Focus on Issues: Proposed New Reform Platform Sparks Debate over Observance
Menu JTA Search

Focus on Issues: Proposed New Reform Platform Sparks Debate over Observance

Download PDF for this date

A proposed new document that endorses studying Torah, keeping the Sabbath and other ritual practices has touched off a passionate debate among Reform rabbis and congregants about just how focused on traditional Jewish observance their movement should be.

The document, a draft for a new platform that is titled “Ten Principles for Reform Judaism,” urges observance of mitzvot, or commandments, and devotion to Hebrew and Israel. This stands in stark contrast to decades of practice in the Reform movement that placed a higher priority on ethical practice than on ritual observance.

The debate highlights the divide between those who consider themselves “classical Reform” Jews and those who are more traditional in their religious practices.

The platform was originally slated to come up for a vote by Reform rabbis at their annual convention next May in Pittsburgh. That is the same city where, in 1885, the movement adopted its first platform, which discarded all of Judaism’s rules about keeping kosher and customs of dress as “altogether foreign to our mental and spiritual state.”

But the controversy that the proposed new platform has ignited makes it unlikely that the issue will be resolved before the May convention gets under way.

The proposed platform was discussed extensively last weekend in Memphis, where the 250-member national board of the Union of American Hebrew Congregations was meeting. Rabbi Eric Yoffie, the congregational body’s president, urged further discussion throughout the movement in an effort to reach some sort of consensus.

Meanwhile, the executive committee of the Central Conference of American Rabbis, the Reform movement’s rabbinical association, decided last week to form a task force with representatives of the UAHC and Hebrew Union College, the Reform seminary, to further study and redraft the proposed platform.

People in the Reform movement are at this point about evenly split, say those who have been most involved in the debate.

Those who keep kosher and observe other mitzvot say this is the direction in which the Reform movement is heading. But many who believe that authentic Reform Judaism is based on ethics, not commandments, say they worry that there will be no room in the denomination left for them.

Reform Judaism is a movement in transition between an era in which organ music and operatic solos were the norm during worship services — while wearing yarmulkas and prayer shawls was universally eschewed — and one increasingly described as “warm Reform,” in which congregants join in folk-style Jewish singing and many elect to cover their heads and wrap themselves in tallitot during prayer.

The transition has been under way for a long time. Rabbi Alexander Schindler, president emeritus of the UAHC, said in an interview that there has been tension over these issues since the 1930s.

Never before, however, has anyone made a move to make the more traditionalist orientation an official part of Reform policy.

And now that Rabbi Richard Levy, president of the CCAR, has attempted to do so, the outcry is enormous.

In the outcry is audible the Reform movement’s struggles with the tensions between universalism and particularism, between inclusion and standards, and between autonomy and cohesion.

Levy began circulating a first draft of his “Ten Principles” statement last March at the Reform rabbis’ annual conference, where it prompted a stir.

But rabbis in every movement tend to be more observant and traditionalist in orientation than most of their lay people. So it wasn’t until the proposed platform reached the 300,000 households in which there are Reform congregants – – through the cover story in the Winter 1998 issue of Reform Judaism magazine – – that the rumpus began in earnest.

In the version published in the magazine, which has been replaced by another draft in the weeks since, Levy used Hebrew terminology and focused his 10 principles on concepts like kedushah, or holiness; mitzvot, or commandments; and a sense of being commanded by the Torah.

The draft platform published in the magazine is accessible at the Central Conference Web site:

Among other things it:

proclaims the Torah as “our center” and calls for a “disciplined commitment at every stage of our lives to learn Torah in the widest possible sense”;

urges a commitment to “observance of the mitzvot of Shabbat” through “the practice of refraining from ordinary weekday acts” and “welcoming the special Shabbat rituals into our lives”;

calls for the “creative celebration of the seasonal festivals” and life-cycle rituals;

opens the door to observance of both “mitzvot that have long been hallmarks of Reform Judaism” and “other mitzvot new to Reform Jewish observance,” including the wearing of tefillin, observance of kashrut and going to the mikvah, or ritual bath;

encourages “Reform Jews to make aliyah, immigration to Israel”; and

pledges that Reform Jews will strive to read Hebrew, “to let it help articulate our prayer and inform our study, to speak it.”

For those Reform Jews who regard the key to their movement as rooted in ethical choices rather than commanded obligations, these guidelines have been difficult to embrace.

The impact was exacerbated, some say, by the magazine’s cover, which shows the bearded Levy in a pose of prayerful contemplation, wearing a yarmulka and wrapped in the traditional prayer shawl as he reverentially kisses the fringes, or tzitzit, on the end.

Together, the platform and the picture caused some to wonder what was happening to their movement and whether they could remain Reform Jews. It is clear that some in the movement equate observance of traditional practices with Orthodox Judaism — and view the traditionalist camp as moving in that direction.

“I could not even finish reading this in the magazine because it was so repulsive,” Laurie Livingston, a member at Peninsula Temple Beth El in San Mateo, Calif., wrote in the Reform Judaism magazine’s Web site discussion forum.

If the platform is adopted as policy by the movement, “my children and I will join swelling ranks of the unaffiliated,” she vowed.

“I have gone to great lengths to give my kids a strong Jewish education and Jewish identity. They love going to temple,” she wrote. But the proposed platform “is too regressive and orthodox for me.”

In an article in the same issue of the magazine, Rabbi Robert Seltzer, a professor of Jewish history at Hunter College, warned that Levy’s platform is “turning Reform Judaism into Conservative Judaism Lite.”

At the same time, those who are more inclined to be observant feel the proposed platform gives them a voice in a movement in which they currently feel marginalized.

Mark Levy of Santa Monica, Calif., has been wearing a kipah and tallit, and keeping kosher both at home and while eating out, for about 25 years. As a result, he has been asked many times by others in the movement why he is Reform rather than Conservative or Orthodox.

When he was president of his congregation, Leo Baeck Temple, his wearing a kipah and tallit while he sat on the bimah during services prompted such fury that it was taken up for discussion by the board of directors.

Levy, who is no relation to the rabbi who drafted the platform, said in an interview that adopting the platform “would be valuable for the movement, as long as it doesn’t say, `You must’ “do anything.

“Even if these things never get adopted, there are people talking about it, and we’re hearing people’s voices that we never heard before,” he said.

For Barbara Shuman, a member of Temple David in Monroeville, Pa., the proposed platform has affirmed her place within the movement.

“I’ve been on a spiritual journey informed by ongoing learning. Now I’m one of the few in my community to personally wear a tallit and to have more Shabbat in our home,” she said in an interview.

“In this movement, we seem to have erected an idol of personal autonomy,” she continued. “This tent is so wide open, but I don’t always celebrate that because I want to know where the edges of the tent are.

“For me being a Reform Jew means understanding that I have a covenant with God, and I think there are responsibilities incumbent with that,” she added.

“I’m hopeful that whatever form these principles eventually take they will not just say it’s up to every individual, but that there’s something that applies for all of us.”

Rabbi Richard Levy, who started the whole process, is pleased by the debate.

“I hoped this effort would produce serious discussion of what God and Torah and mitzvot mean to us,” he said in an interview from his offices at the Los Angeles Hillel Council, where he works as executive director.

“Wherever we go from here, I know there is a commitment to continuing the discussion and moving beyond it to action.”

Founding Funders

The digitization of the JTA Archive would not have been possible without the generous support of the following donors:
  • The Gottesman Fund
  • Righteous Persons Foundation
  • Charles H. Revson Foundation
  • Elisa Spungen Bildner and Robert Bildner, in honor of Norma Spungen
  • George S. Blumenthal
  • Grace and Scott Offen Charitable Fund