As a leader of the Reform Movement, I spend much of my time fighting Jewish fundamentalists—ultra-Orthodox or haredi (God-fearing) Jews who oppose modernity, resist reason, and reject as inauthentic the progressive religious values I espouse.
Neither their fervor nor the apparent simplicity of their faith impresses me. In my view, faith involves a complicated and difficult battle to overcome doubt; faith that is not filled with struggle is not faith at all. Moreover, the devotion they accord their religious leaders often comes perilously close to replacing God worship with man worship.
On the other hand, I am impressed by the community-building and mutual caring I find in the haredi world. Their sense of religious obligation leads them to respond to those in their midst who are ill, in mourning, or have experienced a family tragedy. Rather than wait for the government or a social service agency to act, they have established their own institutions; and what they are unable to do is done by the extended family, by neighbors, or by the synagogue. Consequently, they have largely been shielded from the scourge of alienation pervading modern life that eats away at one’s spiritual wellbeing and sense of wholeness.
Of course, Reform Jews also embrace the needy in our midst, and our congregations are better than ever before at creating an organic sense of living community. Nevertheless, I am troubled by the stories that reach my desk of Reform Jews who sit home alone on Shabbat, who suffer in silence from a personal loss, or who feel isolated despite their synagogue affiliation.
Clearly, there are things we can learn from the ultra-Orthodox about being a more caring community.
But, then again, there is a great deal that they can learn from us—especially our insistence that caring, compassion, and justice must be extended beyond our own narrow group to all Jews, and to all humankind. Rashi, the great medieval biblical commentator, points out that before dispatching the spies to the Land of Canaan, Moses said: If the inhabitants of the land live in walled cities, it is proof that they are weak. If they live in open cities, they are strong.
Reform Jews do not retreat behind ghetto walls. Our differences with ultra-Orthodox Jewry are vast. Still, it is my hope that we and they can embrace the best of what “the other” has to offer.
Rabbi Eric H. Yoffie
President, Union for Reform Judaism
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