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Mixed Reviews

Local Reform rabbis, including the document's architect, react to the CCAR's Statement of Principles


by Julie G Fax

June 3, 1999 | 8:00 pm

Los Angeles' Reform rabbis returned to their pulpits from last week's Central Conference of American Rabbis convention in Pittsburgh, some of them delighted with the Statement of Principles, some of them disappointed, but all of them primed to revisit the definition of their ever-reforming movement.

"This statement of principles will provide us guidance as we look to the future," says Rabbi Donald Goor of Temple Judea in Tarzana. "In a very specific way, it's going to give the average Reform Jew something to hold on to and to look to for guidance on what it means to be an active, committed Reform Jew."

But Goor says that he is "very disappointed" in the statement's final form, although he voted for its passage, along with about 80 percent of the 400 rabbis who attended the four-day conference. Like many of his colleagues, Goor believes that the document lost much of its visionary quality in the seemingly endless process of amendments and revisions.

But Rabbi Richard Levy, outgoing president of the CCAR, who crafted the original statement of principles two years ago and shepherded it through the revision process, says he is delighted with the outcome, especially the overwhelming passage.

"I think if it lost some things, it gained more," says Levy, who is leaving his position as executive director of the Los Angeles Hillel Council to become dean of Hebrew Union College's new rabbinic ordination program in Los Angeles.

Levy points out that the Pittsburgh Principle's commitment to "whole array of mitzvot" -- in fact, even the mere use of the word mitzvot, defined as "sacred obligations" -- marks a substantial shift in Reform dogma.

"That is a very important statement in the Reform movement," says Levy. "It says the whole tradition is open to consider."

He hopes that more synagogues will join those that have set up task forces to determine how to integrate the document into educational and ritual programming.

Levy himself has long practiced much of what is discussed in the principles, making him a natural advocate for the platform.

What also made him such an effective architect was his ability to productively and amicably channel the thousands of opinions from rabbis and lay leaders around the country.

"This is the first of the four documents that Reform movement has produced that was not written by a handful of people, but by an entire movement," says Rabbi John Rosove of Temple Israel of Hollywood, crediting Levy's gentle hand. "I don't think anyone else could have pulled this off."

Rabbi Laura Geller of Temple Emanuel of Beverly Hills agrees. "Even in the middle of the most intense disagreements on the floor, Richard's incredible menschlichkayt came through and made it clear that we were engaged in a holy process."

Rabbi Ron Stern of Stephen S. Wise Temple in Bel Air concurs that Levy guided an important and enlightening process, but he is less than satisfied with the final outcome. Stern, who voted against passage, says the platform missed an important chance to explicitly state what makes Reform distinctive and innovative.

This statement, he says, will have little effect on the average Reform Jew because it is far from revolutionary and simply "confirms what a lot of synagogue and congregants are doing anyway."

But other rabbis argue that that is the statement's strength -- that it formalizes and validates a decade-long grass-roots shift toward more ritual observance.

"I think, in a sense, the Reform movement has been on a religious journey, and this new document opens up new paths that have always been there but may not have been seen as authentically Reform," says Goor.

Rabbi Lawrence Goldmark, who just completed his two-year term as president of the Board of Rabbis of Southern California, is proud that the document gives Reform Judaism a positive identity.

"Reform Jews want to stand for something -- they want to stand for many things -- and not just act as the least common denominator," he said.

Rosove says the reexamination of mitzvot brings Judaism as a whole closer to a postdenominational age, where Hebrew and traditional rituals become a common language for all ends of the ideological spectrum.

But some have argued that blurring of lines is a problem, that the traditional bent of the document pulls too close to Conservative Judaism and too far from classical Reform, which rejected ritual as antiquated and irrelevant.

Goldmark counters that the Pittsburgh Principles stay true to Reform's commitment to evolve.

"This does not mean that Reform Judaism has become Orthodox. It mean that Reform Jews have, as we've always had, the ability to choose from the traditions of the past, as well as to create new traditions for the present," Goldmark says, adding that he plans to continue picking apart the document's subtleties with his congregants at Temple Beth Ohr in La Mirada. [return to original]

Geller says the statement in its various drafts has already been the subject of debate in her congregation over the past year.

"It raised a whole lot of issues," she says. "Not everybody was happy. It made people think, it challenged them, it made people angry. But it engaged people in what it means to be a Reform Jew."

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