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Classical Reform revival pushes back against embrace of tradition

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Rabbi Howard Berman promoting Classical Reform Judaism at the Union for Reform Judaism biennial in Toronto in November 2009. (Mark Blinch / Union for Reform Judaism)

Rabbi Howard Berman promoting Classical Reform Judaism at the Union for Reform Judaism biennial in Toronto in November 2009. (Mark Blinch / Union for Reform Judaism)

SAN FRANCISCO  (JTA) — Seventy-year-old Harold Eichenbaum doesn’t think much of kashrut.

He grew up in Texas, Reform like his parents and grandparents, and was confirmed at 16. If he’d wanted a bar mitzvah, he says, he would have joined the Conservatives.

Now there’s talk of kashering the kitchen at Temple Beit Torah, his Reform congregation in Colorado Springs, Colo. Eichenbaum wants no part of it, and is dismayed by what he calls the younger generation’s lack of respect for Reform Judaism’s ideological heritage.

“There are very few of us classical Reform Jews anymore,” he mourns. “People are listening to talk, they think you have to be kosher to be true Jewish people. I disagree. Kosher was fine 5,000 years ago, but in the modern day I don’t see any purpose to it.” 

For more than a decade, the Reform movement has been moving toward greater observance of Jewish rituals like Shabbat and greater incorporation of Hebrew in worship services.

Meanwhile, a small but increasingly vocal core of Classical Reform adherents is digging in its heels, saying the growing coziness with Jewish tradition is taking the movement away from its original universalist message and rationalist approach to faith, away from the way Reform Judaism was practiced until at least the 1940s.

A year-and-a-half ago, a handful of Reform rabbis committed to the Classical Reform credo created the Society for Classical Reform Judaism to preserve and promote the values and traditions of American Reform Judaism. That includes its distinctive worship style — services conducted mainly in English, accompanied by organ music and a choir. 

“One of the most common misperceptions we face is that Classical Reform Judaism is a phase of history that is now over rather than a vital movement within Reform Judaism today,” said the society’s executive director, Rabbi Howard Berman. “We want to reassert the place at the Reform table of our historic Reform heritage.”

Berman was speaking at one of two sessions he led at the Union for Reform Judaism’s biennial last month in Toronto.

While Berman celebrated his group’s inclusion in the conference agenda, other supporters of the Classical Reform approach grumbled that the movement as a whole doesn’t take them seriously.

In a session on the topic led by Michael Meyer, a professor at the movement’s Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, a question about “the so-called revival of Classical Reform” was met with widespread chuckles.

Berman and his colleagues aren’t laughing.

Fifty Reform rabbis and cantors, as well as nine Reform rabbinical students, sit on the society’s advisory board, and the group works with three dozen North American congregations. Some of them are “explicitly Classical Reform,” Berman said, while the others are “mainstream Reform” that run separate services along Classical Reform lines regularly or occasionally to serve mainly older congregants “who are often pushed aside, marginalized” by guitar-playing, kipah-wearing, younger Reform rabbis.

The split is largely generational, with most Classical Reform aficionados old enough to remember the movement’s original siddur, the Union Prayer Book, which downplayed the idea that Jews were “chosen” by God. It was replaced in 1975 by Gates of Prayer and is rarely used today.

The society is releasing a new version of the Union Prayer Book next year in partnership with the Chicago Sinai Congregation, one of the country’s two main Classical Reform holdouts, along with Temple Emanu-El in New York.

Louise Ziretta of Har Sinai Congregation in Owing Mills, Md., says her 167-year-old synagogue maintains a choir and organ, and occasionally holds Classical Reform services on Friday nights for those who are more comfortable with that liturgy and style.

“It’s part of our heritage,” she says.

Much of the appeal of Classical Reform is aesthetic. During his session at the biennial, Berman played the first song on the society’s newly released CD of Classical Reform music, “Come, O Sabbath Day,” by early 20th-century composer A.W. Binder. As the stately organ tones and sonorous male baritone fill the room, there is a respectful silence. Berman nods his head appreciatively.

The Classical Reform revival carries a strong intellectual component, too.

Meyer, one of the foremost authorities on the history of Reform Judaism, noted that the movement’s 1999 Pittsburgh Platform, which advocated a more open approach to rituals discouraged by the early Reform leaders, has its own problems.

“It does not deal sufficiently with the problem of evil, and pays insufficient attention to the challenges posed by biology and astrophysics, harmonizing the idea of a personal God with the vastness of the universe,” he said. “We have come to a point in Reform Judaism where we stress the personal, emotional connection more than is perhaps sustainable.”

While Meyer does not view Classical Reform as a growing tendency, he does consider it a valuable check on the movement’s growing pietism.

“There is a place for reason in religion, and sometimes in Reform Judaism today we don’t give that enough attention,” he said.

Berman said the society he heads doesn’t want to replace the warmer, more devotional worship style popular in Reform congregations today. He and his colleagues just don’t want their approach to be shoved aside.

“In the contemporary Reform movement there is a broad variety of interpretations and practice. That is appropriate,” Berman said. “We Classical Reform Jews are coming out of the closet.”

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