Liberal Judaism at the Crossroads

Liberal Judaism pioneered the notion that Judaism was a religion. The idea came from Napoleon who let it be known that only as a religion did Judaism have a place in the modern nation state. Ever since then, Jews have been trying to figure out what a religion actually is and, depending on their answer, whether we really are one.

For Jews in Christian countries, religion was a system of belief that was operationalized in worship: exactly what Reform Judaism became in the nineteenth century. But Napoleon never got as far as eastern Europe, and when eastern European Jews came here, they found Reform Judaism’s version of religion baffling.

America was fully Protestantized, however, and by the 1950s, President Eisenhower was trumpeting religious affiliation as the civic and moral responsibility of all Americans. So eastern European Jews too became officially religious. They built synagogues, and claimed a set of Jewish beliefs, usually as Conservative Jews, however, not Reform. By now, Reform Judaism too has been thoroughly colonized by the eastern European ethos.

But here’s the problem: Eastern European Jews never did take religious belief very seriously. Protestants had some doctrinal “truths” about Jesus and salvation. We had no such deep religious truths in which we believed. We weren’t even sure we believed in God.

But if we had few (if any) transcendent truths to offer, what then did we have?

One option would have been halakhah, but that has largely failed within liberal circles. Through guides to Jewish conduct, Reform Jews have tried resurrecting it on occasion, but as much as Reform Judaism values rabbinic literature, and despite the fact that it issues responsa, it is simply not a halachic movement. The same is true of Reconstructionism. Within the ranks of progressive Jews, Conservative Judaism alone has made a genuine attempt to remain halachic — but with limited success. Unless you are Orthodox, the plausibility of living one’s life according to a halachic mandate has become harder and harder to champion.

For some time, we have been able to draw on the external agenda of anti-Semitism and support of Israel. But there isn’t much anti-Semitism in America, and even though Israel is still embattled, its right-wing government confounds us, its right-wing religion attacks us, and the coming generation sees Israel as Goliath rather than David.

A more recent fallback position has been “family.” Self-evidently, American Jews come to Judaism for family rites of passage. These are not what they claim to be: rites of passage of individuals from birth to bar/bat mitzvah to marriage and the grave. They are successful celebrations of family unity across generations. In the face of divorce and family fallout, they demonstrate that family ties still bind. But these are relatively rare events, expensive in terms of synagogue dues, and demanding no communal Jewish commitment in between. So our numbers remain static as generations of bar/bat mitzvah parents come and go.

The fact that liberal synagogues have become life-cycle factories is no new insight. What I am offering is an explanation of it. Lacking faith in anything very deep, and unable (Conservative) and unwilling (Reform and Reconstructionist) to galvanize a liberal halachic option with much traction, we have claimed family dysfunction as our mission. It works, as far as it goes. It just doesn’t go far enough,

A second fallback position has been the  claim that we provide community. Here too, we are responding to family dysfunction, this time by addressing loneliness and vulnerability. In another era, intact families might have provided support for people in crisis. Now people need options. We provide one – or, at least, we claim to; hence, the popularity of healing and the emphasis on caring communities. There are other forces at work as well: baby boomers living longer and becoming the sandwich generation caring for their own parents and also for their children but having no one to care for them.

But whatever the reason, we sell religion as community, and insofar as we provide it, we may succeed at holding our own and even growing. The evidence, however, is against our being able to do this very well. Except for synagogue clergy, professionals, and the “regulars” (the self-selected “insiders” for whom synagogue really is community), most synagogues are not seen as communities that care, nurture, and provide whatever it is that beleaguered boomers want. At least life-cycle celebration is something we are good at. Community, apparently, is not. And the next generation, the boomers’ children may not even want it.

So we have experimented with a third strategy. Religion, we say, provides personal meaning. I think we have a long way to go to make this claim convincing, but at least we are on the right path. More on that another time. Suffice it to say that this is where spirituality comes in. Liberal religion will offer spirituality, or it will fail.


12 responses to “Liberal Judaism at the Crossroads

  1. Any progress re: defining spirituality. Seems like a very vague concept within every religion

    • A good deal can be said about spirituality. It need not be so vague as to mean nothing at all. I’ll limit my remarks to three things here.
      1. It is not a concept within every religion so much as it is a concept within our own culture that we superimpose on religions expecting religions to provide it. The term does not appear in classical Judaism at all. It is borrowed from Christian tradition, where it has meant many different things. Paul used it in his writings with the sense of morality. In the Middle Ages, it came to be the opposite of the realm of the king. With the 1960s, it became what we use it for, a vague term indeed, but still, something recognizable — a deep sense of internal harmony with a sense that our own harmony coheres with the harmony of the universe. That yearning has also been described as the essence of the mystical search for wholeness. We find records of it in the work of medieval mystics. Once that yearning entered modern life, largely with the baby boomers raised in the 1960s and beyond, people began searching for it in places other than Christianity, particularly (at first) in eastern religions. Jews were latecomers to the scene, because we were too busy saving Israel and Soviet refuseniks.
      2. It would be a mistake to assume that just because the term is Christian, the experience it describes must be Christian as well. English words for religious phenomena are overwhelmingly Christian in origin. “Theology,” for instance, is a Christian term, but only because students of religions in the west studied Christianity as their subject. “Spirituality,” then, is like “theology.” It is imposed on the subject from without, and can equally well be imposed successfully on Judaism as on Christianity.
      3. But it may have different characteristics in Judaism. If spirituality is a measure of harmony, within and without (I use that not as a definition but as a partial metaphor for what I am talking about), then Judaism may offer it just as other religions do, but in different ways. It comes with its own ethics in Judaism, its specifically Jewish way of being in the world. We should differentiate spirituality for Jews from Jewish spirituality. Spirituality for Jews is spirituality for everyone else as well, a function of being human: meditating in silence; feeling at one with nature; and so forth. Jewish spirituality is the sense of wholeness that arises from Jewish texts, Jewish living, a Jewish ethos and a Jewish ethic. I am calling on synagogues to become living laboratories of that Jewish spirituality.

  2. I can share some of these thoughts from the point of view of an Anglican – yes there is community, and this we are aware of. And we don’t think about it too much, but we hope we are more than a Roman burial society. And some of us are altar rats or choir and we’re there a lot of the time. But there is something in the complexity of our worship that the liberals want to simplify, dumb down, or thin out – it is a dramatic re-presentation of a history with a focus, adorned with the greatest beauty we can muster.

    When I go to synagogue to hear Torah in Hebrew, I first hear the praises of the psalms from the beginning of the service. These poems are community forming – specifically forming a people who have received mercy and who can express it through their covenant. My workaround for translating חֲסִידִים as a name is the mercied ones (psalm 149 among many). When I return to my Anglican roots the next day at our high service, I see and hear a drama that re-presents the whole scripture concerning salvation, embracing all the feasts in its imagery. We Christians are slow to realize how indebted we are to Israel as parable. What a history! And we come slowly if at all to the preciousness of the gift we have been included in.

    In my interaction with those of Judaism over my lifetime, I have found all the variations you note and also seem to find the same variations in Christendom. I think we get faithfulness and perseverance – at least in our inertia, but that engagement with the Invisible that reaches deeply into us – that is more elusive, and as Jesus noted, it seems that few find it, though many offer explanations, even explanations on how to find whatever you think it is you might be looking for.

    I am grateful that liturgy is not explanation, and that there is a reality that somehow works through it for all, not just for the few. Equally though, I am grateful that behind these traditions there is the possibility of being held eternally. Perhaps psalm 139 offers this knowledge best.

    • Lots of thoughts come to mind. Here is one:

      Liturgy is an art form, and art requires appreciation for what it is all about. Museums have recognized this and now work hard to provide accessibility to their holdings and engagement in them once people find themselves there. One of the late Leonard Bernstein’s achievements was to provide “young peoples’ concerts” to educate young people in classical music .

      The three keys are “accessibility to, “engagement in,” and “education for.” Most of us offer classes in the liturgy, but what if no one comes because liturgy is not their passion already? We need accessibility to the liturgy and engagement in it, so that experience of the liturgy becomes passion enough for people to want education. Without prior commitment through accessibility and engagement, why would anyone come to study it?

      I am not advising “dumbing down.” Bernstein did not dumb down Beethoven. Museums do not replace Picasso with with something lesser. I am calling for accessibility to and engagement in a liturgy, so that experience of the liturgy raises the desire for education about the liturgy, which in turn deepens the experience, and so forth.

  3. Dear Larry, please don’t give up on Israel. It is exactly these scary forces, you write about, against which we need the American-Liberal-Jewish support.

    • Not in a million years would I give up on Israel. My comment on Israel was actually marginal to the intent of the post as a whole, namely, the inability of Israel to serve any more as the vicarious fulcrum that shores up Jewish identity here in America. American Judaism needs its own raison d’etre, something beyond supporting Jews elsewhere. At stake is the conception we have of Jewish peoplehood. More on that in another post.

  4. Thank you for your thoughts on the art form that is liturgy. It’s a lovely metaphor. Beauty and the human effort that goes into creating or moulding it are so much what joys the spirit. That brings me to Spirit and that $10 word that you have reviewed in the comment above. I wrote a brief reply in my sleep (I should say, after asking permission to get up and note these thoughts down) – it seems to me that, to borrow another Christian word, incarnation is what spirituality is all about. My reading of the Psalms, and in my foolishness I have been immersed in them learning Hebrew these past 5 years, leads me to be somewhat forceful in identifying incarnation with election and specifically the election of Israel as a model for all of humanity. I realize that both incarnation and election are loaded words. But maybe it is time to handle these words carefully. My note is on my blog, but is short enough to put here almost in toto:

    A comment here complains of the use of spirituality as being vague. Well – can there be any sense made of this word spirituality?

    I will put it my answer in very few words: spirituality is substantial and sensible when Spirit is incarnate. That is when Spirit, the Spirit of God, is present in the day to day bodily and fleshly actions of a human being. That human is face to face – in the face of – in the presence of God. The face or presence (same word in the Hebrew) of God is greatly to be desired – but go softly. Who gets to live on the hill? (Psalms 15, 24) For the righteous one it is very desirable – but who can live in that presence? (Psalms 6, 38) For the wicked, the effect is shame. And shame is something we all avoid more than the plague. If we have a conscience, shame is the most painful of emotions.

    But the poet wishes shame on enemies – prays shame for enemies. (Myriad references in the psalms) Is this praying for enemies? Yes – for shame leads to repentance and fixing the problem so that the presence of God the Spirit can again be enjoyed and desirable.

    In my reading of the Psalter, it seems to me that the election of Israel is all about such incarnation of Spirit. God is pleased to make his dwelling there and has given the psalms for the formation of such a people of mercy and justice.

    I would add that the art of building the Tabernacle draws us into both the liturgical and the beautiful and encompasses our humanity completely.

  5. Jordan Goodman

    Shalom Rav and All,

    That which used to be the sole provenance of non orthodox synagogue membership is available for free, online or ala carte at far less cost. Other than for a life cycle event, or an occasional high holiday worship service, most non orthodox Jews couldn’t care less one way or another about a synagogue as a place that provides the opportunity for Jewish community, whatever that might mean.

    Other than political liberalism (a standing joke about Reform has been to say that its theology consisted of the Democratic Party platform with holidays thrown in), anti anti semitism and an accident of birth, there is no meaningful agreed upon articulation of non-orthodox Judaism. The non orthodox movements their synagogues and their Judasim will eventually go the way of the Catskills and the Jewish Deli, sadly for the same reason: irrelevance. The further away we get from the Eastern European immigrant experience, the more irrelevant Jewish ethno-cultural markers become for most Jews. Quite simply, nostalgia is insufficient as an engine for Jewish continuity.

    Clara Peller zl’ of “Wendy’s” fame had it right when she famously asked:

    Non Orthodox Judaism, its leadership and its institutions ought to be answering her question. For, “In the absence of vision, people will be unrestrained.” Mishlei (Proverbs) 29:18

    Where are the non-orthodox visionaries that will provide the necessary focus?

    The irony is not lost on me that a Pastrami sandwich from the slowly dying Jewish Deli:

    juxtaposed with Clara Peller’s question (which clearly, crisply, concisely and compellingly frames the non Orthodox status quo), represents a metaphor for what needs to be rediscovered in order to create a meaningful contemporary non Orthodox Judaism. Her last line “I don’t think there’s anyone back there,” is spot on. Based on measurable results, the status quo is broken and beyond repair, and visionary leadership toward a passion producing picture of a preferred future is nowhere to be found.

    Non orthodox Judaism (not to be confused with peoplehood/ethno-cultural Jewishness), must be re-envisioned, retooled, and re-engineered to become a relevant, practical, application oriented way of life that is consonant with the 21rst century reality that Jews find themselves a part of. Rabbis and other Jewish teachers must let prospective congregants know through bimah teaching, other educational efforts and experiential opportunities that indeed, they have walked or are walking in their prospects’ moccasins. They must give folks answers to the questions, “Why Judaism? Why be Jewish? Why do Jewish?”

    Then and only then can one even begin to think about an effective delivery system. Will this be the non orthodox synagogue? Who knows?



  6. A friend of mine grew up in an Orthodox Jewish family in Boston, and went to Jewish day schools until age 16, when she rebelled. She switched to a public high school and intended to have nothing further to do with religion – as far as she was concerned, all that was necessary was to be a good person. She married a non-Jew who was equally estranged from his family’s religion.

    She became a teacher, and later a principal. When she became a mother, her experience as a teacher and principal told her that children need a way to learn how to be a good person. She eventually found a Reform congregation; she celebrated as an adult bat mitzvah; her husband converted to Judaism.

    I suppose that this is personal meaning of a kind, but what I draw from it that if we solely emphasize community, we are doing people no real service. A religious community needs a purpose that is greater than mutual comfort and support. I think that many liberal rabbis are shortchanging their congregations in this respect. (I’ve written about this at <a href="; title="my own blog".)

    There is a church in Los Angeles that advertises on cable TV. The ad is very simple: the minister looks into the camera and says, "Our church is for people just like you. None of us is perfect, but we try to help one another lead better lives."

    I agree that meaning is the right track for us, but I'm cautious about "spirituality" if the meaning is only personal, that is, internal.

  7. Dear Dr. Hoffman,

    This is one dismal downer of a post.

    I think you’re not wrong about the crisis of Reform Judaism. But you can’t possibly mean it when you write that the fault can be traced back to Eastern European Jews’ indifference to religious belief, can you? Ostjuden were and are a people besotted with religious fervor. That the wonderbread peddled by Reform institutions fails to whet our palettes is hardly proof of our lack of appetite, right?

  8. A agree, without spirituality Judaism is just a social convenience, (The same is true for the churches). I have found throughout my life that going to Synagogue is ‘nice’, it’s ‘friendly and warm’, it has a place in encouraging good works. But spiritually it’s empty. No one seems to take real inner evolution seriously. I see it when I see that people take the bible as just an historical literal story, sort of a ‘Travels with Moishe”, interspersed with some weird moral lessons and kosher rules that no one takes seriously anyway. Actually, though, the Torah is a symbolic elucidation of the soul’s inner path ‘home’ to God (represented symbolically, not literally, by the journey back to Canaan). But it has to be read as an inner allegory, and this requires some effort to understand the genuine spirituality that lies hidden in the words. Without this, spiritual seekers will continue to look east, believing their own tradition is silly.

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