like getting thrown into the Big League without any Little League experience.
So I owe a great debt to Liberal Judaism. Its goal of creating a Judaism that is practicable for Jews who are well integrated into non-Jewish society and the modern era is understandable.
And yet. I fear that for many people, that brand of Judaism is not sea-worthy enough to sustain a lifetime of practice. The majority of people my husband and I know in our generation of Jews reared by loosely affiliated liberal Jews have intermarried. The teenage children of members of my former Reform congregation only attended post-bnei mitzvah classes at the synagogue to avoid losing privileges (car usage, later curfews). And a friend of ours spent years dating women who were put off by his adherence to kashrut and from whom his knowledge of the procedure for a Pesach seder earned him the disdainful question, "What are you? A rabbi?"
Judaism is at heart a bottom-up religion. Rabbis are not needed for synagogue services to take place. Technically, they are not required to perform weddings or to witness conversions either; only mitzvah-observant Jews in good standing are needed in these cases. But one thing Judaism DOES require is knowledge. Jewish learning is the work of many lifetimes, and to become conversant in the language and customs of Judaism, Jewish education must continue beyond childhood.
This, alas, is not always the case with liberal congregations. Introduction to Judaism and basic Hebrew classes are often all that are offered, while deeper learning remains inaccessible or fails to appeal to most congregants and community members. This is perhaps both the cause and the effect of one of the greatest losses to Judaism in the galut (diaspora): the Hebrew language.
While Israel’s recent 60th anniversary celebration garnered praise from within and outside the country for its achievement in reviving the ancient Hebrew language, the loss of that same language is the greatest casualty of Judaism in many parts of the galut, including in very liberal congregations. Jewish movements that have replaced the traditional Hebrew service with English have on the one hand made religious services more accessible to the minimally educated Jew, but on the other hand have not provided any sort of venue or motivation for that same Jew to grow and learn what has been eliminated. This has created a unique brand of "galut Judaism," something which may be comfortable for use at home in one’s own congregation, but which cannot be taken into a different context. A Jew accustomed only to services in English who attends services in a congregation where Hebrew is still the primary language for prayer is certain to feel a division within the Jewish community, not only between Israelis and diaspora Jews but also between diaspora Jews within the same culture. The Cap’n and I recently hosted family from America at Sukkot and were saddened to see that they were unable to participate in services here. "Are they all in Hebrew?" they asked. As this is Israel, it’s hard to imagine what other language they would be in; in fact, even Reform congregations in Israel use Hebrew exclusively.
I can understand why many Americans gravitate toward liberal Judaism. Jews who have shed their foreign origins and have taken root in America have also adopted modern American sensibilities, social and political views. These Jews want to be Americans, and that means living in a way that resembles how most Americans live. Among traditional Jews, the self-isolation that takes place on Shabbat, the hegemony of the male sex over public prayer, and the limitations placed on social eating by the dietary laws are decidedly un-American. To some Jews the choice between being Jewish and being American has resulted in Americanness winning out.
And yet. When Shabbat is jettisoned, both essential rest and community-building in a society that is sometimes pathologically hard-working are lost. Many women who wouldn’t dream of praying behind a mechitza never acquire the skills necessary to lead a public service, give a d’var Torah (lay sermon) or even say a blessing over the Torah when called for an honor. And while the dietary laws’ primary purpose is to make the Jews "a holy people," their observance has also traditionally helped to ensure that Jews marry other Jews—something that has also fallen off of late.
I’m not interested in raising questions about the halachic (Jewish legal) status of non-Orthodox conversions. That can be a conversation for another time, among other people. And I do not question the identity of serious liberal Jews or their dedication to their modern interpretations of Jewish theology. But the sacrifice of peoplehood, an essential element in the traditional conception of Judaism, is a serious one. It severs a large sector of the American Jewish population from the rest of the Jewish world by limiting their ability to function as Jews in the rest of the world. And the lingua franca of that people is Hebrew, not English. With Hebrew and a basic knowledge of a traditional prayer service, one can step into a synagogue in Paris or Kiev or Cochin (India) and participate fully in a service; without this, a Jew can function in these contexts no better than a non-Jewish tourist. The Catholic Church may have deemed it prudent to abandon Latin in favor of the vernacular in its services, but traditional Judaism has never done so, and this adherence to Hebrew is some of the glue that binds Am Yisrael together in the world.
So what’s the solution? one may wonder. One is to learn Hebrew well, through classes, tapes, online courses, or time spent in Israel. Another is to study and be familiar with the traditional prayer service, even if one does not pray that way in one’s regular synagogue setting. Another might be for larger liberal congregations to have two services: one with less Hebrew, and one entirely in Hebrew to provide a continuum along which members may grow in their knowledge and skills. And a third is to ask oneself, Which is really more important—not just for me, but for my children? Doing what everyone else does, or doing what Jews do? Consider what Judaism offers: thousands of years of wisdom, a profoundly ethical religious base from which other religions have borrowed (and failed to surpass), a worldwide fellowship of Jews with a common tradition, and a way of life that fosters strong family and community bonds. Being American is great, but it doesn’t beat all that.
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