Fein & Cohen to Yoffie: Let Secular Jews Be Secular


Responding a HuffPo column by Rabbi Eric Yoffie (former President of the Union for Reform Judaism) entitled "The Self-Delusions of Secular Jews", Leonard Fein and BJPA Director Steven M. Cohen pen a defense of secular/cultural Judaism, also in the Huffington Post. Excerpts:

Secular Jews, Yoffie claims, regard themselves as "people of reason and not of faith, as champions of modernity rather than slaves to some concept of God or other outmoded patterns of belief." They seek to "throw off the oppressive power of the past."... Yoffie's description of so-called secular Jews rather closely mirrors the tradition of Reform Judaism....

True, some cultural or secular Jews can be dismissive of faith, if by faith we mean God-oriented belief. But nothing prevents honorable people from adhering to a faith pointed in other directions. One may, for example, have faith in the improvability of humankind, or in progress as the underlying cadence of the universe...

In our experience, secular Judaism is very far from withering, much less dying. Quite the contrary: A large number of Jews find Jewish identification and involvement in an entirely comfortable mode even if it is, in their view, more cultural than religious. Indeed, asked about how they define themselves in a national survey of American Jews sponsored by the Workmen's Circle and conducted by Steven M. Cohen and Samuel Abrams, just 13 percent checked "to a great extent" when asked whether they were religious Jews. By contrast, slightly more - 16 percent -- called themselves secular Jews, and a hefty 36 percent saw themselves as cultural Jews...

Yoffie wants us to believe that "values such as social justice, hospitality and mentschlichkeit (decency) ... are grounded in the sacred texts of Jewish religious tradition and ... have endured solely because of the authority that the religious tradition imposes." He does not recognize that by now these values have momentum on their own, that their derivation may be interesting to historians and theologians, but are of very little interest to their practitioners, including the thousands of Jewish social activists who champion the social and economic justice causes of labor, civil rights, peace, freedom, human rights, feminism and, most recently, environmentalism.

Yoffie complains that these allegedly faithless secular Jews continue to assemble in synagogues and to undertake acts of family life and communal celebration that are either explicitly religious or that radiate with the power of deep faith. Indeed, he may be drawing upon his familiarity with his own Reform movement. In the same survey we find that of those identifying as Reform, just 6 percent (6 percent!) see themselves as religious Jews "to a great extent." Among the same Reform Jews three times as many (18 percent) see themselves as secular, and nearly seven times as many (41 percent) call themselves cultural Jews.

The self-ascribed definitions as religious, cultural and secular blend into one another. Most who see themselves as at least somewhat religious also see themselves as equally cultural. In fact, about 40 percent of all American Jews call themselves both at least somewhat religious and at least somewhat cultural. These blurry and fuzzy patterns stand in stark contrast with Yoffie's binary view of the world, one which sharply divides the faithful from the faithless...

One wonders if Yoffie has taken to relating to cultural and secular Jews the way Orthodox Jews have often related to Reform, asserting a claim to authentic Torah-true Judaism and dismissing the distinctive virtues of the stubbornly ignorant and resistant others. Just as some Orthodox leaders can't let Reform Jews be Reform, Rabbi Yoffie can't let cultural Jews be cultural.

Yoffie wants to make claims about Judaism's authentic roots. We prefer to give primacy to Judaism's wonderfully varied branches. One of those branches is Reform Judaism, Yoffie's obvious favorite; but just as assuredly, another is secular or cultural Judaism. And it is a great pity that Yoffie cannot being himself to acknowledge the authenticity of that sensibility, much less its transcendent (shall we say, religious?) quality. And it is an even greater pity, if not irony, that one of the most articulate and compelling advocates of religious pluralism cannot bring himself to celebrate the virtues and distinctiveness embodied in pluralistic cultural and secular approaches to being Jewish not only in America, but in Israel and the world as well.

 Read the entire piece here.

BJPA publications by Leonard Fein.

BJPA publications by Steven M. Cohen

BJPA publications by Eric Yoffie

URJ Names New President: Rabbi Richard Jacobs

The Union for Reform Judaism has just announced that it will name Rabbi Richard Jacobs as its incoming President. Rabbi Jacobs has been the senior rabbi of Westchester Reform Temple in Scarsdale, New York since 1991, and serves on the boards of UJA-Federation of New York, American Jewish World Service, and Synagogue 3000.

A number of sermons and other publications by Rabbi Jacobs are available on the Berman Jewish Policy Archive @ NYU Wagner:

Synagogues and Federations: From Rivals to Partners (2010)

God's Favorite: Rosh Hashanah 5771 

Standing Together for Israel: Yom Kippur 5771 (2010)

Remarks at the Jewish Rally in Support of the Cordoba House Islamic Center (2010)

Mashber: Yom Kippur 5770 (2009)

A Walk in Your Shoes: Rosh Hashanah 5770 (2009)

Nishma (2009)

Chag V'Chesed: Sukkot 5768 (2007)

And You Shall Be A Blessing: Sermon for Baccalaureate Service (2002)

Click here to explore other publications relating to the Reform movement.

UPDATE: The New York Times coverage of this story quotes BJPA Director Steven M. Cohen:

“He’s the most widely respected senior congregational rabbi in the Reform movement,” said Steven M. Cohen, a sociologist of American Jewry at Hebrew Union College - Jewish Institute of Religion, in New York, a Reform affiliate. “His last two predecessors did not come directly from senior congregational roles, suggesting that the movement is concerned about delivering change, value and transformation to Reform congregations.”

Steven M. Cohen on the HUC-JIR Rabbinical Student Year in J'lem

A post from BJPA Director Steven M. Cohen:

A recent (and very admirable) JTA article by Sue Fishkoff on the strengthening of Reform Judaism in Israel contains a rather peculiar observation by an anonymous individual, as follows:

“One World Union for Progressive Judaism leader, who spoke anonymously, suggested that the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion rabbinical program is partly to blame for its policy of sending first-year students to Jerusalem where they “live in an American ghetto,” and return home convinced that Israel is hostile to Reform Judaism.”

I am a part-time resident of Jerusalem, a member of the HUC-JIR faculty, a life-long Zionist, and hold dual citizenship, and am as concerned as anyone with the attachment of young Jews to Israel. From my perspective, it is positively loony (i.e., meshuggeh) to think that having first-year rabbinical students spend a year in Jerusalem -- where the 25-acre HUC-JIR campus is located -- is somehow responsible for convincing students that "Israel is hostile to Reform Judaism." Had they only spent the year, instead of Jerusalem, in, say, Afula, or on Shenkin Street, or the beaches of Eilat!

A very long literature on the impact of travel to Israel demonstrates two effects with respect to Israel. One is that people grow more attached to Israel (see “Beyond Distancing,” by Steven M. Cohen and Ari Y. Kelman, or “Still Connected,” by Charles Kadushin, et al). The other is that they learn to be more critical of Israelis as individuals and of Israel as a society. In other words, they come to resemble Israelis, developing an unromanticized and non-idealized portrait of Israeli life (for an evidence of these trends as early as 1983 , see Survey of American Jews and Communal Leaders).

Steven M. Cohen

Steven M. Cohen: U.S. Reform Jews Accept Patrilineal Descent

A letter to the editor from BJPA Director Steven M. Cohen recently appeared on the JTA:

To the Editor:

Sue Fishkoff correctly reports that Reform leadership around the world has refrained from adopting patrilineal descent. However, Reform people (at least in the U.S.) have widely done so. As early as 1988, reporting on results from an AJC-sponsored survey of American Jews, I reported on the results to this question:

Traditionally, membership in the Jewish faith was transmitted through the mother. Now, Reform rabbis say that someone who identifies as a Jew, but whose mother was a non-Jew and whose father was Jewish, is to be considered Jewish. Orthodox and Conservative rabbis would require such a person to convert. Do you accept the Reform rabbis' definition of a Jew?


About three in five (60 percent) said yes, less than half as many (29 percent) rejected the Reform definition, and the remaining 12 percent were uncertain. Thus, by a two-to-one margin, the sample favored patrilineality.

The entire report can be read at the Berman Jewish Policy Archive @ NYU Wagner.

Steven M. Cohen
New York, NY


What happened to Rabbi Solomon Freehof?

(This blog entry expands on one of the pieces noted in our November newsletter on LGBT issues in the American Jewish community. Don't miss it!)

In 1973, Rabbi Solomon B. Freehof wrote a responsum on the permissibility of Gay and Lesbian synagogues for the Reform movement. His position must have been at least somewhat unsurprising at the time, but looking back makes it clear how far the Reform movement has come in the last forty years:

 To sum up: Homosexuality is deemed in Jewish tradition to be a sin--not only in law, but in Jewish life practice. Nevertheless, it would be in direct contradiction to Jewish law to keep sinners out of the congregation. To isolate them into a separate congregation and thus increase their mutual availability is certainly wrong. It is hardly worth mentioning that to officiate at a so-called "marriage" of two homosexuals and to describe their mode of life as "Kiddushin" (i.e., sacred in Judaism) is a contravention of all that is respected in Jewish life.

Rabbi Freehof was born in 1892 and must have been about 81 years old when he wrote those words. By then, he'd already served as president of the Central Conference of American Rabbis and the World Union for Progressive Judaism. He was also a congregational Rabbi in Pittsburgh for more than thirty-five years. He lived until he was 97.

In 1990, the year he died, the Reform movement issued Report of the CCAR Ad Hoc Committee on Homosexuality and the Rabbinate. By then, the movement had issued resolution recognizing the Human Rights of Homosexuals, Hebrew Union College officially admitted out Gay and Lesbian students, and there was support in the Reform rabbinate, albeit minority support, for religious gay marriage.

I wonder what he would have thought, if he had made it to 120, of where the Reform movement is today.

"Rabbi Freehof's positions on other issues are significantly more liberal. He supported women wearing a prayer shawl, for example, in part because "in our Reform movement . . . special emphasis is placed on the equality of men and women," and permitted gentiles who wished to to wear a prayer shawl in synagogue "for the sake of peace." This year, the Freehof Institute for Progressive Halacha, founded in 1989, is holding its annual symposium on the subject of bioethics."