June 3, 1999
Taking the Middle Road
After heated debate, Reform rabbis approve 'centrist' changes in principles
The Reform movement's much-anticipated "Statement of Principles" may rival the Torah for most carefully scrutinized text in Jewish history.
The two-page statement, which seeks to spell out just exactly what Reform Judaism is about, was discussed for close to two years, underwent six drafts, garnered more than 30 amendments and sparked heated debate among Reform rabbis and their congregants.
The controversial document was adopted last Wednesday by an overwhelming margin of 324-68, with nine abstentions. It was the centerpiece of the Central Conference of American Rabbis' four-day convention in Pittsburgh this week.
The statement seeks to reverse the movement's 1885 Pittsburgh Platform, which stridently rejected Jewish tradition and rituals. It aims to redefine Reform Judaism for the coming years: celebrating the movement's growing acceptance of tradition and spirituality, while reaffirming its longtime commitment to inclusion, social action and diversity of thought.
The principles consist of a preamble that urges 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;
* Calls for observance of mitzvot, or commandments, "that address us as individuals and as a community";
* Urges observance in some form of Shabbat and holidays;
* Encourages tikkun olam, which the Reform movement emphasizes as social action, and tzedakah, or charitable giving.
"Some of these mitzvot, sacred obligations, have long been observed by Reform Jews; others, both ancient and modern, demand renewed attention as a result of the unique context of our own times," says the document.
Earlier drafts of the principles, including a version that appeared in Reform Judaism magazine six months ago, specified other mitzvot, such as observing kashrut and wearing kippot and tallitot In the end, a document very different from the original was adopted by the Reform rabbis, one that many rabbis here believed had been diluted too much.
The seemingly endless revisions made for a pareve document with little energy or inspiration, critics said.
But Rabbi Richard Levy, outgoing president of the CCAR, called the adoption of the principles a "wonderful moment for Reform Jews."
Levy, who had authored the Reform Judaism piece and had been pictured wearing a yarmulke and a prayer shawl, said the document "will liberate Reform Jews to say there is nothing to in the Torah which is barred to me."
When asked to respond to critics who said it was watered down from his original version, Levy said, "What was passed was a statement that reflected the large number of Reform Jews."
Levy, who stressed the reaffirmation of Reform Judaism's commitment to inclusiveness and social action, said, "I hope the Pittsburgh principles will deepen the lives of Reform Jews and make the entire community aware of our seriousness."
Since the publication of Levy article, the principles had sparked debates about the identity of Reform Judaism, which claims more American Jews than any other movement. As rabbis and lay leaders discussed and revised the principles at official meetings, rank-and-file Reform Jews sounded 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.
Some respondents were 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.
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.
"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."
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.
While both supporters and opponents complained of the statement's blandness, many acknowledged that insipidness is the fate of any committee-written document.
They also said that the Reform movement's rank-and-file members might not yet be ready for something stronger, and that the statement should be viewed as a beginning rather than the last word on Reform Judaism.
The movement's commitment to diversity of thought was highlighted during Tuesday night's lively -- if prolonged -- discussion on proposed amendments at the CCAR convention. The evening was filled with passionate debate on everything from the correct application of Robert's Rules of Order and grammatical fine points to just how accepting the movement should be of interfaith families.
One of the most heated discussions surrounded an amendment involving the intermarried. The amendment, which initially implied openness to all intermarried families, was changed -- after much debate -- to a carefully worded statement saying, "We are an inclusive community, opening doors to Jewish life to people of all ages, to varied kinds of families, to all regardless of their sexual orientation, to gerim, those who have converted to Judaism, and to all individuals and families, including the intermarried, who strive to create a Jewish home."
Throughout the debate, shouts, ayes and nays alternated with laughter and applause. With the aroma of popcorn and other late-night snacks wafting through the air, the proceeding -- in a packed hotel ballroom -- took on a carnival-like atmosphere at times.
At one point, Levy, called out, exasperated by requests for new amendments and revotes, "People, we cannot keep changing our minds!"
Minor skirmishes erupted over the chair's decision not to let someone speak out of order. There was discord as to whether "encouraging" immigration to Israel would render American Judaism extinct (the rabbis voted, no, it would not).
Although the debate was initially allotted a modest two hours, it quickly became clear Tuesday that the discussion on the statement would spill over. At 5:30 p.m., with only a handful of the proposed amendments discussed, the rabbis voted -- after much squabbling on details -- to adjourn until 8 p.m.
In the interlude that followed, most seemed to take the delays and quibbling in stride, seeing them as a sign not of discord but of everyone's desire to create the strongest document possible.
"The problem is it's like Talmud -- everyone takes every word so seriously," said Rabbi Morris Kipper of Coral Gables, Fla.
"The process is typical," said Rabbi Ellen Dreyfus of Homewood, Ill. "We like to argue. Two Jews have three opinions, and so much more so for rabbis."
The vote, which occurred at Temple Rodeph Shalom, the largest Reform temple in Pittsburgh, reflected a consensus view among the rabbis that some statement was necessary, even if it wasn't everyone's ideal.
"I supported it in the end with some reservations, but I feel it is a statement that reflects at least in part who we are as Reform Jews," Rabbi Jerome Davidson of Great Neck, N.Y., said, echoing the views of many here.
"It's a centrist document, and it moves us from where we were a century ago," he said.