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Reform Group Overwhelmingly Rejects Membership for Humanist Congregation

In a decision that its leaders see as simply a reaffirmation of longstanding beliefs, the Reform movement voted overwhelmingly this week not to admit as a member a congregation that calls itself “humanistic” and deletes all references to God in its services.

Beth Adam, a small, 14-year-old congregation in Cincinnati applied for membership in the Union of American Hebrew Congregations, the umbrella group of the Reform movement, in 1991.

The following year, the UAHC’s Midwest regional New Congregations Committee and the Midwest regional board discussed the application and decided against admitting Beth Adam. The matter then went to the group’s national board, which met in Washington over the weekend for its semi-annual session.

The final vote, 115 against admittance, 13 for and 4 abstentions, did not come as much of a surprise to Rabbi Eric Yoffie, vice president of the 860-congregation UAHC.

Yoffie had expected the vote to be closer, but he also thought the congregation would “make a better case, show greater flexibility to their approach.”

The congregation’s presentation before the board, Yoffie explained, made a case for its having a “questioning” or skeptical approach. That is not, however, what it sounded like to him. Instead, he said, the presentation made them sound like they were “a kind of Orthodoxy.”

‘A FUNDAMENTAL REJECTION OF GOD’

Rather than questioning the nature of God, congregation members “systematically reject” all notions of God and “then said you could question it,” Yoffie said.

The clincher for him was a story presented by the congregation in which a 13-year-old girl wanted to say the Shema — Judaism’s touchstone prayer of God’s oneness — at her bat mitzvah and was talked out of it after discussion with the rabbi. “Their starting point is not a questioning but a fundamental rejection of God,” Yoffie said.

Speaking in favor of the application, Beth Adam’s Rabbi Robert Barr said that “Beth Adam does not seek to stifle its members in their religious quest. Rather, we seek to provide support and encouragement for their religious growth.”

The congregation’s past president, James Cummins, said, “Many of our members have a concept of God. But no specific or particular God concept is imposed on any member out of respect for the individual and that individual’s efforts to tie expression to his or her deeply held religious beliefs.

“All of our liturgy seeks to be compatible with our philosophy and to protect each member’s personal religious journey.”

Reform Judaism traditionally has accepted belief in a personal God, explained Melvin Merians, chair of the UAHC board.

“People’s search for God has always been welcome in Reform Judaism,” said Merians. “As a result, many Reform Jews feel very strongly about their own different interpretation of God. But the fact that Judaism, and Reform Judaism has always been God-centered has been reaffirmed by this debate.”

In this way, the debate, though difficult, may actually have led to greater cohesion within the movement, rather than opening it up for division, according to participants.

A few days before the debate Rabbi Alfred Gottschalk, president of Hebrew Union College, said he “could live with it,” if the congregation were admitted to the union.

“We don’t believe in pariahs,” Gottschalk said. “We don’t like to exclude Jews. We’ve lost too many already.”

Still, he expressed some discomfort with the idea of opening the movement up to a congregation that “says we will not say the Shema when Jews have died for the right to say it.”

No one in the debate, however, “questioned whether they (Beth Adam members) were Jews or a part of the Jewish community,” Yoffie said. Rather, the focus was on the role of congregations as opposed to individuals.

“An institution like a congregation has to allow for the search for God in its liturgy,” Merians said. “There has to be a chance for congregants to reach for God through prayer together with the rest of the members of the congregation.”

The end result, Yoffie said, “was an affirmation by our leadership that God is fundamental to who we are and that belief in God is the foundation in which our movement exists and must be built.

“Institutions have to begin with a commitment of faith. Individuals can accept it or not, but the institutions do not have that freedom,” said Yoffie.

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