Religious Coercion, Reform Style
Religious Coercion, Reform Style

By Steven Plaut

The political interference by the rabbis is getting more and more unbearable. The attempt to impose their opinions and lifestyles upon us, regardless of the preferences of the majority of their fellow citizens, is outrageous. They are intolerant, increasingly fundamentalist, arrogant, anti-democratic and coercive.

I refer, of course, to the Reform rabbis of America.

I should state here that I do not criticize the Reform movement because of the level of observance of Jewish ritual and tradition of its members. I do not consider it my business or right to tell other Jews how much ritual and tradition they should be observing or not observing in their private lives. I have no problem with those who wish to choose non-observant or secularist lifestyles. I acknowledge the right of Reform Jews to live as they please. I am all in favor of religious pluralism.

I should also state up front that the Reform synagogue movement contains quite a few thoughtful and intelligent leaders and members. I believe that individual Reform Jewish leaders collectively share the blame for only one thing - allowing the Reform movement to be hijacked by leftist extremists and not doing more to stop them.

Let me also point out that I am hardly uncritical of Orthodox rabbis, especially here in Israel, when they engage in political partisanship, misbehavior, or general silliness. I have no problem with those promoting religious pluralism in Israel or anywhere else.

The only problem is that the same Reform leaders who are so enthusiastic about religious pluralism have made it clear that political pluralism has no room in the their own movement.

Yes, like the tired plot of a late-night science fiction movie, the Reform movement has been taken over - by those who believe religion and liberal social activism are synonyms. While not every rabbi or every member of the Reform movement has been recruited into the Political Liberalism as Judaism school, enough have, and that school's philosophy dominates the pronouncements by the official institutions of the movement as a whole.

This is the philosophy also known as Tikkun Olam Paganism, due to its compulsive misuse of the notion of "tikkun olam" by holding that all of Judaism can be reduced to the agenda of politically correct liberalism.

It is a form of political fundamentalism, impervious to challenge. It believes that the best chances of survival for the eternal and timeless religion of Judaism are through repackaging it so that it can appeal to college students in Berkeley, drag queens in Provincetown, and actors in Hollywood.

The "Political Liberalism as Judaism" pseudo-religion dominates the main institutions of the Reform synagogue movement, including its Central Council of American Rabbis (CCAR), which regularly claims to represent 1.5 million Jews and 900 congregations in the U.S. and Canada.

And of course the leftist SWAT team for the Reform movement is the Religious Action Center (RAC) based in Washington, whose "religious action" rarely has anything to do with Jewish religion.

The RAC has been under the leadership of David Saperstein for almost as long as Libya has been under the personal rule of Moammar Khaddafi. Saperstein, who is a Reform rabbi and an attorney, is also active in such outfits as People For the American Way, set up by the television producer Norman Lear to save the world from Republicans.

The RAC and the CCAR regularly compose and approve political fatwas, the collection of which is online and virtually identical in content with the platform of the furthest-left wing of the Democrat Party. These cover everything from "globalization" (they essentially oppose it) to "animal rights" (they want Jews to be vegetarians).

Homosexuality has a special interest for them, bordering on a fixation. Saperstein recently expressed shock when Boston's Rabbi Chaim Schwartz, writing in the Boston Globe, compared homosexual relations with bestiality. In Sapersteins words: "That a rabbi would... demean the committed and loving relationships that many people share, is not only irresponsible and hurtful, but wrong."

Only one little problem here. The Torah itself explicitly compares homosexual relations with bestiality and in fact declares both to be capital offenses. Maybe Saperstein should actually try reading the Torah. Maybe the RAC should actually base some of its "religious action" on the Jewish religion. Does the RAC regard the Torah itself as "irresponsible and hurtful and wrong?"

A few years back, the Passover cause celebre of the Reform establishment was Tibet, with Tibetan officials invited to Passover seders and Jews urged to hold Tibetan "freedom seders" to show solidarity. The eleventh commandment handed down by Moses is, in their opinion, "Thou Shalt be Trendy!"

The RAC is so radical it has motivated many an observer, just a bit unfairly, in my opinion, to question whether Reform Judaism should even be regarded as a branch of Judaism, rather than a form of leftist political agitprop, little more than a sister organization of Tikkun, A.N.S.W.E.R. and MOVE ON.

But the Reform establishment goes beyond PC goofiness. In recent years it has been increasingly hostile to Israel and attempts by Israel to defend itself. The CCAR is on record supporting Palestinian statehood, eviction of Jewish settlers, and a return by Israel to more or less its 1949 borders.

The CCAR and RAC recently launched an attack against Israels attempts to defend its children from terrorists by constructing a "security wall". The CCAR actually condemned Israel for this in a resolution passed at its annual meeting. It has also denounced Israel for demolishing homes of terrorists. It has openly endorsed the leftist-extremist Israeli splinter group "Rabbis for Human Rights" (which might more properly be named "Rabbi for Human Rights"). The resolution and other recent statements by RAC have been exercises in "even-handedness", that is, balanced condemnation of both Palestinian terror and Israeli attempts to defend its citizens from that terror.

The Reform establishment, few of whose leading lights live in Israel, has in recent years canceled youth trip after youth trip to the Jewish state, does not like Israels "security wall" because it makes Palestinians unhappy, and in general counsels Israel against using arms if there's any possibility that Palestinian civilians might be injured. Since no one has ever fought a war in which only uniformed fighters get hurt, and since Palestinian terrorists hide among civilians and never wear uniforms, this counsel amounts to an insistence that Israel not fight terror at all.

The RAC is more worried about inconveniencing the Palestinians with a security wall than it is about the rights of Jewish children to ride buses in Beer Sheba without being blown up. It is often more critical of the Boy Scouts for not hiring gay scout leaders than it is of the Palestinian Authority.

Adopting a balanced condemnation of both the Palestinians and Israel is about as morally high-minded, principled and courageous in 2004 as would have been a balanced condemnation of both Nazi Germany and the armies and partisans fighting against it in 1943. After all, the anti-German forces sometimes mistreated innocent Germans, were insensitive toward homosexuals, and even ate meat.

The Jerusalem Post recently attacked the armchair peaceniks in the CCAR and their "even-handed" anti-Israel propagandizing, accusing them of hypocritical moral grandstanding. Saperstein himself took time off from demonizing the Boy Scouts and fighting for the promotion of lesbian Reform rabbis to respond to the Post. He insisted, predictably, that Reform leaders in the U.S. have as much right to voice their views on Israeli security and issues of war and peace as do Israel's own leftists.

Actually, U.S. Reform leaders have no such right. If Saperstein and his comrades wish to promote their agenda, let them make aliyah, pay Israeli taxes, serve in the army, and suffer on their own persons the consequences of leftist folly, just like Israel's home-grown leftists.

But even then, while they'd have the right to promote their agenda, they wouldn't have the right to misrepresent leftist political extremism as Judaism.

No less outrageous are the efforts of Reform rabbis who attempt to impose their liberal political theology not only on fellow American Jews, but on the U.S. as a whole. While whining about supposed Orthodox religious coercion in Israel, the Reform establishment today embodies the worst forms of Jewish religious coercion on earth, with the religion in question being liberal politics and liberation theology.

The Reform establishment has adopted the entire agenda of the American Left, down to and including bashing Israel for daring to defend itself. It is barely distinct politically from the sages of the Tikkun-Renewal cult of Michael Lerner and Arthur Waskow. It is becoming so extreme that it increasingly resembles the old anti-Israel Reform break-off group the American Council for Judaism.

The Reform establishment opposes school choice for Jews; supports every wacky idea to emerge from the most extreme environmentalist movements; and endorses affirmative action programs even if they discriminate against Jews. The number-one item on its agenda these days is gay marriage. David Saperstein's comments opposing welfare reform were so outrageous that a few years back they were cited with approval by the American Communist Party newspaper.

The Reform establishment blocks school vouchers by trotting out the old bogeyman of religious coercion, while at the same time its modus operandi is religious coercion of the liberal variety. It has no patience for policy trade-offs nor nuanced policy analysis, no time for subtle cost-benefit evaluation, and refuses even to acknowledge that there are trade-offs involved in real-life policy decisions. It prefers empty moral posturing and liberal recreational compassion combined with ignorance about markets and social science.

The Reform establishment supports partial-birth abortion of innocent babies but vehemently opposes execution of convicted murderers and terrorists. The Reform movement in Israel has led the local "anti-globalization" hooligans seeking to make the world safe for Marxism. The U.S. Reform movement has conscripted itself on behalf of Lori Berenson, jailed in Peru for her involvement with a murderous group of leftist terrorists.

I have a serious question for David Saperstein and the Reform establishment (and for certain parts of the Conservative synagogue movement as well). I am not being facetious:

In your considered opinions, are Michael Moore, Ted Kennedy, Ralph Nader and Dennis Kucinich Jewish?

I am quite serious. If being Jewish constitutes nothing more than liberal political activism, why are these people not to be regarded as Jews? It can't be because Reform doctrine holds that in order to be an authentic Jew one must eat kosher and keep the Sabbath. We know, after all, that these are hardly universal practices among Reform Jews.

And it can't be because Reform Judaism insists that authentic Jews base their politics and belief system on the Bible. Where in Jewish scripture do we find acceptance, much less endorsement, of homosexuality, Palestinian statehood on the West Bank, and abortion on demand? (Besides which, many of the Reform leaders I have met know less of the Bible than your average Mormon schoolboy.)

Seriously, if Judaism is basically just an ethnic version of sanctimonious liberal agitprop, why can't Moore, Kennedy, Kucinich or Nader be considered Jewish? And if a Jewish liberal marries a non-Jewish liberal, why should anyone consider that an intermarriage? After all, they have exactly the same religion!

As for religious coercion by the Orthodox in Israel - that's little more than an urban legend. There is virtually no religious coercion in Israel. True, the politicized religious parties once forced the cinemas closed on Sabbath, but today every Israeli owns DVDs. True, the Orthodox politicos once forced the buses to stop running on Sabbath, but these days everyone has a car.

I would venture to say that almost no secularist Israeli is ever forced to observe any religious ritual against his or her will. And other than some minor difficulties for those wishing to have a "civil wedding", which is quite possible today in Israel, no secularist in Israel has to have any contact whatsoever with Orthodox institutions if he or she prefers not to.

The religious parties and their members are not the ones responsible for Israel's self-destructive policies, for the deepening national demoralization, for the carnage heaped upon the country in the wake of liberal peace schemes. The secularists deserve the lion's share of the blame, though the religious parties certainly have displayed plenty of cowardice in not attempting to stop all that. (One wag famously suggested that if the Israeli government ever decided to turn over the Golan Heights to Syria, the National Religious Party's main concern would be that the eviction of the "settlers" there not take place on the Sabbath.)

Contrast the extremely limited nature of religious coercion by Orthodox parties in Israel with political interference and pressure on the part of the Reform movement in the U.S. In an era when true believers in fundamentalist liberalism are an endangered species outside of Hollywood and parts of Manhattan and Massachusetts, the Reform establishment lobbies in the name of Judaism and biblical ethics to impose its leftist political biases on all Jews and, indeed, on the entire United States. It seeks to hijack Judaism, Jewish holidays and Jewish ethical authority on behalf of any given week's leftish fads and fancies.

The time has come to get these rabbis and other Reform leaders out of our bedrooms, out of our politics, and back to their proper roles.

It is time to introduce some political pluralism into the Reform movement itself. It is time to stop CCAR-RAC from hijacking the moral authority of Judaism for its campaign on behalf of pseudo-Jewish liberal fundamentalism.


Steven Plaut is a professor at Haifa University. His book "The Scout" is available at He can be contacted at

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