Reform Judaism Promoting Politics?

By Inthemoment contributor Larry Kessner

A few years ago, not long after my daughter’s Bat Mitzvah, I was talking to a good friend who had attended the service at our large, Washington DC-area Reform temple. My friend, whose politics are similar to mine, was raised Baptist in South Carolina and educated at Princeton and Georgetown. He is funny, very well-informed and culturally aware (meaning discard any preconceived notions you may have about Southern Baptists) I asked him what he thought of the service, which was the first he had attended at a Reform synagogue.

“Interesting,” he said. “I half expected Ted Kennedy to march up there any minute. The sermon sounded like the Democratic Party platform. Is that what your religion is about?”

“Good question,” I responded.

In the current issue of Moment, several rabbis discuss the role of politics in the synagogue in “Ask The Rabbis (Does Politics Belong on the Bima?).” As in everything else, the responses vary widely by denomination, though several rabbis punted on the question by citing legal prohibitions (i.e. IRS regs) that prevent religious institutions from supporting or opposing a candidate or party.

Well, maybe so. But that doesn’t seem to stop the Reform movement, and the congregational culture of most metropolitan Reform temples, from promoting liberal politics tirelessly, though they are cloaked in the garb of “social action.” Reform Judaism’s liberal-advocacy wing, the Religious Action Center, publishes its issues on its website. On the many issues where the RAC takes a position, in every case it is, coincidentally, the position of the left wing of the Democratic party.

A generation ago, and perhaps still in some small towns and in the South, it was possible to find Reform rabbis and congregational leaders active in both the Republican and Democratic parties. In pronouncements on public policy, the Reform movement previously maintained some degree political neutrality. No longer. Reform Judaism’s RAC has encouraged the movement’s leaders to issue one resolution after another supporting liberal-Left positions on virtually every important political and social issue. It has opposed the war in Iraq and the nominations of Samuel Alito and John Roberts to the Supreme Court; sharply criticized the Christian Right; and strongly supported the left wing of the Democratic Party’s positions on gay marriage, affirmative action, and school vouchers.

Now, we have the further spectacle of “Rabbis for Obama,” a group of 300 predominantly but not exclusively Reform rabbis who have signed onto a statement that declares, among other things, that “…We join together to support Senator Obama for President.. in the belief that he will best support the issues important to us in the Jewish community.” The party line is that the signatory rabbis are acting as individuals, and not on behalf of their congregations—but to me, that’s a distinction without a difference.

I’m a Reform Jew, having come to the movement from a secular background, but not with the expectation of being force-fed Reform Judaism’s current political agenda. It’s unfortunate that there is not a comfortable place in the Reform movement—or perhaps anywhere in organized Judiasm outside of Orthodoxy—for those of us who would like our religion without a heavy dose of leftist politics.

3 responses to “Reform Judaism Promoting Politics?

  1. You are apparently missing the point. Judaism is not static, sit-by-idly-while everything burns up religion. Indeed, one of the biggest complaints by anti-Semites of yore was that Jews were not involved in power politics. And now that we are, who is it but Jews themselves who today are repeating the same thing as anti-Semites did, that is, before they had Israel and Zionism to beat up on. I would suggest to you that Reform Judaism, as well as certain elements of Orthodox Judaism (of which I am an adherent) are on board with Democratic and liberal politics because those very politics are Jewish ones at their core. You have an issue with Judaism, not liberal politics, I am afraid.

  2. Randy –
    I’m sure you would beg to differ, but conservative principles are perfectly compatible with Judaic principles as well – we just have different ideas about the best ways to achieve them. But my point was not whether Judaism is at its core “liberal” or “conservative” as those terms are understood in modern U.S. politics – it’s that we, as Jews, need to keep in mind that our tent is a big one. Oh, and try telling some of your les-than-modern Orthodox friends that Democratic and liberal politics are Jewish ones at their core. They might disagree.

  3. Larry – you are undoubtedly correct. I feel like a pinata at a 6 year old Mexican kid’s birthday when I open my mouth liberally in the crowd I seem to run with. Which is why I am glad that the Reform movement is where it is. There are too many people of the Jewish faith who think they have a monopoly on truth and thought, and that is scary for everyone under the tent.

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