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Remembering Reform Judaism’s Founding Beliefs and Principles

Spring 1999

For the past year, Reform Judaism has been in the process of considering the adoption of a new statement — "Ten Principles for Reform Judaism," drafted by Rabbi Richard Levy, president of the Central Conference of American Rabbis.  

The initial draft of the new platform embraced kosher laws, the use of the mikveh (ritual bath), and the use of more Hebrew in Reform services. The draft also declares that, "We encourage Reform Jews to make aliyah, immigration to Israel."  

Writing in the Winter 1998 Reform Judaism, the Journal of the Union of American Hebrew Congregations, Rabbi Robert M. Seltzer, professor of Jewish History at Hunter College of the City University of New York, declared that Rabbi Levy’s draft "fails to convey the distinctive ongoing mission of our movement." He stated that Rabbi Levy had eliminated "the greatest contribution of Reform to modern Judaism: a conscious sifting through the tradition, choosing practices that are consistent with the canons of rational thought, the best of modern knowledge and the hard-won place of Jews and Judaism at the center of modem Western society."  

At Home In America  

The 1885 Pittsburgh Platform, which rejected Jewish nationalism and declared that Judaism was a religion of universal values and that Jews were at home in America, "is not as outdated as Rabbi Levy contends," declared Rabbi Seltzer. "Understanding that religious observances give structure and meaning to our lives, the platform insists that we should maintain ‘such ceremonies as elevate and sanctify our lives.’ In the modern spirit of tolerance, it acknowledges the legitimacy of all religions and especially the ‘providential mission’ of Christianity and Islam. In the Jewish philosophical spirit, it insists on the purity of the Jewish ‘God-idea’ and the progressive nature of a Judaism ‘ever striving to be in accord with the postulates of reason.’ In the spirit of prophetic Judaism, it reiterates ‘the divine nature of the human spirit’ . . . To be sure the 19th century platform clings to a faith in the essential goodness of human beings, of inexorable progress, which appears naive in light of the horrors of the 20th century. Rabbi Levy’s document, however, errs in the opposite direction, expressing a certain cultural-pessimism. He seems to suggest that we should wall ourselves off from . . . society."  

Following is a letter which was written to Reform Judaism, by Stephen L. Naman of Charlotte, North Carolina. Mr. Naman serves as Secretary of the American Council for Judaism.  

Reform Judaism  
633 Third Avenue  
New York, NY 10017  

Dear Editor:  

I would like to commend Rabbi Robert Seltzer on his eloquent and distinguished rebuttal of the "Ten Principles for Reform Judaism — A Draft Proposal." My only criticism might be that he was too diplomatic in his response to what I believe is the continued disregard and indifference to the founding beliefs of Reform Judaism by the rabbinic leadership of the UAHC and CCAR. As a committed believer in Reform Judaism for some 50 years who did not have a Bar Mitzvah, does not speak Hebrew, and does not wear a Yarmulke, but is a past Brotherhood President, Board Secretary and Board Treasurer and regular dues paying Temple attendee I cannot register my plea loudly enough for the general restitution of the founding beliefs of our religion, Reform Judaism.  

Rabbi Seltzer says we are moving to "Conservative Judaism Lite" but I see nothing "Lite" about it! Conservative Judaism is moving further along the spectrum of fundamentalism and in the process shedding itself of members who, for any number of reasons, do not choose this course and are thus populating Reform congregations. Combined with this group of "new" Reform Jews is a rabbinate who either do not accept the founding principles of our religion or do not have the political will to stand up for them, and thus the last vestiges of Reform Judaism are being destroyed from within. Now that the Conservative "Lites" have a place to worship, where are the Reform Jews going to worship? My issue isn’t with those who are seeking a place to practice their religion, because that is exactly what I am trying to do too, but it is with the "leadership" within Reform Judaism who have allowed, if not promoted, Reform Judaism to become anything and everything to all comers, as opposed to maintaining the basis in fact upon which Reform Judaism was founded. Is the vast number of now non-affiliated Jews who have been driven out of our congregations because of the ceaseless shift to fundamentalism and the politicization of our religion with Israel worship not enough? While I have found a few congregational rabbis with the willingness to at least discuss these issues they also find themselves under the political pressures of the UAHC, CCAR, and their new constituencies.  

Rabbi Seltzer calls for a movement wide process of Reform self-clarification which I would welcome, but quite frankly do not have much ‘faith" in. I think we have a new constituency that doesn’t relate to the principles that Reform Judaism was founded on and a rabbinate that doesn’t truly have the desire or self conviction to return to those ideals. Paul Uhlmann, Jr., a trustee of the UAHC, is quoted as saying he is "100% opposed to the initial draft of the new platform" which he called "destructive of the idea of Reform Judaism." David Belin, a lawyer and member of the UAHC board, is quoted as having said " I see an ever-widening chasm between the Reform rabbinate and American Jewry. There are going to be people in this constituency who will be seeking other alternatives." It may in fact be time for Reform Judaism to reconstruct itself under the leadership of committed Reform Jews who steadfastly accept and support the founding principles and ideals of Reform Judaism. The task before those who care is daunting, but essential! We cannot continue to sit back silently while Reform Judaism disappears. We must stand up and be heard before it is too late and Reform Judaism is without its rightful place on the continuum of Jewish beliefs and practices. This is not a struggle against others and their beliefs, Reform Judaism has always been on the forefront of religious understanding and coexistence. What we must strive for is the restatement of the principles upon which Reform Judaism was founded and the establishment of an auspices from which we can derive the opportunity to have prayer and socialization with those who share the same Reform Jewish beliefs and principles.  

Respectfully submitted,  

Stephen L. Naman  

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