The Right Coast

July 13, 2004
Old Reform
By Maimon Schwarzschild

A rabbinical school classmate of my father's -- and lifelong friend of mine -- died here in London last week: Albert Friedlander, longtime rabbi of the Westminster Synagogue, a well-known Liberal (in American terms, Reform) synagogue in Britain. Friedlander was a lovely man, with a pixie-ish sense of humour, and I'll miss him very much. His family asked me to pick out something from Friedlander's writings and to read it at his funeral, which I did: it was extremely touching to be asked to do this. The funeral itself drew many hundreds of people. If you want a big funeral when you die, you might consider a career in the rabbinate (or in the clergy of any religion, I suppose), but the numbers at this funeral were exceptional even by those standards: Friedlander was a notably lovely person.

There was a kind of historical dimension to this, I felt, as well as a personal one. Friedlander was one of the last German-born Jews to be ordained as a Reform rabbi (my father was another). Reform Judaism started in Germany in the 19th century. It embodied a set of ideas (or perhaps illusions) about re-making Judaism in an ethical, Enlightenment image: intellectual, high-minded, purged of superstitious elements. (One person's superstitious elements are another person's religious elements, of course.) Reform seemed in tune with the solid, bourgeois optimism of the 19th century, earnestly moral, looking forward to a progressive, sensible, ever-improving world.

The 20th century didn't quite work out that way. By the 1940s, German Jewry was destroyed. At the Reform seminary in the USA, Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati, the older faculty were German Jewish scholars -- incredibly erudite in languages like Aramaic and Akkadian and in "critical" Bible scholarship, if not very "religious" in any traditional sense. But their successors were Americans from a completely different world. And there would be no more German Jewish students.

Today, Reform Judaism often seems not much more than an ethnic shell for left-liberal political platitudes. Today's Jewish vibrancy is elsewhere: mostly in resurgent Orthodoxy. The demographics tell the tale: Reform Jews don't have many children, and of the children they have, many don't care much (and know even less) about the religion. Orthodox Jews, on the other hand, have lots of children, most of whom don't drift far, and very many of whom are even more fervent than their parents.

The old German Reform was crushed, really, by history. But it had moral and historical dignity. Albert Friedlander was one of its kindest and gentlest, as well as one of its last. Zichrono le-verachah. (Roughly, in Hebrew: requiescat in pacem.)