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Calls For More Tradition Reveal A Sharp Split In Reform Judaism

Allan Brownfeld, Editor
Special Interest Report
January-February 1999

A proposed new document that endorses studying Torah, keeping the Sabbath and other ritual practices such as kashrut and the use of the mikveh, and increased use of Hebrew and aliyah (immigration) to Israel, has touched off a heated debate among Reform rabbis and congregants.  

The document, a draft for a new platform that is titled "Ten Principles Of Reform Judaism," stands in stark contrast to traditional practice in the Reform movement that placed a higher priority on ethical practice than on ritual observance.  

As a result of heated opposition the controversial document has been sent to a task force for further study and is unlikely to be voted on at the Central Conference of American Rabbis (CCAR) May convention in Pittsburgh, as originally planned.  

"The move signals a setback, if not the death knell, for the draft platform," reports The Forward (Dec. 18, 1998), "which is the brainchild of a traditionalizing vanguard of Reform rabbis headed by the president of the CCAR, Rabbi Richard Levy. Calling Reform Jews to such traditional Jewish observances as the Sabbath, the kosher laws and the ritual bath, the draft document met with strong resistance among lay people and rabbis who champion the ‘classical’ universalizing trend in their movement."  

In a report entitled "Reform Under Reform," The Jerusalem Report (Feb. 1, 1999) cites a growing split between an increasingly traditional Reform rabbinate and a liberal lay membership.  

Hebrew Union College (HUC), where Reform rabbis are trained, is described as "the undeclared headquarters for the movement’s traditional wing. Here Reform is seen in action. At HUC’s New York campus, for example, Sabbath observance and keeping kosher have become common among students and the demand for Talmud and other traditional-text classes is growing. The student-led prayers at the school, meanwhile, where tallitot and tefillin are commonplace and Hebrew predominates, have become so traditional that students report that they have been told to ‘tone it down’ when lay leaders come to visit...In recent years, HUC students say, every graduating class has had four or five rabbis who are so traditional that they are considered ‘pulpit unemployable.’"  

According to The Report, Rabbi Sheldon Zimmerman, who became HUC president in 1996, "has made the rabbinical school more receptive to tradition...The students’ growing observance is forcing HUC to reconsider its curriculum, says Zimmerman, to offer them a stronger grounding in tradition and text. One of his most radical changes so far has been a very simple one: He has started referring to himself as a rosh yeshivah (the traditional Hebrew title for the heads of rabbinical seminaries), something that would have horrified his modernizing predecessors."  

Frances Hess, a trustee of New York’s Temple Emanu-El, one of Reform’s flagship institutions, declared: "I can quote someone who said, ‘If this (the new platform) is going through, I’m joining a Unitarian church’...The principles are a drastic leaning back toward traditionalism. I think there’s very much concern among some of us about whether students (at HUC) really understand what Reform Judaism is all about. They need to understand that there is dignity and meaning to the more classical Reform approach and not that the more tradition and ritual the better."  

The Report notes that, for now, "The Levy proposal...is dead in the water...Reform rank-and-file members have been burning up the ‘Reform Judaisms’ website’s discussion group with their own — mostly critical — reactions to the Levy proposal. ‘I could not even finish reading this...because it was so repulsive,’ wrote one member of a California congregation, adding, ‘My children and I will join the swelling ranks of the unaffiliated’ if the platform is adopted."

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