The Union for Reform Judaism has lost its way

In an article in the Wall Street Journal, Lawrence Kaplan writes, “The Union for Reform Judaism stands for many causes. It’s no longer so clear that Jews count among them.”

The Union for Reform Judaism, which represents the largest branch of organized Judaism in the United States, constitutes the extreme left of American political thought and of American Jews. The concern of the Union is no longer “what is best for the Jews,” but what is best for the cause of American political liberalism.


Judging by the Union’s vocal opposition to the war, the problem, if anything, appears to be the reverse: What is “good for the Jews” seems to concern the organization less than what is good for American liberalism. A premature withdrawal from Iraq would be devastating to the cause of the Jewish state. That observation does not reflect the motives for having gone to war, but simply the outcome of abandoning a fellow democracy without condition and regardless of consequence — and the obvious consequence would be Iraq’s transformation into a den of terror. None of this seems to have made an impression on the reform Jewish organization.

The Union, which “came to these views based on Jewish teachings on war” and likens itself to “the rabbis of the Talmud,” has no claim to heightened moral awareness. Not only because it twists the words of those very rabbis (as with any religious text, the Talmud offers ammunition to multiple points of view, invoked to defend everything from Israel’s invasion of Lebanon to the “axis of evil” formulation). And not only because the Union’s intrusion into the public square comes from an organization that claims to be in the midst of an “ongoing defense of the wall of separation between church and state.” No, the real problem is that the Union grounds its arguments squarely in the traditions of secular humanism, and then purposefully conflates them with the traditions of religious Judaism.

True, the worldly admonition tikkun olam — repair the world — is one of Judaism’s signatures. But the Union isn’t about repairing the world. Is it really necessary, after all, to point out that its insistence on a U.S. withdrawal does nothing to further the Union’s call to “support the democratically elected Iraqi government”? Or that the “international community” that it invokes at every turn would sooner the Union’s members no longer existed? Or that the biblical injunction to “not stand idly by the blood of your neighbor,” one among many kernels of Jewish law the Union ostentatiously cites in defense of its Iraq position, means not abandoning Iraq to its fate?

Apparently so, because for all its confusions, the Union really does amount to an authentic expression of the political inclinations that define American Judaism today. As evinced by the Union’s position on Iraq, those inclinations defy easy logic. The American Jewish community’s attachment to the political left goes beyond obstinacy — to the point of running counter to the very requirements of that same community. Hence, when asked to choose between the security of Jews, on the one hand, and clichés about social equality and inadequate domestic expenditures, on the other, Reform Jewish leaders have put what they presume to be the secular equivalent to Judaism above the interests of Judaism itself. The Union for Reform Judaism stands for many causes. It’s no longer so clear that Jews count among them.

The Union for Reform Judaism has departed from its Jewish roots.