Tuesday 22 December 2020

I’m NOT a ‘Reform Jew’

To some of my friends, this may sound strange.  After all, I am a paid-up member of a Reform shul.  Before moving to London, I’ve even been on the Executive Committee of a Reform Jewish community.  But, no, I am not a Reform Jew – I’m just a Jew.  A member of the Jewish people and a practiser of Judaism (albeit not a very observant one).  For reasons related to personal relationships, I occasionally attend services in a Chabad shul.  For Yom Kippur services, I go to a ‘United’ shul close to where I live.  I attended Masorti services as well – and liked them very much.  This sounds like a lot of shuls – I know; ironically, I’m not much of a shul goer: in Israel, the only service I ever attended was Kol Nidre…

Of course, I’m aware that there are some differences in doctrine between these denominations – besides variations in the way they worship.  But similarities far outstrip differences.

Yet there are people – in all denominations – that choose (for reasons that I consider neither noble nor legitimate) to focus on the differences.  And to try and widen them as much as possible.  That’s wrong, in my view.

But, lately, there is something else, as well: a propensity, by some ‘spiritual leaders’ to turn their Jewish communities into political movements – in all but name.  That’s not just wrong – it’s a recipe for disaster.

It probably started with the term ‘Progressive Judaism’.  I resent the term ‘progressive’ – and not just when it is applied to religion.  It is inherently arrogant: if you call yourself ‘progressive’, the implication is that anyone who disagrees with you is a caveman.  Not a very good way to make friends, I’d say!

It continued with the enthronement of ‘social justice’ as the Number One Precept of Judaism.  Sure, seeking justice (צדק, צדק תרדוף) is a perennial Judaic quest.  Sure, building a juster, kinder, better society should be seen as part of that quest.  But I have two issues with the way this is implemented in practice.

Firstly, there is more than one valid interpretation of ‘social justice’ and of how a juster, kinder, better society should look like.  The choice of one ‘true path’ has nothing to do with Judaism, ‘Progressive’ or otherwise; it has everything to do with politics.

Secondly, turning the quest for ‘social justice’ into Judaism’s main, definitional value is – bluntly put – intellectually dishonest.

Sure, in the second paragraph of Aleynu we urge the Creator

to perfect [or repair] the world under God’s leadership, so that all mortals will invoke you. [translation mine]

But does this one verse make tikkun olam (improving or repairing the world) the overriding, defining precept of Judaism?  Those who claim so wilfully ignore the first paragraph of the same prayer, which enjoins Jews to praise God

for making us unlike other nations and positioning us unlike other tribes; for granting us a different role and destiny. [translation mine]

Contrary to what some would like to read into this one prayer, the universalism of the second paragraph is balanced by the particularism/exceptionalism of the first.

But it’s not just about interpreting the texts.  The quest for justice is a moral imperative – and as such is found also in Christianity and Islam, as well as in many a non-religious ideological movement.

And that’s precisely the point: those who worship ‘tikkun olam’ wish to reduce Judaism (and indeed Jewishness) to a political creed – a form of ‘socialism’ sprinkled with a few Hebrew phrases.

Socialism is a legitimate ideology; but to declare it The One True Ideology isn’t Judaism; in fact it is a form of intolerance, of bigotry.

Enter ‘spiritual leaders’ like former ‘Senior Rabbi’ Laura Janner-Klausner.  Last year, soon after the latest British elections (December 2019), I listened to a presentation in which Rabbi Janner-Klausner talked about the Reform Movement and its priorities.  Antisemitism (especially the Labour Party antisemitism, arguably the British Jewry’s main topic of concern over the past few years) was conspicuously absent from her talk.  So, during the Q&A session, I asked: what was the Reform Movement’s position vis-à-vis Labour Party antisemitism?  She clearly did not like the question.  She started by stating that she was a proud member of the Labour Party and ‘had made no secret of that’.  Then she rather sternly advised that ‘we must choose our words carefully’.  Antisemitism may be present in certain parts of the Labour Party leadership, she declared, but we should not imply that the entire party had a problem.

I admit I did not like Rabbi Janner-Klausner, even before that exchange.  But her ‘answer’ really shocked me.  Did she not feel the concern, the worry, the pain and humiliation felt by so many British Jews?  Why did she choose to rise to the defence of the Labour Party, rather than – as a rabbi should – leading and protecting her own community?

Needless to say, since then the EHRC has proven Rabbi Laura wrong.  It identified the problem not just as an issue of leadership, but as one of Labour Party “culture”.

Leaders (spiritual or otherwise) have responsibilities –first and foremost being to… well, to behave responsibly.  Should the ‘Senior Rabbi’ of the Reform Movement identify herself with a political party?  I see this as fundamentally unwise; to put it bluntly – as irresponsible.  Of course, a rabbi can have political opinions, like everybody else.  But should s/he formally join a political party and declare that fact publicly?  Some roles should remain apolitical; even Keir Starmer did not flaunt his political affiliation – while acting as Director of Public Prosecutions.  When it comes to a ‘Senior Rabbi’, it’s not just about protecting the credibility of the role; it’s also the responsibility of not involving the Community unwisely and unnecessarily in political squabbles.

But hasn’t Chief Rabbi Ephraim Mirvis done something similar, by declaring publicly that Jeremy Corbyn (then Leader of the Labour Party) was “unfit for high office”?  I don’t think so.  Rabbi Mirvis did not express a political preference; he did not declare support for (let alone membership of) the Conservative Party.  No, he simply rose – as rabbis did for centuries – in support of his community; giving voice to its concerns and fears.  So did Reform rabbis like Andrea Zanardo and Jonathan Romain.

Publicly identifying with a political party, movement or ideology is the wrong thing for a religious leader to do.

It is, I’d strongly opine, politics – not religion – that drives Rabbi Laura’s attitude towards the Jewish state.

In June this year, even before Tzipi Hotovely (Israel’s new Ambassador to the UK) even made it to the country, Rabbi Laura Janner-Klausner publicly announced that

“Ambassador-designate Hotovely has views as a politician which are in very strong contrast to the views of Reform Judaism.”

Until then, I had no idea that Reform Judaism had political views!  I joined a religious denomination; when I became a member of a Reform shul, I wasn’t made aware that I needed to subscribe to any particular politics.  Nor was I told that by joining the shul I was somehow empowering the Senior Rabbi to make political statements in my name.

In the same article, Rabbi Laura proceeded to very strongly advise the Ambassador to “set aside” her views.  How ironic: here’s a rabbi telling a politician not to express political views!  Hotovely might have responded by asking the good rabbi to refrain from expressing opinions on matters of faith.

But, jokes aside, this is so ludicrous – it’s not even funny.  One does not have to like Hotovely or her opinions; I certainly disagree with many of them.  But she isn’t the ambassador of the British Reform Movement; or even the ambassador of the British Jewish community.  She is the envoy of the State of Israel – a sovereign state.  Why should her political views be in any way aligned with those of Reform Judaism (or, to be more precise, with those of its Senior Rabbi)?

And why should a rabbi – Senior or otherwise – object to a Jew (let alone an ambassador) expressing her opinions?  Isn’t this what the entire Talmud is – a bunch of opinionated Jews having an argument?  What happened to ‘these and also those are words of the Living God’?  What about ‘argument for the sake of heaven’ and all that jazz??


Thankfully, as I write this, Ms. Janner-Klausner is no longer Senior Rabbi, having gone to pursue what I’m sure are more suitable endeavours.  Perhaps as a result of her departure, the Reform Judaism’s powers that be adopted a somewhat wiser approach: they actually met the Ambassador and had a conversation, rather than bashing her and her political views 'in absentia'.

Yet somehow the politicising influence of Laura Janner-Klausner seems to linger on, like a bad smell.  The ‘News’ section of the website still reads like that of a political movement – with a running commentary (on behalf of ‘Reform Judaism’) on many an utterly secular decision by the Government of Israel.

And, while probably milder than anything the former Senior Rabbi would have written, the statement released after meeting the Ambassador still rings distinctly unpleasant.  It opens by declaring:

“Reform Judaism hosted Israeli Ambassador to the UK Tzipi Hotovely for a Hannukah candle lighting ceremony to set out our progressive values.”

One would have hoped that British Jews needed no a special reason to invite a recently arrived Israeli Jew to a Hannukah candle lighting ceremony.  But, if a reason had to be mentioned, perhaps ‘getting to know each other’ or even ‘exchanging opinions’ would have sounded less arrogant, cold and hostile.

The statement then went on to tick all the obligatory political boxes, including

“the Israeli occupation of the Palestinian territories and human rights for the Palestinian people”.

Not much time spent on pleasantries and small talk, then!  Apparently, the Ambassador did not respond by bringing up similarly controversial Diaspora issues, such as the galloping assimilation and the young people’s estrangement from Judaism.  I guess that’s why she’s a diplomat!

Next, the statement quotes a certain Amit Handelsman, Director of Community Partnership, who sounds as if he did Hotovely a huge favour by even talking to her:

“While we acknowledge our differences of opinion, Reform Judaism has started a conversation with Ambassador Hotovely to ensure she understands the progressive Zionist values we hold.”

Hotovely probably thought ‘What a condescending prick’.  Or such equivalent terms that an observant Jewish woman might use on such occasions.

Mr. Handelsman then goes on to say

“We are proud to be a critical friend of Israel and hope to be able to continue to have robust and honest conversations with the Israeli Embassy…”

There’s something profoundly wrong with this: why should anyone be “proud to be a critical friend”?  Sure, friends may criticise each other’s actions or positions,; nothing wrong with that.  But they don’t set out to be critical.  If you wanna be my friend, I’d hope you are proud of that fact – proud to be my friend; you can criticise me when you feel you need to.  But if you’re proud to be my critical friend; if you hope to have “robust and honest” (rather than friendly and pleasant) conversations – then I think you’re no friend at all.

Mr. Handelsman then issued what sounds like a new Declaration of Faith:

“Reform Judaism remains guided by our key values and principles of peace, democracy, equality, human rights and pluralism.”

Are these, I ask, the “key values” of a religious community (especially one with ‘Judaism’ in its name)?  Or those of a political movement?  How about the continuity of the Jewish people?  Is that also a key value and principle of Reform Judaism?

Finally, Mr. Handelsman put icing on this rather disgusting cake, by stating

“We work closely and in partnership with our brothers and sisters in the Israeli Reform Movement to create a better and just Israel for all its inhabitants.”

And I thought, dear Amit, that all Israeli Jews were “our brothers and sisters”??

No, I am definitely not that kind of ‘Reform Jew’ – not one of Mr. Handelsman’s “brothers and sisters”.  Me, I’m just a Jew – and a proud member of the “all […] inhabitants” category.


  1. Very well said, Noru. I agree with every word and I say that as a member of a Reform shul. Out of interest, I assume you're aware that when Corbyn was leader of the Labour Party, Janner-Klausner attended a Jewdas 'seder' where Corbyn was a participant.


    1. Hi Geoff, many thanks.
      Yes, I know... I believe she tried to “spin” it, see https://blogs.timesofisrael.com/after-jewdas-seder-corbyn-must-finally-lead-and-take-responsibility/. Needless to say, I don’t buy it...