A United Synagogue rabbi has been criticised for saying on a BBC programme that the Reform movement offered “a kind of retail spirituality”, which is “not an authentic Judaism”.
Rabbi Moshe Freedman, of the New West End Synagogue, made the remarks when interviewed about synagogue membership on Radio 4’s religious affairs programme, Sunday, last weekend.
Rabbi Laura Janner-Klausner, Senior Rabbi of the Movement for Reform Judaism, said his comments were “wrong, divisive and unfortunate. It undermines the integrity of non-Orthodox Jews.”
She revealed she had also been asked to contribute to the programme but was dropped after being told that Rabbi Freedman would not take part with her.
The programme looked at the new report on British shul membership, published by the Institute for Jewish Policy Research and the Board of Deputies, which revealed that central Orthodox congregations had lost more than a third of their membership since 1990.
When asked about Reform, Rabbi Freedman said it “represents a kind of retail spirituality —‘so we will provide whatever you want and our values can be moulded around whatever secular values are popular at the time’. And that’s a very populist approach.”
Reform, he said, had created “a kind of Jewish-flavoured humanism” and “a form of Judaism in their own minds but it is not an authentic Judaism.”
The presenter asked him: “Do you think actual engagement, though, on this programme, for example, might help challenging misconceptions different parts of the community have of each other?”
Rabbi Freedman responded: “It’s very difficult to have a conversation with people who have created a caricature of centrist Orthodoxy and in particular of the strictly Orthodox community.”
Rabbi Janner-Klausner told the JC that Rabbi Freedman’s remarks indicated that “something has changed on the agreement not to denigrate each other in public, and I am very concerned. I hope this does not reflect a change in policy from the United Synagogue.”
She added that she had been invited to speak on the programme on Friday but late on Saturday night after Shabbat she was told that “Moshe wouldn’t do it with me and because the US had far more to answer in response to the research, they would choose him”.
A BBC spokesperson acknowlegded this week that “with hindsight it would have been helpful to have another view represented”.
The line-up of contributors on live programmes, the spokesperson explained, was “always subject to change ahead of broadcast and is dependent on the focus of the item, which on this occasion was the declining figures in the central Orthodox Jewish community.”
Explaining its position, a spokesperson for the United Synagogue said it had “received an inquiry on Friday afternoon to appear on the Sunday programme to discuss centrist Orthodoxy.
“There was a misunderstanding which meant the precise nature of the programme was not clear until just before Shabbat, at which point we offered to withdraw. However, the BBC decided it was important to have a centrist Orthodox spokesperson, as this formed the focus of the report.”
But the US spokesperson made clear that in accordance with the 1998 “Stanmore Accords” — an agreement between the US and non-Orthodox movements, “we are of course happy to engage with Reform, as we have done on a number of occasions and as Rabbi Freedman has in recent times.”