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Opposition Grows To Statement of Reform Principles Which Charts a More Traditional Course

Allan Brownfeld, Editor
Special Interest Report
November-December 1998

Next June, the Central Conference of American Rabbis (CCAR) will convene in Pittsburgh where the Reform rabbinate will consider the adoption of a new statement—the "Ten Principles for Reform Judaism," drafted by CCAR President Rabbi Richard Levy.  

The initial draft of the new platform embraced kosher laws, the use of the mikveh, 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 Reform Judaism (Winter 1998), 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 states that Rabbi Levy has 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 modern Western society."  

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and declared that Judaism was a religion of universal values and that Jews were at home in America, "is not as outdated as Rabbi Levy contends," declares Rabbi Seltzer.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."  

A trustee of the Union of American Hebrew Congregations (UAHC) from Kansas City, Paul Uhlmann, Jr., said he is "100% opposed to the initial draft of the new platform," which he called "destructive of the idea of Reform Judaism." Iowa lawyer David Belin, a member of the UAHC board, said that in his synagogue there is a revulsion against creeping traditionalism: "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."  

The platform, which Rabbi Levy describes as a "work in progress," has already been changed in response to widespread criticism. The Forward (Nov. 27, 1998) reports: "The rebels have apparently won out. After an initial draft of a new Reform platform embraced kosher laws and family purity, the Reform movement is circulating a new version of the document that downplays the dietary rules and that omits references to the mikveh."  

What is really needed at the present time, Rabbi Seltzer argues, is not a new platform but "a movement wide process of Reform self-clarification that addresses the question: How can Reform Judaism help elevate our lives in a manner that combines the best values of our ancient Jewish heritage with the best insights of modernity? The very future of our movement may rest on what we do at this juncture in our history."  

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