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5 Tishrei 5760 - September 15, 1999 | Mordecai Plaut, director Published Weekly








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Opinion & Comment
Can British Reform still be considered a Jewish movement?

by Martin Stern

In an article, "When two tribes" (6 Nov. '98), the (London) Jewish Chronicle quoted Rabbi Dr. Julian Shindler, director of marriage authorization at the Office of the Chief Rabbi as stating that "increased rates of assimilation and intermarriage have made our investigations (into the eligibility of applicants from non-Orthodox communities to marry under his office's auspices) more complex." The statistical basis for this is demonstrated by quoting the published research of one of the leading ministers of the British Reform movement which showed conclusively that the majority of persons born to those married under Reform auspices would have some disqualification from marrying in an Orthodox synagogue.

It should be noted that in Britain, the Reform movement is more similar to the American Conservatives, though it is affiliated to the World Union for Progressive Judaism, the international wing of the U.S. Reform movement. There is a small Masorti movement, affiliated with the U.S. Conservatives, but which also has close ties with the U.K. Reform, their principal `rabbi' giving `semichah' to graduates of the U.K. Progressive `Rabbinic' Seminary. The equivalent of the American Reform movement in the U.K. is known as Liberal, which also maintains close relations with the U.K. Reform movement.

Jonathan Romain obtained a Ph.D. from the University of Leicester in 1990 for a thesis entitled `The Foundation and Development of the Rabbinical Court of the Reform Synagogues of Great Britain, 1935-1965.' He presented a paper based on his research to the Jewish Historical Society of England on 20 May 1993 which was published in their transactions, volume XXXIII, pp. 249-263. The material contained in his paper came as a considerable surprise to me since I had assumed that most members of the Reform movement were in reality unquestionably Jewish. (Unless otherwise stated all references will be to that paper.)

In his introductory comments he writes (p.249) that originally, "Requests for conversion were rare, and applicants were sent abroad. After 1875, however, a less timid attitude prevailed and conversion ceremonies were carried out in England. Cases at West London synagogue were still infrequent and whenever one arose an ad hoc court was created. Halachic requirements were considered background details that were not necessary to follow: circumcision was required for males, but tevilah (`immersion') was not. Sincerity was the keynote; fulfilling the commandments was regarded as an additional piety for those that so wished."

Incidentally tevilah was reinstated in 1977 as Dr. Romain states in his book `Faith and Practice' (RSGB, 1991 p. 15). However, he does not add the proviso that Liberal proselytes, who do not undergo tevilah, are considered by them as fully Jewish as it is their policy, "to recognize proselytes accepted into Judaism by any other Beth Din."

This situation seems to have continued until the Second World War. Dr. Romain writes (p. 255) "A significant effect of the war years was the sharp rise in intermarriage. The extent of courtship between Jews and non-Jews is evident from the number of proselyte inquiries at West London Synagogue; whereas, before the War they numbered 20-30 per annum, by 1942 they had increased to 54 and in 1945 they leapt to 105 inquiries."

A Reform `Beth Din' was established in 1948 to deal with this problem and Dr. Romain carried out a detailed study of the cases between 1948 and 1965 as part of his doctoral research. In `Faith and Practice' (p. 175) he states: "In all its dealings, the ethos of the Reform Beth Din is to assist in whatever way possible, and emphasis is laid not just on fulfilling set procedures."

He found that it dealt with just over 2500 cases in this period of which, "The number of adult proselytes coming before the Reform Beth Din indicates a pattern of steady increase. Thus 40 cases appearing in the first year rose to 109 cases in 1965. (This figure has remained largely the same since then.) Only 9 per cent of applicants were converting purely for love of Judaism itself and with no other motive to influence their decision. In all other instances a Jewish partner was involved

Moreover, more than half the Jews concerned had married their spouses before they converted. The fact that conversion was an afterthought to marriage for many is shown also by the large number of young children who converted at the same time as their mother. "It is noticeable that the overwhelming number of proselytes were women, with a total of 1120 applicants compared to 229 men. The overall ratio of approximately five females for every male compares exactly to Reform conversions in the United States where the same ratio is found." (p. 257)

From his figures it would appear that about 1150 children were converted, about two for each married woman. It appears that these figures do not include adopted non-Jewish children since he discusses them separately, though he does not give any indication of the numbers involved. (p. 258)

An even more worrying aspect of the work of the Reform `Beth Din' is in regard to divorce. Dr. Romain states (p. 259) that, "In only 14 percent of all cases had the couple been married in a Reform synagogue -- the other 86 percent coming from Orthodox synagogues. The figure is slightly lower today -- around 63 percent." These divorces are obviously not acceptable gittin since, "The Reform Beth Din took on itself the power to award an equivalent document despite the objections of either party."

This accounts for much of the growth of the Reform movement from 1940 to 1960, as Dr. Romain states (p. 251). "Moreover, those using the Reform Beth Din also had an even more considerable impact on the number of marriages performed in Reform synagogues, which increased dramatically in this period, whereas Orthodox marriages decreased. If the total number of proselytes whose conversion was followed by a marriage (1205) is added to the number of individuals whose divorce was followed by a remarriage (211), the total sum accounts for 45 percent of all Reform marriages during that time (3139)."

The figures cited regarding marriages refer to the years 1940- 60. Since then divorce and intermarriages rates have risen, so one might expect such disqualified marriages to form an even larger percentage of the total. Some indications of this trend are evident from the passages quoted.

Dr. Romain does state that the Reform movement currently (1993) makes approximately 109 adult conversions each year of which only 9% are unconnected with a potential marriage, i.e., about 100 conversions involve someone specifically converted for this purpose. According to the figures published by the Community Research Unit of the Board of Deputies the total number of Reform marriages has declined from about 190 per year in the late 70's to 160 per year in the early 90's.

Furthermore, children of couples who had married previously under Reform auspices will not be included in their statistics as being anything other than ordinary Jews. We can estimate the numbers involve from the figures quoted earlier since in these cases at least one partner would be the child of a family within that movement. In the early 90's these amounted to about 60 marriages. According to Dr. Romain, 38% of marriages between 1940 and 1960 involved a convert of whom five sixths were female, i.e., 32% would have produced non- Jewish offspring, making a total of 19 marriages in the early 90's.

In addition there are "the large number of young children who converted at the same time as their mother" and the rising number of adopted children whose conversion could not be sanctioned by the London Beis Din, both referred to above, for which figures are not available, but would also have given rise to problems.

Also 7% of the marriages in the earlier period involved a divorcee whose get was arranged by the Reform Beth Din, a proportion that almost certainly has increased since, implying that at least 4 more marriages involved a mamzer. Though we do not have figures for the number of marriages involving a current divorcee, it cannot be less in view of the massive increase in the divorce rate over the last 30 years, and must therefore exceed 5.

In addition there will probably be others who are disqualified because of irregularities in previous generations for which figures are not available, and those marriages involved a Cohen and a woman specifically prohibited to him. Thus we see that at least 128 of the 160 (80%) marriages recorded under Reform auspices could not have taken place in an Orthodox synagogue. Their own admitted statistics explain Rabbi Dr. Shindler's difficulties in sanctioning the marriages of their children. The question that must now be asked is whether it is possible to even assume that Reform synagogues are any longer congregations of Jews in any meaningful sense.

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