A few weeks back, the McGill Tribune’s ever-controversial columnist Ricky Kreitner wrote an article called “A sketch of my Jewish identity” (McGill Tribune, Opinion, October 10). I think it exemplified everything that’s wrong with modern understandings of the Jewish Reform movement. I’m not sure what’s more troubling: that this article was published despite including factually incorrect and derogatory assertions about a major religious denomination, or the fact that after it was printed, no one bothered to correct him. Maybe it’s just that no one reads the Tribune, or that no one reads weekly opinion columns in general (something I tell myself over and over each week as I tear up over my column’s empty email account). But a gross mischaracterization of a large religious denomination deserves a little bit of attention, if only in another column.
While I’m not a Reform Jew myself, I do think that religious ideologies should not be critiqued on the basis of the personal practices of a handful of individual adherents. Kreitner writes that “Reform Judaism essentially reduces religious observance to thrice yearly family gatherings in vague recognition of what ancestors considered major holidays.” Bullshit. Since Kreitner’s only evidence for this claim is his family’s practice, the strongest assertion he could make is “The Kreitner family essentially reduced religious observance to thrice yearly family gatherings in vague recognition of what ancestors considered major holidays.” As it happens, the movement called Reform Judaism encourages religious observance to saturate the daily lives of its members on a number of levels. At the very least, the architects of the Reform movement expect weekly attendance at Sabbath services, which equals at least 52 times a year, to be precise.
But more to the point, Reform Judaism is not about “family gatherings” intended to vaguely “imitate” the authentic, ancestral versions of Jewish holidays. Instead, it aims to preserve those rituals that remain meaningful to its members in light of modern social and ethical standards. “Ancestral traditions” are specifically reimagined in the Reform movement so that the core ideas of the movement – the principles found in the Torah, the Jewish people’s particular religious and historical experience – can speak to modern adherents in ways that are fresh and meaningful. This is why the Reform movement dropped the requirements for things like Jewish dietary laws or the unequal treatment of women, while insisting upon maintaining principles of ethical monotheism.
Kreitner claims he knows of no one for whom the experience of being called to the Torah to become a bar or bat mitzvah was anything more than a scheme to extort money from friends and family members. He concludes that “the realization that nobody really cared led me to consider the whole Judaic enterprise mere pomp and circumstance, and believers of any faith delusional and usually hypocritical.”
While it’s disheartening to learn that Kreitner had such shallow friends, his experience is not to be generalized, and his conclusions are both harmful and unfounded. At a Reform bar or bat mitzvah, a child is for the first time given the explicit privilege and responsibility of leading a meaningful Jewish existence: they take on the duty of leading ethical lives in accord with the principles of their faith, incorporating mitzvoth into their daily lives, and taking on certain ritual requirements. Through direct engagement with rabbinic authorities, family members, and traditional Jewish texts, this can be an incredibly meaningful experience founded on neither delusion nor pomp.
At the heart of Reform Judaism is the belief that an individual may choose to take on an attachment to those Jewish rituals and ceremonies that they find significant or relevant to them. If Kreitner and his friends embraced a few rituals for the sake of money or approval, the problem isn’t with Reform Judaism – it’s with their own appropriation of it. I’d like to think they’re not emblematic of the movement as a whole.
Riva Gold’s work appears every Monday. Don’t trivialize her religion at firstname.lastname@example.org.