New Principles Rankle Reform Rank And File


When Fan Wiener read in her local daily newspaper that the nation’s Reform rabbis had voted to push for more Jewish tradition (including eating kosher) the 79-year-old Dallas grandmother thought of bolting Reform Judaism.

"She called me and threatened to quit the two major Reform temples she belongs to," says her son Thomas, a Philadelphia attorney. "She said she didn’t intend to become a Conservative or Orthodox Jew."

While his mother’s complaint hits this close to home, Tom Wiener knows, from a broader perspective, about the fallout from last month’s landmark ratification by the Central Conference of American Rabbis in Pittsburgh, which set forth a new set of principles that embraces Jewish tradition.

Wiener is a member of the board of the Union of American Hebrew Congregations, the group that sets policy for Reform’s synagogues.

Wiener has been hearing a lot of complaints from Reform Jews around the country who practice "Classic Reform": which minimizes rituals and tradition, and rather, emphasizes the social justice and intellectual aspects of Judaism.

Reform lay leaders say the complaints come after members read stories in their local newspapers and national magazines about the new principles. The Reform leaders are blaming the media for misrepresenting the principles and distorting what the principles communicate about observance of mitzvahs or sacred obligations. They say the media, including Time magazine and The New York Times, has portrayed the document as overtly encouraging eating kosher and wearing yarmulkes, when the text does not explicitly mention those traditions.

"My mother is a perfect example of 95 percent of the Reform Jews in America whose only information is coming through the newspapers," Wiener says. "She represents a whole class of people who have been misled by the articles."

Reform movement president Rabbi Eric Yoffie admits "there is a certain element of distress," among Reform members, particularly in the South and Midwest, because of the media reports. "I’m not sure how much trouble we’re in here. We have a problem of perception."

Rabbi Yoffie and others cite a New York Times breakout quote which read "A return to kosher, skullcaps and other observances" and Time magazine’s headline "Back to the Yarmulke."

Rabbi Yoffie contends that once members actually read the text of the Pittsburgh Principles, they are mollified.

But as a result of the complaints, Rabbi Yoffie is sending out a letter this week to pulpit rabbis and lay leaders criticizing the news reports as inaccurate and urging members to read the enclosed copy of the principles.

Some Reform leaders, however, privately lay the blame of misunderstanding at the door of the CCAR for approving compromise language that is too ambiguous and unclear. One rabbi called the document a Reform Rorschach test that can be read any way one wants.

One of the main problems is that the two-page Pittsburgh document, a set of guidelines rather than enforceable regulations, started as an unvarnished call for tradition two years ago. But it underwent six drafts after a backlash by Classic Reformists and the Reform academic community who felt the document did not meet scholarly standards.

After hours of intense debate, the document was adopted last month by an overwhelming margin of 324-68, with nine abstentions.

But the compromise left many feeling angry and abandoned.Rabbi Ronald Sobel, senior rabbi at Manhattan’s tony Congregation Emanu-el declared: "It is an insignificant face-saving compromise that says little that has not been said before."

The document itself is unimportant. What is troubling is the atmosphere that has created this document: a retreat from reason as the principal methodology for trying to know God, a departure from historic Reform Judaism that was unapologetically inclusive and universal, a step away from a liberal Jewish religious life where ethics and morality are consciously more important that ceremonies and rituals."

Congregation Emanu-el member BettiJane Eisenpreis said when she read about the adoption of the principles she started wondering if she would become a pariah with her weekly Torah study group at Hebrew Union College in Greenwich Village.

"I feel left out by it," the 64-year-old self-described observant Reform Jew says about the principles. Eisenpreis, who grew up with Classic Reform teachings, says the trend toward more ritual in Reform has been going on for decades, and that in itself does not bother her because individual congregants can adopt more ritual if they want.

"What I feel left out about is that there’s an implicit denial of the intent of the original Reform Judaism, which was to make it more about ethical and moral principles, to put the emphasis more on belief than on practice. I feel now it’s more important to learn how to daven than to learn to love the ethics and morals of Classic Reform.

"The trend toward more tradition has never disturbed me; it’s trying to codify that does. I see Reform as a pendulum, and if it wants to swing back, it will have more trouble."

In fact, the new principles represent only the fourth time since Reform Judaism was established in North America in the mid-19th century that the rabbinical group approved guidelines.

The new principles are indeed strikingly different from the ones approved in Pittsburgh in 1885, which rejected the observance of traditional mitzvahs in favor of moral laws.

Contrast that with the new guidelines that state the movement is committed to the ongoing study of the whole array of mitzvahs, seemingly all 613 of the obligations collected by the ancient rabbis.

The 1999 document affirms the importance of studying Hebrew; promotes lifelong Jewish learning; calls for observance of mitzvahs, or commandments "that address us as individuals and as a community"; urges observance in some form of the Sabbath and holidays; encourages "tikkun olam," described as social action, and charitable giving.

While it’s relatively easy to find detractors of the platform, it’s not so simple to find enthusiastic supporters.

Those pushing for a return to tradition felt it was a step in the right direction, but does not go far enough.

"The principles now are not particularly substantive," said Rabbi Richard Kirschen, assistant director of the University of Michigan Hillel in Ann Arbor.

"I want a document that reflects who I am as a Reform rabbi, and this doesn’t."

And in recent days the principles seem to be causing growing consternation in the congregations.

One California rabbi wrote an e-mail plea to colleagues last week: "I wonder if many of you are experiencing the same phenomena as me. A number of older more Classically Reform-oriented congregants have either written or spoken with me about ‘The Principles.’ They express varying degrees of discomfort and betrayal."

The rabbi said once they get beyond the discomfort of the emotions, "the dialogue feels healthy.

"However," he added, "it is beginning to cause some conflict in the congregation at large. Although, many of these people are regular attendees at services and other Temple events, and have up until now rarely if ever expressed anything but praise for our minhag [customs], since the publication of ‘The Principles,’ they have felt the need to express their discomfort and at times anger at the direction the congregation is going. ‘Why so much Hebrew?’ ‘Why all the ritual?’

"I am not sure what else to do. Our minhag has not changed, but the acceptance of ‘The Principles’ seems to have opened the eyes (or closed them!) of a small but active core in the congregation I serve."

But some rabbis are saying that the principles ultimately will be irrelevant to the average Reform Jews’ religious practice.

"Reform Judaism is based on individual choice," said San Francisco Rabbi Stephen Pearce. "I would rather there be no principles. The document will have no impact."