I know that Glenn Beck is primarily an entertainer. I don’t think most people take him to be a scholar or expert on most important matters. He is a radio personality. He has a nice voice, a good shtick and a loyal following. Sure, I found his Nazi references ironic (see: Glenn Beck and PETA in Lockstep (Goose Step?) on International Holocaust Remembrance Day). But overall, I don’t care all that much what he has to say. In much the same way that I don’t care what more liberal entertainers have to say. It’s just entertainment.
But yesterday, Beck made another inane comment that made me realize something.
First, the context:
Beck is talking about the 400 rabbis who took out an ad to protest his Nazi references. His point has been that these rabbis are not really religious rabbis, they are social action rabbis who don’t care about religion. Instead they “worship” liberalism. So there is no reason to take them seriously.
Now here is the comment:
“When you talk about rabbis, understand that most — most people who are not Jewish don’t understand that there are the Orthodox rabbis, and then there are the reformed rabbis. Reformed rabbis are generally political in nature. It’s almost like Islam, radicalized Islam in a way, to where it is just — radicalized Islam is less about religion than it is about politics. When you look at the reform Judaism, it is more about politics.”
My only real commentary on this is that the when you make an analogy you can be as broad or as narrow as you want. You could analogize the Religious Right in the GOP to radicalized Islam too. Watch this: the Religious Right in the GOP is just like radical Islam, they want to enforce a religious law on all people. See what I did there? Anyway, the test of an analogy is to see if it makes sense in any other contexts. So, do radicalized Islam and the GOP share anything else? Not really. So it’s a dumb analogy.
Reform Rabbis and radicalized Islam share even less.
Oh and FYI, Orthodox Rabbis are also plenty about politics.
But here is what this whole thing got me thinking: Almost a couple hundred years ago, Reform Judaism was in its infancy and was gaining traction among the young Orthodox Jews in Germany. People were jumping off the orthodox bandwagon by the dozen. It presented a real problem for the future of Orthodox Judaism. In response, two general approaches were developed. The Chasam Sofer and Rav Samson Rafael Hirsch the leaders of each. They each tried as best they could to stem the tide of those abandoning Orthodox Judaism.
No matter their tactics, it turns out that today Reform Judaism and Orthodox Judaism have very little to do with each other. Further, the bandwagons have very few people jumping back and forth between them. For almost all Jews today, there is no conscious choice between Reform and Orthodox. Most stay where they are or leave organized religion entirely.
My point is that practically speaking, there is no longer a battle between Reform and Orthodox Judaism.
Yet, the rhetoric from both sides still sounds like it is 1860. Most Orthodox Jewish rabbis would probably agree with Beck that Reform Rabbis are not “real” rabbis. Orthodox Rabbis frequently confuse the word “Jew” with “orthodox” and basically call anyone not orthodox, not Jewish. I doubt we will see too many Orthodox Rabbis “defend the honor” of their reform counterparts.
(Similarly, I cannot recall hearing an Orthodox Rabbi being praised by a Reform Rabbi. It just doesn’t happen.)
I hereby offer my puny voice. I disagree with Beck. I think Reform Rabbis are learned, spiritual leaders and teachers who are important for the future of Judaism.
Really, even the most cynical of Orthodox Rabbis should agree with this. Why? Because if not for Reform Judaism, almost all secular Jews would completely lose their connection to Judaism. Isn’t it better, even from an orthodox perspective that Jews retain a Jewish identity? Marry other Jews? Contribute to the social welfare of the world? Come to shul on Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur? How about every Shabbos? Advocate for Israel? Isn’t Judaism as a whole stronger if there is a reform movement?
I think the answer is yes.
I will even take it a step further. Reform Judaism challenged Rav Hirsch and the Chasam Sofer to sharpen their hashkafos and approach to Judaism. Today Reform Judaism challenges us to fine tune our observance as well (within the construct of halacha of course). Without mentioning specifics, I think it is worth noting that Orthodox Judaism is being challenged by Reform Judaism in a good way. It’s a mild form of kinas sofrim (competition among scholars). That is also a good thing.
So in summary, I think Glenn Beck’s obtuse criticism of “Reformed Rabbis” is misguided. He probably thinks that all reform Jews are evil and not “really Jews” just like many Orthodox Jews. (Where would he get this from? Let’s just say there are some Orthodox Jews in his ear…) But I disagree. I salute Reform Judaism and its Rabbis. Although we may disagree about theology, we all desire for Judaism to remain strong and vibrant. Like many presumed enemies, we have much more in common than we may think and if the rhetoric is toned down, we may actually be able to work side by side (even if not hand in hand) towards our common goals.
Link: Media Matters
UPDATE: Beck apologized. Kind of.