I've heard similar statements from congregants, colleagues and friends who feel that the movement has become too political, or that it cannot define itself except by political terms. Many of us, of course, have heard the old joke about Reform Judaism is that it's the Democratic National Committee with Rosh Hashanah thrown in. But some of the feedback I've gotten has been a lot more raw, a lot more insistent that any movement's politics and spiritual views ought to be separate and distinct somehow.
“The politics that the Reform movement engages in is disenfranchising a significant part of their own congregation,” Brooks said. “It is creating a false choice no one should have to make between their political views and their spiritual views.”
As I see it, there are two different arguments getting entangled here:
1. As a conservative, will I be welcome in a Reform Congregation?
This is a pretty serious question, and one that has gotten increasingly challenging in our time. It is harder and harder to speak to our differences in a way that is safe and nurturing. There are a number of reasons for that; the rise of abuse online (gaslighting, doxxing, general bullying, etc.), the exhausting, abusive nature of the presidential campaign and even the last several years. Smarter people than me have explored this pretty thoroughly, but it has translated into a near complete inability to hear the other side. As houses of worship, places of prayer and yes, sanctuary, this has to stop. If we take the text kol yisrael aravim ze ba ze, that all Israel is responsible for one another, that means taking each others' sacredness seriously.
2. Are Reform Judaism's values really spiritual or just politics? Or even worse, shallow spirituality?
I've heard this critique leveled at liberal religion for some time. And there are elements of truth to this (for example, a tendency to rely on the same prooftexts over and over again. Or worse, looking for prooftexts instead of allowing the text to teach on its own merit). I think it is interesting, however, that no one ever levels this critique on, say, the Catholic Church, or the Mormons. Somehow, their opposition to abortion is a deeply held spiritual belief based on an understanding of scripture; my support for a woman's right to make choices over her own body are not, but mere politics. The reality is this: Reform Judaism, and especially American Reform Judaism, has been social progressive since its earliest days. Whether you want to point to the rabbis who preached for the abolition of slavery (based on an understanding of the Bible), the prayers in the Union Prayer Book that celebrated the coal miner, the repeated hope for a messianic age that appears in every Platform put out by the movement, our believes are rooted in our understanding of Judaism. Because of the very nature of progressive values, these ideas are going to be controversial, they're going to make people uncomfortable (David Einhorn preached vociferously against slavery, and was run out on a rail from Baltimore as a result; Reform congregations in the south were firebombed on more than one occasion during the Civil Rights era). And, the movement may use political means (rallies, lobbying) to help realize those values. That doesn't make the movement political per se; we are still rooted in Torah. Our values till emerge from our understanding of text and tradition and history and what God calls upon us to do.
So where does that leave us? Well, I think it means a couple of things. One, that we need to make sure we are welcoming to every individual to the best of our ability. That we see the divine in each person and celebrate that spark of holiness. Two, it means that we need to be up front about our values as a movement and congregation. When a congregant asks me if I'm going to teach 'my opinions' to our religious school kids, I make it clear: I'm going to teach how Torah calls upon us to care for the stranger, to love our neighbor, to feed the hungry, to relieve suffering, to protect the vulnerable, and all the ways the text challenges us. Finally, we need to hold both of these in balance. We can do both; we can be uncompromising of our values as rabbis and congregations and also welcoming of different ideas and different people. That is part of our brit, our covenant, and we must live it. That doesn't mean it will be easy, or comfortable; quite the contrary, we may find ourselves challenged by our ancient texts or our fellow congregants. That's okay, as long as we remember that we still sing the shema with one voice, together.
Thomas Mann wrote that "in our time the destiny of man presents its meanings in political terms." Maybe so. As a rabbi and Reform Jew, I believe the challenge is to reshape the narrative and present the meanings of our shared destiny in religious terms, as it says in our prayerbook: l'taken olam b'malchut shaddai, to repair our world for God's sovereignty. May this be so.