Theological and Pedagogical Implications of the Role of Zionism in Reform Jewish Manifestos: A Bridge from Vision to Praxis

Haim O Rechnitzer & Gabriella Minnes Brandes. Journal of Jewish Education. Volume 75, Issue 4. 2009.

A manifesto of a religious movement serves as the blueprint for its members’ religious aspirations. Manifestos are the product of present ideological and political negotiations that reflect the past and aim toward the future (Meyer, 1995; Sarna, 2004; Zola, 2001). Such documents hold the vision of the movement and, therefore, use declarative language, which calls for lived experiences. However, the move from declarations, expressed in a manifesto to their translation into experience is multilayered and complex. As Fox, Scheffler and Marom (2003) write: “Vision … is not simply ideological preference. It implies both comprehensive understanding and guiding purpose. It places the work of the education in the setting of a present that is an outgrowth of the past but that also contains within it the seeds of a future to be grasped creatively …” (p. 9). This article presents a philosophical and theological analysis and an educational discussion of the manifestos, to serve as a bridge between vision and practice. The Reform manifestos aim to “make their case for a Judaism that acknowledges the necessity and desirability of religious innovation, change in praxis, and ideological reformation” (Zola, 2001, p. 160). They capture the present culture of the movement and, at the same time, promote its change. We must note that in a movement where individuals and congregations enjoy autonomy of practice and diversity of viewpoints, the manifestos are not necessarily the representation of the majority nor do they represent the opinions of each member in the movement. Nevertheless, they are attempts of the established leadership to direct the movement and, therefore, they merit discussion. As part of that discussion, we propose a particular methodology that may be implemented to varied genres of texts, such as Reform Siddurim, the curriculum of Reform Hebrew schools, summer camps, and other social activities that are relevant to the educational journey of prospective rabbis. The core of our methodology analyzes the formal manifestos as curricular texts that carry implications for praxis.

At the outset of the article, we explore the ways in which Israel and Zionism are discussed in the contemporary Reform Movement’s official texts. We analyze the discourse of Reform Zionism within the manifestos using three aspects of the discussion of Zionism: the relationship between faith, ethnicity, and national identity; the connection between Messianic aspirations and the political sphere; and language as an essential tool for the discussion of faith and identity. In the second part of the article, we discuss the implications for education about Israel and Zionism via three lenses: the operative, pedagogical, and practical principles embedded within the documents and their intended audience; what is compelling in the documents; and the implied and explicit principles within the documents.

Both authors were born, raised, and educated in Israel. Haim completed rabbinical school in Jerusalem and in the past five years has been living and teaching in the United States, in the last four, at Hebrew Union College, Cincinnati. Gabriella has been living in Vancouver, British Columbia for 20 years and has been teaching in the faculty of education. Prior to that she taught in Israel at both the high school and university level. In our daily and professional lives, we have been exploring the bridges between ideals, texts and education. We also live the bridges and divides between Israel and North America as we examine and deconstruct the relationships between Israel and the Diaspora at different levels. We have different yet strong commitments to such explorations both intellectually and existentially as we bring our expertise to bear on the complex relationships between North American Jewry and Israel in the official texts of the Reform movement and their implications to the training of leaders and rabbis.

The religious ideology of early Reform Judaism rejected the core claim that Jews are and should be a nation and, therefore, rejected the role of Zionism in Judaism. The Reform universalistic messianic utopianism stood at odds with any concept that identified Judaism with an ethnic-national-religious community. In light of the spirit of the nineteenth century and the ethos of progress, the Reformers redefined Judaism as a faith and not as a national identity. As the 1885 Pittsburgh Platform declares: “We consider ourselves no longer a nation, but religious community, and therefore expect neither a return to Palestine, nor a sacrificial worship under the sons of Aaron, nor the restoration of any of the laws concerning the Jewish state” (Central Conference of American Rabbis (CCAR), 2004c, Article 5). From the perspective of these Reformers, the Zionist national concept of Judaism did not comport with the ideals of emancipation of the Jews in the countries of their residency and negated the universal ideals of Enlightenment.

Judaism was considered a universal religion in which Jewish national sentiment was outdated. Half a century later in the Columbus 1937 Platform this opposition to the Zionist project changed. Reform Judaism recognized the “rehabilitation of Palestine … [as a form of] renewed life for many of our brethren,” and thereupon “affirm[ed] the obligation of all Jewry to aid in its upbringing as a Jewish homeland by endeavoring to make it not only a haven for refuge for the oppressed but also a center of Jewish culture and spiritual life” (CCAR, 2004b, Article A5). Nevertheless, Reform Judaism did not neglect its core obligation to its universalistic messianic ideal of “universal brotherhood” constituted by shared faith. In the twentieth century, Judaism was first and foremost a brotherhood of faith and not one of an enlarged family or national group.

The San Francisco 1976 Centenary Prospective Platform celebrated the “newly reborn State of Israel” and recognized the “innumerable religious and ethnic ties” between Diaspora Jews and the Jews of Israel. It went so far as to acknowledge “both a stake and a responsibility in building the State of Israel, assuring its security, and defining its Jewish character [and] encourag[ing] Aliyah for those who wish to find maximum personal fulfillment in the cause of Zion” (CCAR, 2004f, Article 5). Despite this recognition of the obligation to the State of Israel, and in its contribution to the enrichment of the Jewish culture and the recognition of the ethnic aspect of Judaism, the San Francisco 1976 Platform does not neglect the universalistic vision of Reform Judaism. It perceived the dialogue between the State of Israel and The Diaspora as aimed toward showing “how a people transcends nationalism even as it affirms it, thereby setting an example for humanity which remains largely concerned with dangerously parochial goals” (CCAR, 2004f, Article 5). The supremacy of the universalistic religious vision of Reform Judaism prevailed over the parochial, even dangerous, Zionist-national vision (Ellenson, 1995; see p. 14). Reform Judaism accepted the Israeli state but not the Zionist emphasis on Judaism as the national, ethnic identity of a people of Israel. These reservations might explain the formulation of the clause that related to Aliyah, which was left to the individual.

By the end of the twentieth century, these theological reservations toward the Jewish State were transformed; the anti-Zionism trend in Reform Judaism had largely faded since the 1970s and the platforms and resolutions published by the CCAR revealed a process of intensive “Zionization” of the movement’s official ideological narrative. The Miami Platform 1997 was dedicated solely to the question of Reform Judaism and Zionism. The climax of “Zionization” is manifested in the “Pittsburgh 1999 Statement,” which reads, “We are committed to the State of Israel, and rejoice in its accomplishments. We affirm the unique qualities of living in the land of Israel, and encourage immigration to Israel” (CCAR, 2004d).

What is the meaning of being “committed to the State of Israel”? What are the “unique qualities of living in the land of Israel” from a Reform point of view? What are the ramifications of this religious worldview of the role of Israel for Reform Jews living in North America? One cannot expect a manifesto—a declarative, concise, and short document—to provide details beyond general statements. Therefore, in 1992, The Association of Reform Zionism of America (ARZA), the Zionist arm and voice of the Reform movement in the United States and the CCAR, established a think tank whose members come from diverse backgrounds and areas of expertise (e.g., academics, congregational rabbis, rabbis-in-training, educators, and Reform Jewish lay leaders). The purpose of the think tank was to “formally consider the relationship of the Reform Jew to Zionism and to Israel, and to seek to define the Reform Zionist mission” (CCAR, 1992). In 2006, celebrating its 13th anniversary, the ARZA think tank gathered for an intensive three-day discussion of Reform Jewish Zionism. After this assembly, the CCAR devoted a special issue of their journal to Reform Zionism; many of the collected articles included had emerged out of the Reform Zionist think tank’s meetings and reflected the “wisdom of the ARZA think-tank; the most intelligent, passionate, and compelling voices in the Reform movement on these important topics” (CCAR Journal, 2007, p. 1). We turn, therefore, to this special issue of the CCAR Journal when we examine “the exquisitely complicated personal and communal issues raised when we try to explicate the phrase ‘Reform Jewish Zionism’”( CCAR Journal, Spring 2007, p. 1).

The Relationships Between Faith, Ethnicity, and National Identity in Reform Judaism

The Zionization of the Reform movement culminated in the 1997 Miami Platform’s unqualified recognition of Aliyah and life in Israel, the national home for the Jewish people. Israel was no longer perceived just as the “Land of Israel” or “the Holy Land,” but as the State of Israel, therefore seen as the ultimate fulfillment of both “the individual and communal strivings” of the Jews. In analyzing the Miami 1997 and the Pittsburgh1999 manifestos, we conclude that the Zionization of American Reform Judaism does not reduce Judaism to ethnicity or to national identity. Rather, it combines the religious, ethnic, and national identities and perceives the mission of its religious Zionism as instrumental to the protection from “narrow nationalism” (CCAR, 2004b, Preamble). This trend was fully developed in The 1999 Platform where, under the section entitled “Israel,” there is a commitment to strengthening the people of Israel by making “the synagogue central to Jewish communal life so that it may elevate the spiritual, intellectual and cultural quality of our lives.” The emphasis here is on Judaism across “ideological and geographic boundaries” and not necessarily within the State of Israel. The final statements of this section of the Platform affirm the commitment to both Israeli and Diaspora Jewry as “vibrant and interdependent communities” (CCAR, 2004d). Levy (2005) analyzes the differences between the two platforms with regard to the role of the State of Israel in Reform Judaism, stating that The 1999 Platform “does not see Israel as the centre of Reform Jewish life. In a sense it sees Israel as equivalent to all the states of the Diaspora in which Jews reside and calls for a reciprocal relationship between the State of Israel and the Diaspora” (p. 235).

As the head of the Union for Reform Judaism, E. Yoffie (2007) wrote in response to A. B. Yehoshua: “Yes, Jewish peoplehood and Jewish religion are intimately related and inextricably intertwined. And yes, this relationship is fraught with tension … And in fact, separating the two makes no sense” (p. 142). E. Yoffie’s statement stands in direct in opposition to the spirit of The Pittsburg 1885 Platform that presented Judaism as a faith—not as national identity. The tensions between peoplehood and religion are also reflected by Hirsch (2007), who writes: “The State of Israel needs liberal Judaism and liberal Judaism needs the State of Israel” (p. 43). This captures the imperative of the interdependency and mutual enrichment expressed in The Miami 1997 Platform and The Pittsburgh 1999 Platform. For Hirsch, the mission of Reform Judaism is to set an alternative to the orthodoxy in Israel and to introduce a liberal religious Zionism that promotes the separation of church and state while at the same time develops a Jewish way of life. More radical is his argument for the role of Israel within American Reform Jews. Hirsch claims that the Reform emphasis on Judaism-as-faith leads to the dilution of the ethnic-cultural identity of the Jews. In his view, Judaism has been accepted as another equal faith in the open interfaith market. This process of acceptance into the American religious culture comes with a tremendous price because “the dimensions of Jewish peoplehood, culture, and civilization are being de-emphasized, [and] the ethnic identity of the Jew is being transformed” (p. 47). This new identity of Judaism as a culture and a religion, stripped from the ethnic and national elements, leads to the loss of Jewish identity and the decline of numbers of Jews in America. Reform Judaism in America, without Zionism, is at risk of failing to fulfill the “ultimate goal of preservation of the Jewish people and its heritage” (p. 48). Hirsch’s view is in contradiction to some of the basic tenets of the American Jewish movement, which promotes the universal over the particular. He takes it further and intensifies the role of a national particular identity.

Similar to Hirsch (2007), Meyer (2007a) also discusses the role of Zionism in strengthening Jewish identity in the Diaspora: “it must address the quest for personal meaning, … it must present itself not as an ideology but as an integral part of the Jewish religion. A Judaism without Zionism is a truncated, incomplete form of our faith” (p. 110). He goes so far as to speak of the relationships Reform Jews must form with the “Israeli land, people, and state” as “new mitzvot” (commandments). Israel, thus, becomes an essential religious element within Reform Judaism.

The Connection Between Messianic Aspirations and the Political Sphere

The Miami Platform from 1997 declares that Medinat Israel is the “Jewish people’s supreme creation in our age” (CCAR, 2004b, Article II). The universal and liberal teaching of Reform Judaism served as a dialectic voice in the rebirth of the Jewish State. Reform Judaism saw its role as helping Jewish sovereign political powers face the challenges of having Jewish polity that aligned with its universal religious standards. Reform Judaism was ready to be channeled through a Jewish sovereign entity and became a full-blown Zionist religious movement. Reform Zionism reinforced the “Jewish people’s highest moral ideals to be mamlechet kohanim (a kingdom of priests), a goy kadosh (a holy people), and l’or goyim (light unto the nations)” (CCAR, 2004b, Article I). The “universal”—symbolized by the term “Kadush” (holy)—worked through the “particular,” that is “a goy” (people). Therefore, the messianic vision was no longer at odds with the national particular essence. “National life in Eretz Israel (the Land of Israel) is a necessary condition for the realization of the physical and spiritual redemption of the Jewish people and of all humanity” (CCAR, 2004b, Article VI).

Reflecting and modifying the Messianic vision within Zionism, Knobel (2007) calls for the development of a different Reform Zionist theology, which reintroduces the idea of a God who acts in history through which the rebirth of Israel has a theological significance. In contrast to the spirit of The 1997 Miami Platform, he argues that any Reform Zionist theology must take into consideration the fact that the “North American Reform movement is firmly rooted in the unique experience of the North American Diaspora” (p. 78). Hence, Jewish religiosity is based on personal autonomy, individualism, and spirituality and does not perceive God as active in history. Therefore, the Zionist meta-narratives of the uniqueness of the Israeli experience of building a nation on its land, of post-Holocaust national redemption and safe haven from persecution cannot serve as the basis for Reform Zionism. Reform Zionism must develop an alternative meta-narrative that corresponds to the American culture and its individualism on the one hand and the readiness of individuals to tie their spiritual journey to missions dedicated to help humanity on the other. Knobel suggests “redemption” as the key concept of Reform theology of Zionism: “Israel, i.e., the Jewish people and Eretz Israel (the Land of Israel), have an important role in the redemption of humanity” (p. 79). The Lurianic Kabbalah and its teaching of Tikkun Olam—literally fixing the world that is broken—can become a Jewish spiritual blueprint for this new theology. In this view, spiritual religious growth is tied to the idea that all our spiritual and social actions as individuals can help in mending our “broken world.” When individuals come together for a joint mission their forces of change and Tikkun are greater than when the same actions are done by individuals independently.

This framing of Israel as a call for the fulfillment of religious Tikkun Olam requires the reintroduction of the sense of Jewish chosen-ness to become “light for the nations.” Then, the Israeli experience becomes a part of a spiritual quest of any religious individual. Knobel (2007) is quick to note that the reintroduction of a messianic vision that is connected to the ideas of Holy Land and Holy Nation brings the Reform Zionist theology in close proximity to the right-wing Settlers’ Movement in Israel. The liberal Reform Judaism rejects the Settlers’ Movement on religious grounds as it puts the land and the nation before humanistic, liberal, and democratic values. Meyer (2007a) continues to explore these issues when he devotes most of his article to the role of Reform Zionism in developing liberal Judaism and liberal political philosophy as the alternative both for the right-wing religious Zionism and the extreme left post-Zionism. Reform Zionism must promote a democratic and liberal Judaism that demonstrates the authenticity of pluralistic Jewish positions on various religious, moral and political issues. Reform Zionism must demonstrate the distinction between the state, the land, and the people of Israel. Meyer suggests that Reform Zionism, while acknowledging the importance of role of the State of Israel in the redemptive processes, will refer to Israel’s becoming a state as a historic event and as the potential for becoming “reshit tz’michat g’ulateino” (the beginning of our redemption), rather than the actual beginning of our redemption. In this way, he hopes to neutralize the current political nationalism of the settlers’ movement that identifies the actual present as the beginning of the messianic era. The settlers’ messianism leads to the disregard of liberal humanistic and democratic values at the expense of promoting what they perceive to be the divine plan. For Meyer, the State of Israel has no religious essence in and of itself. A Jewish State, with its operative powers, can become instrumental to the redemptive processes. It provides a greater opportunity to work towards the implementation of the messianic ideals, but should not be conceived as part of redemption itself. Reform Judaism must take a position toward the use of power that aligns with its liberal humanistic religious teaching. “As Reform Zionists we too must take a position with regard to issues of power, recognizing its necessity but refusing to valorize it, seeing it as an instrument that can be used for good but not as a good in itself” (Meyer 2007a, p. 108). Likewise, the Land of Israel is not inherently holy, but is sanctified through the moral use of power. The Jewish people are not inherently holy but are commended to become holy. Therefore, Meyer calls for the development of a theology “of sanctification, as opposed to sanctity, that deals not only with worldwide peoplehood but also with specific realities faced by those members of our people who dwell in Zion” (p. 109). Messianism is a postulate, an ideal that defines the right course of action in time and space but at the same time it is beyond time and space. It is reserved for the end of days, but it determines the vector toward which progress should be defined and measured. This Reform Religious Zionist vision intensifies the question of aliyah. It is clear that the greater and the ultimate realization of Jewish life and its messianic vision are indeed in the Land of Israel within a sovereign Jewish State. Meyer’s vision is aligned with The 1997 Miami Platform that defines aliyah as a religious mitzvah. What, then, is the meaning of Reform Zionism for Diaspora Jews who do not choose aliyah? Again, aliyah must address the quest for personal meaning in a highly individualized American culture. Similarly to Knobel, Meyer suggests that Reform Religious Zionism in the Diaspora and for the Diaspora must highlight the need to incorporate Israel as a core aspect of Jewish spirituality, and emphasize the personal and emotional relationships to Israel rather than see Zionism as a political movement.

Meyer (2007b) redefines the concepts of ge’ulah (redemption) and Diaspora. Diaspora has three dimensions: physical, psychological, and religious; ge’ulah, therefore, “can be seen as a spiritual territory that lies between galut (exile, Diaspora) and ge’ulah through which Jews living both outside of Israel and within it travel, sometimes backward and sometimes forward” (p. 138). Aliyah then can be understood as both a spiritual “travel” and a physical journey. Physical aliyah does not necessarily guarantee spiritual ascent. All Reform Jews, Israelis, and those who live in the Diaspora, are called upon to measure their religious spiritual life according to this concept of redemption and engage in this “travel” between the unredeemed reality and the messianic ideal. But, for Jews who live outside Israel, the sense of incompleteness is intensified in comparison with Jews who live in a Jewish State, which offers a fuller Jewish life. The Jew in Israel both enjoys and is challenged by living in a Jewish State. Based on Meyer’s concepts of galut and geula, living a Reform Jewish life in Israel becomes the ultimate realization of the Reform religious ideals. We see Meyer’s view of Israel as a change from the status quo of the Reform movement’s view of the place of Israel in Reform Judaism. In his articulation, the State of Israel becomes simultaneously the instrument and the challenge for the development and implementation of the Jewish Reform messianic vision for years to come.

Language as an Essential Tool for the Discussion of Faith and Identity

This shift in the attitude toward Jewish nationality was also reflected in a new emphasis on the key role of the Hebrew language. In The 1997 Miami Platform, Hebrew was described as “indispensable both in the study of Judaism and fostering solidarity between Israeli and Diaspora Jews” (CCAR, 2004b, Article IV). The Platform called for a commitment to teaching Hebrew not just because it was the language of our sacred texts and prayers but because of a core national Zionist argument and imperative. Hebrew is seen in this context as “a symbol of the revitalization of Am Israel,” the people of Israel. Thus, Hebrew is recognized for its national and linguistic attributes. This concept of Hebrew as a language of a living nation within its sovereign state paved the way to embracing Aliyah as a means of the realization of the potential of both “the individual and communal strivings” of the Jew (CCAR, 2004b, Article IV). Indeed, this is echoed by the various writers in the themed issue of the CCAR. E. Yoffie (2007), in response to A. B. Yehoshua, agrees that “the Hebrew language is a critical dimension of Jewish identity” (p. 140). At the same time, one cannot but notice that this imperative to study Hebrew is modified and qualified in the face of reality. Yoffie admits, that “our inability to teach Hebrew to our children in North America and elsewhere is one of Diaspora Jewry’s great failures” (p. 140). Knobel (2007) reminds us that, “the increase of Hebrew in the worship service is more about the mystique of the language than about revival of either traditional theology or concern for content” (p. 80). Cutter’s (2007) essay is devoted to the question of Hebrew and Reform Zionism and suggests that since fluency in Hebrew cannot be achieved among Jews who live outside of Israel, the Reform movement should consider building a compromise version: a “second homeland,” that should “create some Hebrew linguistic realities: some songs, prayers, or phrases” (p. 17). He proposes building a linguistic bridge between Jewish past and present, between myth and cultural history, knowing full well that from a point of view of “those who believe that Hebrew can save the Jewish people, or simply advocates of Hebrew … [this is a] limited and sometime melancholy” effort (p. 17). Cutter suggests that North American Jews find metaphors and words by which to think about Israel. He also proposes that they learn Modern Hebrew in a limited scope, which will be a part of a meaningful and substantive engagement between American Jews and Israelis when they meet socially, culturally, and professionally. That means that the Reform movement must invest in facilitating “personal associations” (p. 20) that intensify the quality and frequency of meetings between American Jews and Israelis in varied settings. Such meetings will create an ongoing and everchanging organic inventory of words and metaphors that will bridge between Israeli and the American Jews. Cutter proposes a much more limited and perhaps more realistic (for the majority of Jewish people in North America) role for learning Hebrew. Cutter’s discussion of the lack of proficiency in Hebrew is in dissonance with the platform that sets the goal of proficiency in Hebrew. Similar to Cutter, Jan Katzew (2007), the Director of Lifelong Jewish Learning for the Union for Reform Judaism, argues that sharing a vocabulary precedes creating a shared vision. Cutter and Katzew both present a solution that is different from the official narrative and they both express the same concern about the use of Hebrew. They suggest a different tactic when they emphasize real personal engagement with Israelis although their counterparts from North America may only have a rudimentary level of Hebrew. Although Cutter does not think that it is possible to learn Hebrew at the level needed for a full engagement, Katsew still longs for this level of Hebrew. (We explore this issue further in the later in this article.)

In the first part of the article, we analyzed the official American Reform Jewish Platforms and the interpretative articles that followed their publication. The purpose of these platforms was to describe, define, and provide guidelines for the ideology of the Reform movement. As such, these manifestos have operative, pedagogical, and practical principles embedded in them (Zola 2001). These guiding principles suggest that, the platforms and supplementary articles can be used as curricular documents that lead to action. In the following part of the article, we analyze the implications to education of those manifestos as the official texts of the Reform movement. Grant (2007) calls for collaboration between leaders in the Reform movement and congregational rabbis with educators in order to enhance the role of Israel as an integral part of the ideology in the Reform movement. In our article, we analyze the official texts, the manifestos so as to create the space for such a conversation between ideology and its educational ramifications.

Implications for Education

We draw from the themes and underlying vision of the American Reform Judaism movement’s manifestos to suggest content and direction for the education of its leaders. Curriculum can be defined quite narrowly as a course of study, often referring to the goals, objectives, content, activities and assessment within a particular area. It can also be defined broadly as any activities taking place, intended or unintended, within an educational institution and context (Jackson, 1992). In this article, we draw from the work of Pinar (1997) and Grumet (1997) who highlighted the silences and unspoken elements of curriculum, calling attention to the multiple decisions and complex layers of social, cultural, and gendered engagement and relationships that influence curriculum. We also use Uhrmacher’s (1997) focused attention on the language used in curriculum documents. He sheds light on what is often called the “curriculum shadow,” or the “hidden curriculum”: the underpinning assumptions and ideologies that shape the realities in schools. In our analysis, we uncover the covert, latent, and implicit ways that institutions that train rabbis and leaders in various educational contexts are organized and how those affect the curriculum, what is learned, how it is taught and learned, and what are the goals of the learning enterprise. We also use the questions suggested by Bullough and Gitlin (1995) for the analysis of textbooks and curriculum materials by critical “consumers” of such documents. Specifically, we ask about the extent that ideas expressed in the platforms of the Reform Judaism movement and their supplementary documents are compelling for Reform Jews. We also examine the ideological underpinnings of the manifestos as those pertain to the education of rabbis- and leaders-in-training. We view the Reform movement manifestos as curricular texts that provide us with the opportunity to analyze ideas embedded in them with an eye toward education. In that manner, the ideas presented within these manifestos have tremendous educational ramifications for action. Although the texts that we analyze do not pertain to specific classrooms or schools, they have implications for practice and are, therefore, relevant in the analysis of the education of new leaders and educators within the Reform movement, who are expected to carve the direction for the future of the movement.

When we consider the ramifications of our discussion to education and specifically to the education of the future leaders and educators in the Reform movement, we note that a professional development program cannot, during its duration, teach all skills and content necessary for its graduates in their future careers. Therefore, training programs should “focus on how to learn from experience and how to build professional knowledge” (Korthagen, Loughran, & Russell, 2006, p. 1025). Trainees, thus, learn to respond to a range of conflicting and competing demands. We believe that educational programs should provide their participants, and particularly leaders-in-training, with opportunities to learn from their experiences and “shape their thinking about their teaching” and their engagements with various people they encounter as a part of their job (p. 1026). Our analysis focuses on the Reform movement’s training of rabbis, throughout which we investigate the move from vision expressed in its manifestos to its implementation in practice.

Educational Implications of the Relationship Between Faith, Ethnicity, and National Identity

We begin by discussing the intended audience of the platforms of the Reform movement. We probe the operative and pedagogical implications of the view that the State of Israel embodies the relationship between faith, ethnicity, and national identity. We then ask about the content that could be used to implement such ideas and we conclude by identifying challenges embedded in questions of faith, ethnicity, and identity that come to light as a result of our analysis.

The documents we analyze in this article refer to the American Reform movement. As discussed above, Hirsch argues that reintroducing ethnicity and national elements through Zionist education will enrich the Jewish identity of the American Reform Jews. With this view at the forefront, we suggest possible curricular content to support teaching Zionism within North American Reform ideology. To reinforce a sense of Jewish identity as ethnicity, faith, and nationality (and expanding on Grant, 2007, pp. 5-6) we propose:

  • learning the history of the State of Israel in the context of the rise of the nations in the modern era,
  • studying ethnicity through art and folklore,
  • exploring faiths and ethnicities within and without Judaism,
  • examining challenges ethnic minorities face living within a pluralistic society as they develop mechanisms to maintain their uniqueness, and
  • learning how the Jewish faith and practices negotiate questions of ethnicity, universalism, and nationalism.

One important component of training leaders and educators is to encourage a deep examination of identity. Hence, it is imperative not just to approach the issues from a theoretical and removed stance but, rather to allow for structured, pedagogical moments of experiential engagements including an exploration of self within particular social contexts. In order to reflect on the ways in which rabbis-in-training may explore their identity, we look closely at the Israel Seminar, a weekly course that is taken in Jerusalem and is a part of the first year (out of five) of rabbinical studies taken in any of the American campuses that train rabbis. The purpose of the Israel Seminar is to “place the experience [of learning to become a rabbi] in a broader historical, cultural, political and social context” (Leigh, Liptz, & Mendelsson, 2008, p. 8). The course methodology includes lectures, museum and site visits, and the use of film, music, and literature. We consider these trips to various locations in Israel, such as the Galilee, Tel Aviv, and Jerusalem, as venues to connect experientially with Israel; however, it is important that such trips are used as educational, reflective, and transformative opportunities. One of the assignments in the Israel Seminar is a weekly journal “of the impressions, thoughts, questions, revelations and queries that [these] studies may ignite” as a way to reflect on these experiences. We think that keeping such a reflective journal is an important first step in the process of learning to become a rabbi. However, a journal that becomes primarily a collection of “impressions, thoughts, questions, revelations and queries” (as described in the syllabus) is only the starting point and provides a structure to move from an experience to a systematic and analytical exploration of that experience. We see such a journal as a transformative tool, specifically when taken beyond the level of description and reflection. Poignant questions and thought-provoking prompts can encourage the leaders-in-training to make explicit links between what is experienced and its meaning. Such questions then become the backdrop for discussions of the multiple cultural and personal markers of identity in the context of Reform Judaism in Israel and North America, the tensions and challenges of maintaining an active Jewish leadership in North America, and the links between the vision of the Reform movement and life in Israel and the Diaspora. As a follow up to journal entries, their should be further exploration and analysis of the tensions between the Reform liberal and universalistic ideology and the culture and politics in Israel.

We want to highlight the key role of the educators who pose such questions and lead meaningful discussions on these topics as they provide each of the leaders-in-training with occasions to explore his or her background and previous sense of self in the context of new experiences, and such discussions in the seminars may enhance the process of articulating the complex issues of identity. The Israel Seminar occupies approximately 25% of the Year in Israel Program, which itself is but one fifth of the overall five-year program. We claim that this kind of engagement in learning should not be isolated to one course and must be incorporated diachronically and synchronically across the curriculum in training new rabbis and leaders; that is to say, questions, topics, and experiences such as those we mentioned above should be revisited throughout the program and echoed across other courses such as Talmud, Jewish Law, and Jewish Thought. Such an intentional institutional curricular planning would reflect and support an ongoing exploration of identity and its related core struggles.

We now turn our gaze to the tensions arising from the concept of Jewish national identity, faith, and ethnicity and discuss potential challenges in implementing greater awareness of these issues in the education of Reform educators and leaders. Educators of leaders and rabbis face the predicament of educating for a particular identity (Judaism as nationality and ethnicity) while at the same time strengthening the Reform concept of Judaism as a faith preaching for universal, ethical, monotheistic concepts as a part of its ideology. Taking into account the tension within this predicament, Judaism as a faith is perceived to be on par with other universalistic faiths in the North American interfaith markets such as Christianity, Buddhism, and Islam, which do not require ethnic and national affiliations and whose tenets are universal but stand at odds with ethnic and particularistic tenets of Judaism. In addition, educators must deal with the complex role of Israel within North American Reform Judaism. The primary goal of these educators is to sustain and develop the Reform ideology of Judaism as a part of the American liberal apparatus. However, teaching students about Israel and its essential role within Judaism sends a contradictory message that it is important to strive for life in Israel. Grant (2007) supports our view that the tensions embedded in teaching about Israel are not fully explored in the current curriculum of Reform leaders in training when she summarizes findings from qualitative interviews with rabbis and educational leaders and concludes, that “goals for teaching Israel continue to be expressed in broad and diffuse terms” (p. 5). Grant and Marmur (2007) discuss in further detail the educational role of teaching about Israel. They suggest that, at the end of the Year in Israel, all rabbinical students ought to be able to answer the question “Why Israel matters …” In order to do so, Grant and Marmur call for the need for “intellectual inquiry … [and] experiential activities that allow for meaningful and sustained encounters with a broad mix of Israelis, as well as opportunities for personal reflection on the significance of Israel and the Jewish people to their own lives as American Jews” (p. 104). This existential tension between learning about Israel in meaningful ways and promoting life in North America ought to be addressed in an ongoing manner within Jewish educational settings. Grant and Marmur propose to “strengthen the connections and interactions between Reform Jews from North America and Reform Jews in Israel” (p. 103). Encounters to facilitate sharing ethnic and religious viewpoints are relatively easy to achieve and serve an important role. Nonetheless, a deeper exchange that brings to light the role of Israel as it relates to one’s Judaism should be explicitly uncovered and discussed in these meetings. For example, Reform Jews in Israel have a significantly different experience from that of their counterparts in North America, particularly in regard to the role that Israel plays in construction of their Israeli Reform Jewish identity lives. Moreover, we think that the North American rabbis-in-training may benefit at least as much from encounters with other Jews and non-Jews in Israel (secular, orthodox, Mizrahi, Ethiopians, immigrants from the former Soviet Union, Palestinians, Druze, foreign workers, etc.). Such encounters with non-Reform-liberal Israelis will push the rabbis-in-training to explore and articulate their own understandings of their relationships toward Israel and those living in Israel, as well as revisit and develop their own Reform concepts of Judaism. Clearly, their educators have a critical role to play in orchestrating these encounters and, even more so, in facilitating the future rabbis’ processing of such encounters. Moreover, as Korthagen, Loughran, and Russell (2006) propose, “learning about teaching requires a view of knowledge as a subject to be created rather than as a created subject” (p. 1027). Rabbis and leaders direct the content and discourse of their congregations and communities. Therefore, during their training, these future leaders must learn to articulate their vision and its practical and theoretical implications. This journey of exploration should also take into account the messages of the official manifestos and how these can be incorporated into an individual’s construction of identity. A discussion about various individual vision statements can also be productive in initiating meaningful dialogues. The rabbis-in-training ought to consider their own learning process and articulation of vision in the context of other rabbis, leaders, and rabbis-in-training. We see the need for educational training programs to provide for the necessary steps to establish and sustain such a learning environment that encourages these explorations. Emphasizing questions about identity and its relation to Judaism and Israel during the process of developing the next generation of rabbis will feed directly into the creation of new platforms in the Movement and, in doing so, will affect the dynamics of paving new directions for the Reform Movement. The exploration of identity in social, political, and ethnic specific contexts is paramount in the education of any leaders. It is within such explorations that visions and manifestos are examined, tested, and altered to meet new directions.

Educational Implications of the Connection Between Messianic Aspirations and the Political Sphere

Stanley Davids (2007) alerts our attention to the fact that, as a movement, Reform Judaism has “failed to set ‘Jerusalem ahead of our other joys (Psalm 137)’” (p. 30). Katzew (2007) highlights the need to make Israel compelling through personal relationships. He calls for Jewish educators to “nurture that connection [to Israel]” (p. 53). More so, the “connection to Israel may be considered a particularistic expression of Judaism, and the current emphasis of the educational system in the Reform movement is universalistic” (p. 53). Knobel (2007) underscores that it is the individualistic spirit of the American concept of the self that perceives religion as personal and rejects the sentiment of “peoplehood.” As discussed above, Knobel suggests the idea of Tikkun Olam, the restoration of a just world, the Messianic idea of redeeming humanity as a meaningful vehicle through which the American Jew can engage with Israel. Israel becomes the scene and stage where the highest religious activities take place; he then resorts to the “need to take them [the congregants] to Israel and create spiritually inspiring moments” (p. 80). His final conclusion shifts the emphasis from text-based curriculum to an experience-based one, although he does not provide examples for teaching such “inspiring moments.” Meyer (2007a) addresses the need to make the Zionist Reform vision compelling through “address[ing] the quest for personal meaning which is today so characteristic of the highly individualized American culture” (pp. 110-111).

It seems that the above authors themselves admit that the argument that calls for the crucial role of Israel in educating Reform Jews is not compelling. We can see evidence for this resistance toward Israel in the 2001 National Jewish Population Study, which reports that many Reform Jews indicate low connections to Israel and to Klal Israel. In fact, Reform Jews have the lowest rate of responses to questions about a sense of belonging to the Jewish people (Reform 56%, Conservative 74%, Orthodox 91%), emotional attachment to Israel (Reform 21%, Conservative 39%, Orthodox 68%), or visits Israel (Reform 34%, Conservative 53%, Orthodox 73%). Grant (2007) reports similar, more current data stating, that “Israel and a sense of Jewish peoplehood have become increasingly peripheral for American Jewish identity” (p. 3). Both Knobel (2007) and Meyer (2007a) introduce the Messianic vision as the renewed path for engagement with Israel; they tie the personal, spiritual quest of the individual with ideals and actions toward mending the world. Meyer calls for the development of a liberal Jewish state, and the development of critical engagement toward the use of power within that state; Knobel has a more spiritual emphasis on the Messianic vision.

We consider how to translate these claims about the role of Israel to an educational context. We think of training new leaders and rabbis with an eye toward Messianic ideals that, in the Reform context, are manifested primary as a call and action for social justice. It is, therefore, imperative to include discussions and pedagogies that deconstruct the ways in which social forces and institutions shape our views of the world—as it is now and as it could be. Such a critical gaze ought to include and draw on radical theories and ways of engagement in social justice, working for social, political, and economic change through social action and education (Pinar, Reyonlds, Slattery, & Taubman, 1995). Similar to Bell (1997), we define teaching for social justice as both a goal and a process. It includes both anti-oppressive education and teaching for democratic citizenship (Kelly & Brandes Minnes, 2008). A further refinement of teaching for social justice encompasses three elements: “(a) critical analysis of social and institutional inequities; (b) commitment to “principled action to achieve social justice, not only for those around but for strangers” (Greene, 1978, p. XXXIII) and (c) willingness to question one’s own understanding of social justice in part through listening to alternative perspectives” (Kelly & Minnes Brandes, 2001, p. 439). We propose incorporating the Messianic vision as articulated by Meyer (2007a, 2007b) and Knobel (2007) and the notion of teaching for social justice as both a goal and process into training programs for rabbis and leaders. Such programs should elucidate not only the content but also the pedagogical and social justice considerations that motivate the ways the content is selected and taught. We see the merit in having leaders-in-training read critical and radical theories that expose social and political inequities. In addition, an integral part of the curriculum for leaders-in-training ought to be an engagement in activities within local institutions, both in Israel and the Diaspora, where they will actively work toward social justice. Thus, the leaders-in-training have both theoretical and practical engagements with social justice. This kind of engagement can be used toward a critique of the role Israel plays for Reform Judaism in particular in examining the tension between (a) living in the Diaspora and yearning for life in Israel and (b) caring about Israel while at the same time engaging in a critique and being agents for radical change.

Taking into account Knobel’s (2007) call for spiritual engagement through the mystical ideals rooted in Lorianic Kabbalah, we wonder about the opportunities for such an engagement both at the level of content and experience. If we are to implement Knobel’s imperative, the training program ought to call for the integration of social justice studies and activities with religious training and learning in the realm of Hassidism and Jewish mysticism. The educators should facilitate the construction of bridges between engagement with radical theories and actions and spiritual and religious practices. Although we know this mandate is of crucial importance, we also acknowledge the challenges embedded in it as leaders-in-training and their educators navigate between the public and private, individual and communal, spiritual and practical, and in regard to Kabbalistic materials and mystical experiences to navigate between a rational and academic engagement with Judaism and a mystical one.

Educational Implications of Hebrew Language as an Essential Tool for the Discussion of Faith and Identity

Schools in general and classrooms in particular are organized in ways that illustrate the value systems of those who create and sustain them. An analysis of this organization within schools illuminates these explicit and implicit values and the ways in which the social status quo is sustained. Curriculum, what is taught and how it is taught, is one key arena through which we can examine these values. Curriculum documents (and, in our case, the platforms and supplemental papers) represent worldviews and, hence, stem from particular ideologies, provide an image of society, include certain bodies of knowledge, and serve as tools for social control often maintaining the status quo.

We analyze the ways in which Hebrew language plays a role in what are “hidden” or missing aspects of curriculum in the official Reform manifestos. We look for omissions within the existing texts to shed light on the implicit set of organizational rules, what is “privileged” and what is “disdained” (Uhrmacher, 1997). When we consider the role of Hebrew in teaching about faith and identity, we are inspired to raise the question posed by Kumashiro (2000) when he analyzed models of teaching about the “Other”: “How do … silences make possible and impossible different ways of thinking about” (p. 34) the use of Hebrew in this context. Similarly, Sleeter and Grant (1991) call on educators to identify the voices that are represented and those that are silenced. The 1999 Pittsburgh Platform affirms “the importance of studying Hebrew … that we may draw closer to our people’s sacred texts” (CCAR, 2004d, Article “Torah”) and the 1997 Miami Platform argues that Hebrew is “indispensable for the study of Judaism” (CCAR, 2004b, Article IV). The official commentary on The Pittsburgh Platform 1999 explains that Hebrew “unlock[s] the holiness present in those texts” (CCAR, 2004e). To claim that Hebrew is an “indispensable” key to unlock the meaning of Judaism puts into question the integrity of teaching Judaism in any language other than Hebrew. The argument is that key concepts in Judaism cannot be fully translated, discussed, or learned across languages and cultures. This narrows down what Judaism is—and what constitutes as being Jewish. Hence, this definition does not take into account the vast number of thinkers, writers, and artists who think, create, and produce integral parts of Jewish culture. More so, it undermines the integrity of the religious practice of the students themselves and their American, in many cases Reform, upbringing within a Jewish congregation that uses Hebrew minimally at best. The implications of this view of Hebrew in the official Platform also casts a shadow on the praxis of teaching Judaism in English, or any other language that is not Hebrew. That argument calls for a radical change within the whole curriculum of training rabbis, which currently is run primarily in English. In addition, it points to a new direction for change in the culture of American Reform congregations.

We have both philosophical and practical reservations about this overarching claim about the “indispensable” role of Hebrew language for Judaism. While we certainly agree that in many cases the knowledge of Hebrew is necessary for a deep engagement and understanding of certain Jewish texts and traditions, we also acknowledge that Judaism has been transformed, developed, and transmitted in other languages as well. Therefore, we propose a more nuanced discussion and investigation of the appropriate “tools” for different explorations of texts. This discussion should investigate the cases in which Hebrew is essential (e.g., for understanding Piyut and its semantic fields) and in which cases it is not (e.g., texts about Judaism and Jewish thought that were not written in English). If this is the case, a discussion of the curriculum, the content, pedagogy, and in particular the purpose of learning, will determine the level of proficiency needed and the language requirements for different kinds of engagements with texts.


We used the official Reform movement platforms and its supplementary articles to examined their educational operative, pedagogical, and practical ramifications. We examined the current guiding principles of the North American Reform movement and then analyzed the consequences of this vision in the context of the training of new rabbis. We believe that the process of reflective analysis of the manifestos of the Reform movement by its rabbis- and leaders-in-training and their educators can lead to the organic growth of this vision over time. We call for venues for discussion and exploration of the process of learning about what it means to be Jewish within the Reform movement and for teaching about the meaning of Judaism. We argue that the analytical discussion of manifestos has experiential, academic, practical and theoretical consequences. We suggest the use of questions stemming from curriculum theory as a means whereby future leaders of Reform Judaism can be called on to reflect on and inquire into their education. In that way, other training programs of new leaders become holistic experiences and have deeper implications for the personal and professional lives of their participants. In particular, leaders-in-training ought to pursue an analytical engagement with manifestos, an internal exploration, and negotiations of the multiple and competing realities that they will face. This mode of learning will inevitably lead to new dialogues and directions in the articulation of visions and practices to come.