Letters / On “Reform Judaism Needs an Identity Beyond Israel”

While Rabbi David Regenspan is right that Reform Judaism must rethink its relationship to Israel, he neglects to consider how the early, anti-Zionist phase of the movement was no less caught up in the destructive logic of nationalism. It’s true, as he writes, that 19th-century American Reform leaders defined Judaism as religious, renouncing Jewish national aspirations. But they did so partly to make themselves better, more compliant citizens of the nation-state to which they newly “belonged.” A wealth of recent scholarship on American secularism—by Tracy Fassenden, Peter Coviello, John Lardas Modern, and others—has demonstrated how the modernizing of religion in 19th-century America was deeply entangled with the dispossession of Native peoples, imperial state-making, and the maintenance of racial hierarchies. Thus, the Pittsburgh Platform of 1885 simply chose an existing settler-colonial state over the fantasy of another.

Regenspan’s call to reimagine “what a new Reform ideology and spirituality might look like” is admirable. But rather than ponder “the question of how Judaism might take shape in the modern age,” the movement should instead ask what in our age Judaism is prepared to challenge. It might take a cue from Rabbi Arnold Jacob Wolf (ztz”‘l), a great 20th-century Reform leader, who championed the Torah’s divine moral law as an inflexible, universalist bulwark against modern, chauvinist nationalism. Relatedly, Regenspan might reconsider his contempt for what he calls “fundamentalism”—a term that is reminiscent of the Islamophobic War on Terror, but is of little use to emancipatory politics—and ask how the very modernization project he celebrates paved the way for a religious movement subordinated to the nation-state.

Raffi Magarik
Chicago, IL

The letter writer is a contributing writer to this magazine.