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Reform Prepares To Turn Back Toward Tradition and Orthodox Rituals

Allan Brownfeld, Editor
Special Interest Report
September-October 1998

The Reform Jewish movement is preparing to turn back toward tradition and to adopt a variety of Orthodox rituals in the first revision of its guiding principles in 22 years.  

A draft of "Ten Principles for Reform Judaism" is now circulating in advance of next year’s convention of the Central Conference of American Rabbis (CCAR). The Forward (Sept. 18, 1998) reports that, "The document promotes rituals and observances, such as kashrut, that many associate with Orthodoxy, and it is therefore prompting criticism from some exponents of classical Reform Judaism."  

According to The Forward, "The new platform is the brainchild of a group of younger rabbis...who have embraced ritual, Torah study, observance and the language of commandment and holiness. Its crafting is an effort by this post-Holocaust generation to move away from the strictly rational and modern religion of their mainly German Jewish predecessors and to accommodate a new spirituality and traditionalism that is attractive to the descendants of Eastern European Jews. But the critics say the document does not do enough to reach out to intermarried families...and that its emphasis on observance runs counter to the practice of most Reform lay people...Hebrew (‘a holy tongue’) permeates the new document, another marked contrast from earlier platforms, which do not employ Hebrew terminology."  

Rabbi Jeffrey Stiffman of Temple Shaare Emeth of St. Louis said: "I don’t believe (the platform) reflects where the lay people are, especially in the Midwest." Calling the document "a bit right-wing for my taste," he said that "a lot of lay people will find the references to kashrut and mikhva (ritual ablutions) somewhat jarring." He said he was perplexed by the paragraphs on the biblical account of revelations "I’m not sure this implies that we believe (the Bible) literally, or that we believe it is a story. The wording seems to imply that (a literal interpretation) is possible."  

A Reform lay leader who is an advocate for intermarried families, Iowa attorney David Belin, said that the new document has "major errors and omissions. Nothing in there addresses the concerns of intermarried Jews." He noted that the 1990 National Jewish Population Study had determined that a majority of Reform Jews are intermarrying. Belin declared: "It’s a move to the right, a move to greater rigidity, the antithesis of what someone married to a Reform Jew would feel comfortable with...Where are the major principles welcoming intermarried households and encouraging them to identify as Jews and raise kids as Jews?"  

The former president of the Union of American Hebrew Congregations, Rabbi Alexander Schindler, said that the language of the draft platform "continues trends manifest (in Reform)...for a century...It does not sufficiently emphasize Reform Jewish inclusiveness. It makes too short a shrift of others we need to embrace..."  

A preamble to the new document says that it "does not attempt to legislate a code of belief or conduct for Reform Jews, nor presume to advocate a single mode of religious expression." The president of the CCAR, Rabbi Richard Levy, a moving force behind the new platform, acknowledges that it faces opposition. He said: "There is a wide spectrum of belief and practice" in Reform and that the statement will not dictate "what you have to do as a Reform Jew."

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