Reform Calls for Greater Religious Adherence

Reform Judaism is at a critical juncture.

The movement has grown by 25 percent over the last 20 years. But with the rapid growth has come a crisis of faith.

Reform is bigger than ever, with 856 affiliated congregations and nearly 300,000 member families. Forty-two percent of American Jews identify themselves as Reform, according to a recent study.

As a movement, Reform has succeeded like no other in welcoming converts and the inter-married. And the social action programs, unique to the Reform movement in their breadth and scope, are firmly established on the national and local Reform agendas.

But along the way, something of the religious aspect of Reform Jewish life has been left behind. In its effort to embrace the unaffiliated, to be inclusive, the definition of Reform Judaism has become perhaps too elastic.

As a result, Jewish children attend religious school with non-Jews and, in some temples, non-Jews are the congregational leaders.

And many Reform Jews interpret the ideological pillar of the movement — individual autonomy from halachic authority — as freeing from from the responsibility of practicing Judaism.

It probably did not surprise anyone, therefore, that calls for ideological coherence and religious adherence were heard throughout the biennial conference of the Union of American Hebrew Congregations, the congregational branch of Reform Judaism, held here Oct. 31 through Nov. 4.

‘WE WILL DISAPPEAR’

“The greatest challenge to our movement is to take our manifest numeric growth and to make sure this burgeoning is accompanied by equally great inner growth in knowledge and in deed,” Rabbi Alexander Schindler, president of the Union, told the Jewish Telegraphic Agency in an interview.

Rabbi Simeon Maslin of Reform Congregation Keneseth Israel in Elkins Park, PA, phrased that challenge in more urgent terms.

“Unless we Reform Jews accept the idea that we must do something, we will disappear,” he warned. “Unless we start specifically Jewish acts, we’ve given the heritage up.”

In his address to the 4,000 delegates, Schindler called for an intensification of efforts to gain converts both before and after marriage.

“We need to move away from the ‘neutral,’ non-proselytizing stance that has hitherto informed our outreach effort,” he said. “Our desire to welcome converts should be made explicit.

“We need to affirm our Judaism frankly, freely, proudly, and without fear that it will offend the non-Jewish spouses,” he said. For “if we lack in missionary zeal, they are bound to surmise that we have no message at all.”

Delineating that message means defining the boundaries of Reform Judaism, which are, Schindler acknowledged, “most difficult to draw.”

He suggested the creation of a synod, a council of rabbinic scholars and highly educated lay people who would help form a non-binding consensus about Reform ritual and ideology.

“Perhaps it is time for us to visualize a movement, sufficiently matured and with a sufficiently educated laity, that might risk a little autonomy in the name of commitment,” he said.

Rabbi Walter Jacob, president of the Central Conference of American Rabbis, the movement’s rabbinic arm, and chairman of the Freehoff Institute for Progressive Halachah, agreed that codification of Reform position and practice is needed, as is more centralized Reform authority.

“We have autonomy and therefore we have chaos,” Jacob said in an interview. “We need a greater sense of discipline and sense of direction.

“Build-your-own Judaism is absurd.”

The sense of direction will come, in part, out of reliance on Reform halachah, “which may take 100 years to develop into something clear in every area,” Jacob said, adding that the degree to which it should be binding is still being debated.

“It should be more than guidance and less than governance. It will be a guide to Reform Jewish life.”

‘REFORM AT THE EXPENSE OF JUDAISM’

This is not the first time the Reform movement has tried to jettison some individual autonomy for the sake of the common good, he noted.

A century ago, each congregation had its own prayerbook. People realized that was a problem and, though it took 50 years for the transition to a common prayerbook to be completed, it did happen, he said.

Schindler called for a return to the texts that are the foundation of the Jewish religion.

“Deeds, however good, when detached from Torah study are trivialized and denied their Jewish moorings,” Schindler said in his address.

“Without such a mooring, deeds become entirely non-obligatory. They can be accepted or rejected at whim.”

The problem, articulated Rabbi W. Gunther Plaut, senior scholar at Holy Blossom Temple in Toronto and chairman of the Reform movement’s Committee on Responsa, is that “in the name of openness and tolerance, we are stressing Reform at the expense of Judaism.”

The consensus at the conference seemed to be that the rationality which informed those who established classical Reform is no longer enough to bind Reform Jews to their Judaism or to give them what they seek in their religious lives.

‘THE BEARDED MAN’

“There is a much greater thirst for the holy” in Reform than ever before, said Schindler. Reform Jews “want to feel, they are searching for that which may not necessarily be seen, but which is nonetheless real.

“There is much more emphasis on the spiritual at this biennial” than there has been before, Schindler explained, “because we realize the impact it can have.”

But a reconsideration of its fundamental direction does not mean that Reform is trying to become like Orthodox — or even Conservative–Judaism, Schindler assured.

Even speaking about God or about religious identity is something that many Reform Jews find threatening, he said. It is as if “we are but resident aliens amid the true citizens of Judaism,” a place where the “true citizens” are “the bearded man” and “the bewigged woman.

“This mind-set is entirely self-defeating,” Schindler said. The manner in which Reform “recasts tradition, deliberately and openly,” its vision of Judaism “as a dynamic and not static faith,” is authentic Judaism, he said.

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