On Classical Reform Judaism and its aftermath
I will be blunt. It’s a tragedy. In Rabbinic seminaries, the #metoo movement is exploding all around the world. Former students of the Orthodox flagship, Yeshiva University, have recently revealed how they have been molested by prominent Rabbis since the 1960s. Sex offenders had been allowed to continue teaching in major Conservative/Masorti learning institutions. The Hebrew Union College, where American Reform Rabbis train, is going through a painful process after uncovering decades of abuses and complicities.
And now, Germany. Last week, a German newspaper reported molestations at Abraham Geiger College in Berlin by the principal, Rabbi Walther Homolka, and his husband. There is more. There is what the media now call the “Homolka’s method”: an “atmosphere of fear” at that Rabbinical College. Without the principal’s goodwill, no one in the German-speaking world can become a non-Orthodox Rabbi. With the help of his foundations and institutions, that man can distribute posts, make and ruin careers, and destroy lives.
This is to be the most painful news. Because I know the victims, and I did not realise that they were victims. During my year of studies in Jerusalem, the students of the Abraham Geiger College were part of our circle of friends. They supported Sara and me in our journey toward parenthood; we explored various synagogues and minhagim in Jerusalem; we spent countless Shabbat dinners together… And now I learn that they have been molested, silenced, intimidated.
The atmosphere of fear, the aura of terror around the College’s principal .. that also was there.
Now I understand. The sudden changes of the topic during the conversations, for example. These were hints. If only I had been able to grasp the whole picture. Now I understand why so many of those warm fellows have become emotionally cold and cynical even once they moved to Berlin. Now I understand why teachers were suddenly moved from one place to another. Now I understand the abrupt interruption of some of the most brilliant studies. Yes, that also happened.
An institution which was meant to rebuild Jewish life in Germany has become the reason why Jews have left Judaism.
How ironic. How bitter. How sad.
But none of this should come as a surprise. Not to us, not here. My predecessor on this pulpit, Rabbi Ernst Stein, z’’l served in Berlin for 14 years. He left Germany in 1994 after having denounced how the big machers of the community lacked interest in Judaism and even lacked basic Jewish morality.
The autobiography of Rabbi Stein, which I hope I will see in print one day, is so full of depressive episodes from his time in Berlin. He sadly notes how people think that money and connection can buy everything in contemporary Germany.
Rabbi Stein was a giant of compassion and morality. He tried hard to empathise with a community composed mainly of Holocaust survivors. But the Homolka generation, and of his husband, and those who benefitted from the system, is a younger generation. There are no excuses for the lack of morality of those who surrounded Walter Homolka. If they kept silent, it is because they benefitted from the system.
There are a few things I am proud of in my life. One of which is that I have never accepted any invitation to work, publish, or study with Walther Homolka or under his supervision.
I don’t know how many Rabbis can say the same: the libraries’ catalogues and reference books will provide the answer.
You’ll never find my name next to Walter Homolka’s. Not that I knew about his lack of morality. I wish I did, but that’s another story.
It’s just that I never trusted Homolka as a Zionist. No matter how many Israeli politicians took advantage of photo opportunities with “the Rabbi who is rebuilding Judaism in Germany”. And it should be said that almost all of the Israeli politicians in these photos are of the “let’s make peace soon with the Palestinians” kind of persuasion.
My main problem with Walther Homolka was his open flirtation with Classical Reform Judaism.
Classical Reform Judaism is the movement started by German-born Rabbis in XIX century America, according to which Judaism was “ethical monotheism”. To them, ritual laws were a thing of the past. This was, by the way, the intellectual environment from which American Progressivism and its prominent institutions were born, first of all, The New York Times. Judaism professed in that world was faith in social progress and advancement of humanity. In modern parlance: Tikkun Olam
And what about the Halacha, Jewish religious law? Kashrut? Tallet and tefillin? These were things of the past. Theirs was “Prophetic Judaism”, moral principles, instead of the “ritualistic Judaism”, the Jewish tradition.
And what about peoplehood?
Were Jews a people for these 19th Century Progressive Rabbis? Of course not! Jews ought to be “a light unto the nations”, loyal citizens of the countries they live in. As such, they must support all possible progressive causes. Antisemitism will disappear because society will progress towards universal peace.
I believe that an intellectual movement that replaced faith in God with a faith in human progress and promised that antisemitism would disappear once Jews have left Halacha is, at best, stuff for museums.
Classical Reform Judaism had its place in intellectual history before the World Wars and the Holocaust. In 2022 this belief is pathetic.
For six millions of very good reasons.
But this kind of disembodied Judaism, without Halacha, without Emunah (faith in God) without peoplehood, periodically resurfaces. Someone on the Left at times embraces the denial of Jewish peoplehood.
Because if we Jews are not a people, why do we need a state like Israel? Get rid of Jewish peoplehood, and Jeremy Corbyn is there to welcome us with his promises of socialism. These ideas have indeed been around some years ago in the UK. They have now returned to the fringes.
In Germany, Walther Homolka, from the Abraham Geiger College, has led the rediscovery of Classical Reform Judaism.
Abraham Geiger College was supposed to be the intellectual stronghold of “Prophetic Judaism”. And it turned out to be a school where the principal’s husband sent the students unsolicited photos of his genitalia. At Abraham Geiger College, being Jewish was understood as having a moral mission, to be “a light unto the nations”. And the person who taught this was a man who destroyed the careers of those who refused to submit to his sexual proclivities.
It was there, in Postdam, that students learned that Judaism was “Ethical monotheism” and Zionism a kind of provincial heresy.
Because why do you need to pray turned toward Jerusalem when you can run a Department of Jewish Studies at a German University.
By the way, in 2012, during a wave of antisemitic attacks in Berlin, the students of Abraham Geiger College were forbidden to be “recognisably Jewish” (that is, to wear the kippah) in unspecified “dangerous places”. For their own safety, of course. Forced to keep your Judaism into hiding, In Germany. Is that “ethical monotheism”?
This is why I always kept far from Homolka and his cenacle. Because I believe in Jewish peoplehood, because I am proud of being Jewish and because I made my mission to teach the pride of belonging to the Jewish people.
Unsurprisingly, people from the Homolka’s circle call me a racist.
I’m proud of the terrible relations I have with people who kept silent in front of abuses committed by the husband of the principal of a Rabbinical college.
Yes, I know: there are sexual molesters everywhere. Indeed I opened this sermon mentioning painful cases across the board, from Orthodox to Reform. These are only the tips of the iceberg. The system is rotten everywhere. No week passes without horrible news from this or that Chareidi group, Orthodox school, or non-Orthodox Summer camp. Harassments take place everywhere.
But suppose you build an institution -or more than one- on the assumption that Judaism is a moral mission rather than the faith of a not-so-perfect people. In that case, this is staggering hypocrisy, which everybody can see. Abuses committed in a Jewish place of learning where so much space and attention is given to morality are a severe and damaging thing.
We all will have to live with the consequences of the career of Walther Homolka. Can you imagine how the Far Right is jumping on the bandwagon? They unleash fury at those politicians who donated to sexual perverts money from taxes paid by “honest German citizens” (code word for Aryans). Right now, of all times, with a looming economic crisis. In Germany, of all places!
Rabbi Ernst Stein, z’’l, whose warning so many people have refused to listen to, often wondered how German Jewry could revitalise itself. He had hoped for German Jewry to open itself to immigration from America, Russia, Middle East. This way German Jewish community could become more open, more pluralistic and above all, more united -despite the different backgrounds- by the feeling of belonging to the Jewish people, not by some manifesto.
Jewish peoplehood: this is what we have to teach. Not some outdated sophistry such as “ethical monotheism”. Jewish law: this should inspire and shape our community. Not the snobbery of religious traditions that goes under “Prophetic Judaism”. And although I see some of these nonsenses periodically coming to the surface (again), I must say I share the faith of Rabbi Stein, z’’l, into the future for German and European Jewry,
I say it confidently, from the pulpit where he landed, as a sort of refugee from Germany; he had left Germany twice, once very young, escaping from persecutions, and later as a mature -yet disillusioned- Rabbi.
We wish our German brethren a lot of strength for the challenging years ahead. May the Rock of Israel protect the Jewish people wherever we are, and let us say Amen.
Brighton & Hove Reform Synagogue, 14 May 2022–13 Iyar 5782