A Century After Rejecting Zionism, Reform Rabbis Publicly Urge Aliyah

What a difference a century makes. Reform rabbis are marking the centennial of the first World Zionist Congress with an unprecedented platform dedicated solely to the link between Reform Judaism and Israel.

The platform, which encourages aliyah, was expected to be adopted late Tuesday at the annual meeting of the Central Conference of American Rabbis in Miami.

It reflects a sharp departure from the movement’s historical anti-Zionist Pittsburgh Platform adopted in 1885.

That year, Reform Jews declared: “We consider ourselves no longer a nation, but a religious community, and therefore expect neither a return to Palestine, nor a sacrificial worship under the sons of Aaron nor the restoration of any of the laws concerning the Jewish state.”

The final draft of the new platform refers to the changes over the years in the CCAR’s stance on Jewish peoplehood and its ultimate embrace of Zionism.

But it also reflects on the need to “re-examine and re-define the ideological and spiritual bonds that connect” the people of Israel to the land and State of Israel and to enunciate the principles that will guide Reform Judaism into the next century.

The platform, seven years in the making, is being issued at a time when the Reform movement is fighting a bitter battle for legal recognition in the Jewish state.

It emphasizes Israel as central to Jewish life, the importance of the Hebrew language, aliyah and study in Israel, and Israel’s obligation to honor civil rights and democracy and to value people over land.

Rabbi Elliot Stevens, executive secretary of the CCAR, said the platform was prompted, in part, by the growing Reform movement in Israel and its “struggle for pluralistic rights.”

The platform reflects a “need to express how we feel about Israel” as well as an effort “to support our community there,” he said in a telephone interview from the conference in Miami.

But the most noteworthy aspect of the document, he said, is “the fact of having a platform altogether” on Israel and Zionism, given Reform’s history.

With a few individual exceptions, he said, “it wasn’t until just before World War II that the conference began to look with warmth at the Zionist enterprise.”

Highlights of the principles in the platform, subject to change after a debate, include:

“The eternal covenant established at Sinai ordained a unique religious purpose for Am Yisrael. Medinat Yisrael, the Jewish state, is therefore unlike all other states. Its obligation is to strive towards the attainment of the Jewish people’s highest moral ideals…”

“We urge that [national sovereignty] be used to create the kind of society in which full civil, human and religious rights exist for all its citizens.”

“While we view Eretz Yisrael as sacred, the sanctity of Jewish life takes precedence over the sanctity of Jewish land. We deplore those amongst our people who elevate the integrity of the Land of Israel above the needs of the people of Israel.”

“Even as Medinat Yisrael serves uniquely as the spiritual and cultural focal point of world Jewry, Israeli and Diaspora Jewry are interdependent, responsible for one another, and partners in the shaping of Jewish destiny.”

“Recognizing that knowledge of Hebrew is indispensable both in the study of Judaism and in fostering solidarity between Israeli and Diaspora Jews, we commit ourselves to intensifying Hebrew instruction in all Reform institutions.”

“To deepen awareness of Israel and strengthen Jewish identity, we call upon all Reform Jews, adults and youths, to study in, and make regular visits to, Israel.”

“While affirming the authenticity and necessity of a creative and vibrant Diaspora Jewry, we encourage Reform Jews to make aliyah to Israel in pursuance of the precept of yishuv Eretz Yisrael, (settling the Land of Israel).”

“We call upon Reform Jews everywhere to dedicate their energies and resources to the strengthening of an indigenous Progressive Judaism” in Israel.

“The Jewish people will be best served when Medinat Yisrael is constituted as a pluralistic, democratic society.”

“We believe that the renewal and perpetuation of Jewish national life in Eretz Yisrael is a necessary condition for the realization of the physical and spiritual redemption of the Jewish people and of all humanity.”

Stevens predicted debate about the provision deeming Israel “the focal point” in Jewish life.

There is consensus that neither the Diaspora nor Israel “can go it alone,” he said.

But “there has been a lot of discussion about whether there is a hierarchy” of Jewish centers and whether or not Israel and the Diaspora are, in fact, “co- equal,” he said.

Indeed, in his CCAR presidential address, Rabbi Simeon Maslin of Philadelphia rejected the notion of Israel as supreme.

“There will be two major centers of Jewish life in the 21st century — Israel and America,” he said.

“A Judaism disconnected from Zion is an aberration,” he added. “But while Israel is a major element of Judaism, it is not its surrogate.”

Maslin used his remarks to criticize the Orthodox attacks in the United States and Israel against Reform Judaism. He accused the haredim of trying to subvert Judaism and fragment the Jewish people.

“Aside from devotion to Jewish learning, Orthodoxy offers very little to American Jewry in the 21st century,” he said.

In contrast, he lauded Reform Judaism as “the way back in” for “multitudes who are today alienated or in quest.”

“I see us as the alternative to lives devoid of meaning, lives of banality and materialism, lives of superstition and religious coercion.”

At the same time, Maslin called on the 600 Reform rabbis at the convention to deepen their Jewish literacy to keep Judaism alive in a meaningful way.

CCAR has 1,800 members, including rabbis from Canada and Europe.

At its conference in Miami this week, it was slated to vote on a proposal to change its name to the Central Conference of Reform Rabbis.

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