Reform Rabbis Embrace Ritual — Carefully
05/28/99
Staff Writer
After months of intense debate, Reform Judaism this week charted a cautious new course into the next century by approving a moderate platform designed to keep the peace among its traditional and classical wings. Instead of boldly going where Reform Judaism has never gone before by calling for greater adherence to specific Jewish rituals, the Central Conference of American Rabbis, the movement’s rabbinical arm, meeting in Pittsburgh this week, instead settled for a compromise “statement of principles” that upholds diverse modes of practice within the largest branch of American Judaism. The statement encourages Reform Jews to study Hebrew and Torah, observe Shabbat and several times mentions the importance of mitzvahs, or sacred obligations. The new set of principles marked the first time the CCAR has officially embraced more traditional observance. For the last five years, CCAR leaders as well as the heads of Reform’s congregational and academic branches have been trying to steer the movement toward tradition. About 400 members of the CCAR debated late into the night Tuesday and again on Wednesday morning over amendments and proposed language, before voting on the three-page platform. At 11:30 a.m. Wednesday, the CCAR approved the document, by a vote of 324 to 68, with nine abstentions. Ironically the debate was carried out in the same city where the movement adopted its first platform 114 years ago. “The goal of creating a document which expressed the commitment of a wide spectrum of the Reform movement has been achieved,” Rabbi Richard Levy, CCAR’s outgoing president and architect of the new platform told The Jewish Week. “It enables the Jewish people to introduce innovation while preserving tradition, bring faith to sacred texts without sacrificing critical scholarship. This speaks to you as a Reform Jew wherever you are.” But the new statement — the first in 23 years — is substantially altered from an earlier tradition-promoting draft, authored and published by Rabbi Levy last December that generated a firestorm of criticism from anti-traditionalists. The earlier draft had included references to eating kosher food and ritual cleansing in a mikveh. But no more. “You can’t encompass a large number of people by having a document which marginalized some people,” Rabbi Levy said. The new platform is seen as a victory for the classical wing of the movement, which rejected attempts by Reform leaders to inject more tradition and observance into daily practice. It is a viewed as a setback for a new wave of rabbis and lay people, many situated in New York and California, seeking greater adherence to Jewish ritual and a new positive ideology. “We are a movement in need of standards,” declared Rabbi Sheldon Zimmerman, president of Hebrew Union College, who expressed disappointment over the failure to adopt the December draft, a statement that called for greater adherence to mitzvahs, or sacred obligations. “My concern is that for Reform Jews, anything goes today, and it’s autonomy run amok.” The new statement includes short sections dealing with God, Torah, and Israel. The Israel portion, in part, states that “we are committed to strengthening the people of Israel by supporting the creation of Jewish families and homes rich in Jewish learning and observance.” The new principles — which are not legally binding, but rather are considered guidelines — contain a preamble urging Reform Jews to “engage in a dialogue with the sources of our tradition.” It also affirms the importance of studying Hebrew and promotes lifelong Jewish learning. Further, the document urges observance of the Sabbath and Jewish holidays and tikkun olam, “repairing the world,” which the Reform movement emphasizes as charity and social justice advocacy. Marking the sixth draft in two years, the platform “acknowledges the diversity of Reform Jewish beliefs and practices” under the “big tent” of the 150-year-old movement, estimated to have 1.3 million members in North America. But compared to previous drafts, Reform leaders admit the new document is watered down, or pareve — using the Hebrew word applied to foods which cannot be classified as milk or meat. “If it’s pareve, it means that both milchig [milk] and fleishig [meat] people can use it. That’s a good thing,” said Rabbi Levy, a Californian and traditionalist who was derided as a closet Conservative Jew in Reform clothing during the height of the controversy six months ago. When Rabbi Levy’s bold third draft was published in Reform Judaism magazine last December, it triggered an emotional response from classical Reform members, forcing him to set up a broad task force and include new voices in the debate, including the academic sector and lay people. Rabbi Levy told The Jewish Week Tuesday he was not disappointed about the dilution of his original vision. “If you want an open process you float things and ask people to come in on it,” he said. He admitted a vocal majority of Reform Jews opposed traditional language. “While a number of Reform Jews do keep aspects of kashrut and some have their own mikveh … these are still ideas not practiced by most Reform Jews day today,” he said. Reform leaders admit that the move toward more tradition is already making classical Reform congregants, many in the Midwest and South, feel left out and that Reform Judaism is becoming “Conservative-lite.” “I feel disenfranchised by my own religion,” said Barbara Stern of Winchester, Va. in an e-mail last March in response to the proposals. “It is beginning to feel like the only option that will be open to classical Reform Jews is the Unitarian Church, an option that will not be spiritually satisfying for many reasons.” But some congregants such as Ellen Lerner of Rochester, N.Y., said “I think without some kind of standards, Reform Judaism will lose its standing in the world Jewish community and either break off as its own religion or eventually disappear.” Rabbi Levy stressed that the new statement includes innovative language about being “committed to the ongoing study of the whole array of mitzvot,” a major break from the past. For example, in 1885 in Pittsburgh, Reform rabbis approved a platform stating that only ethical mitzvahs were binding and rejected all mitzvahs dealing with diet, dress and purity. Two later updates in 1937 and in 1976, made minor changes. Rabbi Avi Shafran, director of Am Echad, Hebrew for “One Nation,” a pan-Orthodox group committed to Jewish unity, said it was a pity that the more traditional draft was rejected and replaced by a “bland” alternative. Rabbi Zimmerman said he voted for the new platform because it contains a plan to continue the dialogue about observance with future “commentaries” to be written by rabbis on specific issues. “If this is a beginning of a compelling conversation … it will be healthy in the long run.” Incoming CCAR President Rabbi Charles Kroloff of Westfield, N.J., also cited the as-yet undefined commentary process as a saving grace. “I’m certainly committed to moving it forward to the level of commentary,” he said. Rabbi Kroloff said the traditional drafts were red flags for many Reform members and “Frankly, I didn’t think it was worth it to start splitting people off and have people feel disenfranchised,” by forcing the traditional version. Even the name of the document has changed. Originally it was called “The Ten Principles” a twist on the Ten Commandments. But in a nod toward the traditionalists, Rabbi Kroloff said flatly: “The direction of Reform toward more tradition is irreversible, and modifications in the platform aren’t going to effect that one way or another.”

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