Fantasy and the Jewish Future

A reader asked me recently, “Which mitzvot do Reform Jews observe?”

My answer (this was on Twitter, so I had to be brief), “Like all Jews, some observe many mitzvot and some do not.”

I’ve noticed that we have interesting fantasies about our fellow Jews. Reform Jews fantasize that all Orthodox Jews (“the Orthodox”) observe all 613 mitzvot meticulously. Some do, to the best of their ability, which is to say that they do so imperfectly but with the intention of keeping them all: kosher home, kosher lifestyle, kosher family, a seamless way of life. Others identify as Orthodox, but in practice they live a much less observant life. I have met Jews who identified as Orthodox but who were not observant at all: they eat pepperoni pizza except when they think a rabbi is looking.

Correspondingly, there are Orthodox Jews who have fantasies about Reform Jews: we eat cheeseburgers with abandon, intermarry like crazy, and spend Shabbat shopping till we drop. The reality, again, is messier: sure, there are Reform Jews who do those things, but there are also Reform Jews who keep kosher, keep Shabbat, and study Gemara regularly. There are also Reform Jews who interpret kashrut differently, and who have rules for Shabbat but not the traditional rules. There are Reform Jews who care deeply about Israel and about the Jewish future and who work to preserve both.

In other words, it is dangerous to gauge any Jew’s level of observance or love of Am Yisrael merely by asking, “Are you Orthodox, Conservative, or Reform?” It is destructive and divisive to indulge in fantasy about our fellow Jews. Such fantasies get in the way of having genuine relationships with them.

So what, then, is the real difference between Orthodox and Reform? The difference has to do with our respective understandings of halakhah, “the way,” also known as “Jewish Law.” For Orthodoxy, halakhah is given by God and is immutable. For Reform, halakhah is the product of human beings, with inspiration by God, and human beings can reinterpret it if we choose, after study and consideration.

In practice, the vast majority of Jews do things the way their parents did them, whatever their affiliation. If their parents went to synagogue, they go to synagogue. If their parents didn’t, they probably won’t. The same goes for home observance.

None of this is set in stone. Those who want, can learn. Those who are willing can do things differently than their parents. Indeed, I know many intermarried Reform Jews who keep observant homes and raise Jewish children who have every expectation of raising Jewish children themselves someday. I know many converts to Judaism (both Reform and Orthodox) who are pillars of their congregations. I know Jews who did not get a Jewish education, who knew nothing when they knocked on the door of the community, who now are active, participating members. It is possible, but only with nurturing and encouraging support from the Jews already in those congregations.

My dream for the Jewish future is that someday instead of indulging in fantasies about other Jews, we’ll get to know them one-on-one. And that someday, instead of wailing about the Jewish future, we’ll see it in every human being who walks in the door of the synagogue.

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Rabbi Ruth Adar is a teaching rabbi in San Leandro, CA. She has many hats: rabbi, granny, and ham radio operator K6RAV. She blogs at and teaches at Jewish Gateways in Albany, CA.

8 thoughts on “Fantasy and the Jewish Future”

  1. Welcoming new members to the congregation would do wonders for the practice not only of the new comers, but the old timersw as well. Loving your neighbor enhances qyuality of life, and lowers blood pressure.

  2. A pleasure to read this post! As always, you are very clear in your thoughts. You use your sharp mind with your big heart. Your speech is inclusive – it calls for understanding among Jews. The same could be applied for a better interfaith communication and understanding. Shabbat Shalom, Rabbi Ruth! 🙂

  3. I love the way you document this comment! It helps eliminate the derisive feelings that can occur between the levels of observance of Jews. Having grown up in an Orthodox family, some of my “so called” Conservative or Reform friends excluded me from activities by assumption that I would not be able to participate. Many of their and their parents assumptions were false simply because they didn’t understand that I actually could be part of their activities. Often this led to hurtful feelings. Thankfully I had loving and engaging parents who were willing to educate me, my friends and their parents that Orthodoxy is not so different or exclusive. As an adult I am Reform in my home and community, but still hold some of those Orthodox practices and traditions very close to my heart, especially the willingness to teach others about our sameness.

    Shabbat Shalom Rabbi Ruth!

    1. Sheila, all so true! Many Reform Jews I know have roots in Orthodoxy or the Conservative traditions. Assumptions are never a good thing.

      I’m grateful for your readership and glad you are willing to participate in the comments!

  4. Reblogged this on Imaginarius and commented:
    For the upcoming Rosh Hashanah holiday season, given the divisive state of this generations’ spiritual seekers, my friend Rabbi Ruth eloquently expresses important and instructive points to consider not only for the holiday but for always. Hag Sameach!

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