With his broad smile and even broader tent, Modern Orthodox philosopher Dr. Micah Goodman is often labeled “Reform” by his Jewish detractors. But recently, in a wildly popular blog on an Israeli national religious Hebrew-language website, he was called something “worse” — Christian.
He responded to the accusation in an essay on the same website — rather philosophically, as one might expect.
“What happens to words — derogatory or celebratory — is that when they’re overused, their meaning dilutes, so you have to use a bigger, stronger word,” Goodman told The Times of Israel in a recent conversation. “Everyone is ‘reformi‘ now, so with inflation they said, ‘Call him notzri [Christian].
“If you’re ‘reformi,’ you’re the wrong Judaism. If you’re Christian, you’re not even Jewish,” he said.
The recent public buzz has helped him to understand the way he is perceived in many communities, said Goodman, a popular public speaker and educator in both religious and secular spheres on the cross-section of Jewish culture and spirituality. Goodman, who is the CEO of the pluralistic Ein Prat – The Midrasha, has written three Hebrew-language Israeli bestsellers on canonical Jewish texts, one of which was adapted into English, “Maimonides and the Book that Changed Judaism.”
“I am unlabeled: I’m not a rabbi, I’m not provocative. I speak about ideas outside of classic Judaism, without criticizing it. Here [in being called Christian], somebody finally managed to label me. It calms people down,” he laughed. In part because of this ability to transcend labels, in 2014, Goodman was a recipient of the Marc and Henia Liebhaber Prize for Religious Tolerance.
The instinct to categorize is natural, said Goodman. Labels are a way “to neutralize our curiosity.”
“Once you label somebody, you don’t need to understand them. It’s the illusion of knowledge. It blocks curiosity with the illusion of satisfying curiosity,” he said.
For him personally, being labeled is highly unsatisfying.
“I want the understanding without the illusion. I personally am trying to share my ideas with the largest crowd possible, trying not to be provocative, so different kinds of Israelis can find in my ideas something empowering for their Judaism,” said Goodman. “If they’re labeling me, it might weaken my ability to be effective.”
Generally, when people hear ideas different from their own, “there are two possible reactions — be threatened or be curious,” said Goodman.
In the case of the Orthodox perception of Reform Judaism, for example, the historical default has seen the denomination as menacing “authentic” Judaism and diluting it as a path to widespread assimilation. Such is the case for Israeli society at large.
“People link Reform Judaism to assimilation, to losing Judaism,” said Goodman.
Israelis as a whole misunderstand that the historical impetus of Reform Jewry was “also an attempt to stop assimilation,” he said. This misapprehension continues for modern Israelis’ perspectives of Diaspora Jewry.
“The assimilation rates in North America are extremely high, and many say the Reform Movement is creating assimilation. They have no thought in their minds that they [Reform] might be the last ones stopping it,” said Goodman.
Thinking about a robust Israeli Reform movement causes some Jewish leadership to have “a quick panic attack.” However, according to Goodman, they’re making two mistakes — linking assimilation abroad to the Reform movement, and thinking that it would cause Israelis to likewise assimilate.
“It’s a false deduction: in learning from what’s not working in America, we can’t learn what could or couldn’t work in Israel,” he said.
“Even if Israelis start thinking differently about halacha, they go to college, they fall in love and still marry Jews,” said Goodman — which is unique to Jewry in modern Israel, the Jewish state.
‘If you speak in favor a different Judaism, it doesn’t mean you belong to it’
Many religious Israelis have yet to learn that it is possible, said Goodman, to be an ally to a certain movement, and yet not take on that identity. “If you speak in favor of a different Judaism, it doesn’t mean you belong to it. I can have empathy and be a fan. I’m a big fan of secular Judaism, and I’m not secular; I am a fan of Reform, but not Reform,” he said.
Referencing the recent popular online attack against him, Goodman said that in the era of social media, there is an “illusion you’re exposed to the world, but you’re really only exposed to your world.” Nuanced arguments are increasingly lost as the social media “microphone” is more attuned to “vulgar” statements.
“We love ourselves, love certainty and are searching for people to reassure our thinking. Any idea that lacks certainty and has nuance has a hard time going viral. The more vulgar it is, the more viral,” he said.
Wave the flag
For Reform Jewry to have a foothold in Israeli religious Zionist circles, said Goodman, it needs to try a change in tactics. Current use of the language of “liberalism” and “pluralism” is not persuasive to most Israelis in promoting understanding for non-Orthodox Jewry.
Rather, the terms “patriotism” and “Zionism” are more useful in this battlefield of ideas.
“I find in the battle to promote more tolerance, most people that despise Reform Judaism suffer from an inner paradox — they are patriotic and lovers of Am Yisrael [the Jewish People] but are not aware that Reform Judaism is a critical mass of Am Yisrael. So loving Am Yisrael and denying Reform Jews causes a deep tension. The loving of the Jewish People means the accepting of Reform Judaism.”
Therefore the language of patriotism is a tool for increasing tolerance.
“For the most part, many of the people who deny the Judaism of Reform Jews are on the right wing in Israeli politics and expect America to back the policies of the Israeli government,” he said.
The recent UN Security Council referendum basically stated that the Western Wall is occupied territory, said Goodman, and Israelis “really want American Jews to protest and say, no, the Kotel belongs to the Jewish People.”
“But there’s a problem: The Israeli government has already said it doesn’t belong to the Jewish People. It has said it belongs to the Orthodox. For American Jews [the majority of whom are not Orthodox] it is hard to say, ‘They took the Kotel away from us,’ if they already took the Kotel away,” said Goodman.
“It is a tremendous price they are already paying for the denial of liberal Jewry,” said Goodman.