Focus on Issues: Are Reform Rabbis on Same Page As Congregants in Urging Tradition?
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Focus on Issues: Are Reform Rabbis on Same Page As Congregants in Urging Tradition?

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In 1885, Reform rabbis gathered in Pittsburgh to adopt a platform that described observance of traditional Jewish laws governing diet and dress as “altogether foreign to our mental and spiritual state” and “apt rather to obstruct than to further modern spiritual elevation.”

In a change of heart and a sign of very different times, Reform rabbis returned to the western Pennsylvania city this week to vote on a “statement of principles” that embraces traditional Jewish practices more than any of the three platforms that preceded it.

The vote was scheduled for Tuesday afternoon. The issue clearly was the centerpiece of the annual three-day convention of the Central Conference of American Rabbis, which began Sunday night and drew 600 rabbis from around the country.

The new principles have gone through five major revisions since their introduction last fall by Richard Levy, the outgoing president of the group.

The principles consist of a preamble urging Reform Jews to “engage in a dialogue with the sources of our tradition” and statements about Reform Jews’ relationships with God, Torah, the Jewish people and the Land of Israel.

Among other things, the document affirms the importance of studying Hebrew, promotes lifelong Jewish learning and calls for observance of mitzvot, or commandments, “that address us as individuals and as a community.”

Some of these mitzvot long have been observed by Reform Jews; others, both ancient and modern, speak to “the unique context of our own times,” says the document, which urges observance in some form of Shabbat and holidays, tikkun olam, which the Reform movement emphasizes as social action, and tzedakah, or charitable giving.

Earlier drafts of the principles, particularly a version that appeared in Reform Judaism magazine six months ago, specified other mitzvot, such as observing kashrut and wearing kipot, or yarmulkas, and tallitot, or prayer shawls, “in the presence of God.”

The magazine’s cover read “Is It Time to Chart a New Course For Reform Judaism?” and featured Levy wearing a yarmulka and prayer shawl and kissing the shawl’s fringes, or tzitzit.

In addition to the principles and an interview with Levy, the magazine — which is distributed to the 300,000 households affiliated with Reform temples — also included a counterpoint by Rabbi Robert Seltzer in which he warned that the principles may turn Reform Judaism into “Conservative Judaism Lite.”

Since that publication, the principles have sparked debates about the identity of Reform Judaism, which claims more American Jews than any other movement.

They have highlighted the divide between those who consider themselves “classical Reform” Jews and those who are more traditional in their religious practices.

In fact, the movement has been in transition for some time — from an era in which organ music and operatic solos were the norm during worship services, while wearing kipot and prayer shawls was universally eschewed — to one in which congregants join in folk-style Jewish singing and many elect to cover their heads and wrap themselves in tallitot during prayer.

As rabbis and lay leaders discussed and revised the principles at a December board meeting of the Union of American Hebrew Congregations — the Reform movement’s congregational arm — and through a task force appointed to the job, rank and file Reform Jews have been sounding off on the Internet.

In response to its request for feedback, the Reform Judaism magazine Web site received approximately 70 pages of comments from Reform Jews throughout North America.

The comments began in December and were still coming in as the controversial vote approached.

Some respondents have been supportive.

“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,” Ellen Lerner of Rochester, N.Y., wrote on March 9.

But the majority were critical, voicing fears that encouraging traditional mitzvot would soon give way to coercion and blur the lines between Reform and Conservative Judaism.

“If I wanted this much dogma, I’d be a Conservative Jew,” wrote Don Rothschild of Denver on March 27.

“I feel disenfranchised by my own religion,” wrote Barbara Stern of Winchester, Va. “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.”

Jean Hecht of Binghamton, N.Y., wrote: “I think the main objection I have to all this is that it is taking away from what we should really be doing, which is to build strong congregations.

“Such principles, while they may have lofty goals, will only serve to turn off potential members,” she said. “All the CCAR leadership is doing is to create a controversy where none existed before.”

The board of one Reform temple, Lakeside Congregation in suburban Chicago, even passed a resolution urging the CCAR not to vote on any statement of principles.

As the rabbis gathered in Pittsburgh on Sunday afternoon, shmoozing with old friends, many said they were unsure whether the statement of principles would pass.

Several said they had not yet decided how they would vote.

Some expressed disappointment with the lengthy revision process, noting that the original document had been watered down.

But others felt the debates had been healthy, and that the new version better reflects the diversity of views within Reform Judaism.

“The statement in the original form was stronger, but to appeal to a broader audience it was diluted,” said Rabbi Hillel Gamora of Seattle.

Now retired, Gamora served a temple in Chicago for over 30 years, and supports more ritual observance in the movement.

Rabbi Yossi Feintuck of Columbia, Mo., said the principles will help “soften the negative connotations from the 1885 platform” and counter the stereotype among many Jews that being Reform is simply an excuse not to observe mitzvot.

Rabbi Geoffrey Dennis of Indianapolis said, “Initially I was unhappy because I felt they were too eccentric, but now I will vote for it.

“The revisions are more encompassing, more descriptive than prescriptive.”

But his yarmulka-wearing friend Stanton Lamek of San Francisco, said he preferred the earlier drafts that emphasized more tradition.

The two rabbis, friends from their days at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, the Reform seminary at which they were ordained in 1996, acknowledged that their differing viewpoints stem in part from their different congregations.

One rabbinical student, Brigitte Rosenberg, said she supported the original statement of principles, but complained that the new version is a “copout.”

“To bring it before a vote, they really compromised,” she said. “Now it leaves a lot open for interpretation.”

She and classmate Shari Heinrich said their fellow students were divided on the principles and have widely divergent levels of observance.

They range “from people who lay tefillin to people who choose not to wear a kipah, from people who keep kosher to those who eat barbecue pork,” Rosenberg said.

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