The Reform movement is embroiled in an emotional national debate on the future of its belief system.
At issue is a controversial draft document titled the “Ten Principles of Reform Judaism” that seeks to set guidelines for how North America’s 1.2 million Reform Jews should practice their faith in the 21st century.
Rather than fostering unity, the platform, authored by the leader of the movement’s rabbinic arm, has provoked a firestorm of criticism from Reform lay leaders, academics and rabbis nationwide.
Much of the conflict is focused on the document’s emphasis on a return to ancient ritual and observance, which some charge is a betrayal of Reform ideology’s focus on modernity.
In other words, can you be a good Reform Jew and still eat shrimp cocktail?
“The people have severe misgivings,” Reform president Rabbi Eric Yoffie told The Jewish Week on Monday. “There’s no question the feedback up to now has been negative.”
Critics from across the spectrum of Reform life are complaining as well about the timetable for approving the “Ten Principles” — at the movement’s rabbinic conference in Pittsburgh in May. Opponents say it is an unnecessary rush to judgment, and the process for approving such a far-reaching historic document should be considered more thoughtfully.
The debate has been raging on the Internet and at regional congregational meetings for several weeks.
The platform is pitting the movement’s academic center, the Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati, and its congregational arm, the Union of American Hebrew Congregations, against its rabbinic arm, the Central Conference of American Rabbis. The CCAR president, Rabbi Richard Levy of Los Angeles, wrote the platform and is the driving force behind it.
The controversy reached a zenith with the publication of the latest issue of Reform Judaism, the quarterly magazine published by the UAHC. The issue, mailed out several weeks ago to 300,000 Reform Jewish homes, contained the draft proposal for the platform.
But more jarring to many was the magazine cover. It features Rabbi Levy wearing a yarmulke and kissing the fringes (tzitzit) of his prayer shawl, or tallit — religious accoutrements not worn by many Reform Jews who adhere to the “classic” Reform tradition that considers many ritualistic practices anachronisms.
“People freaked out” when they saw the cover, said one New York Reform rabbi. “This is not where they are at.”
“They felt betrayed by their own leaders,” said a Reform leader from the Midwest.
Inside the magazine, Rabbi Levy wrote about the virtues of keeping kosher and immersing in the mikveh (ritual cleansing) — practices dismissed by the first Reform platform adopted in November 1885 in Pittsburgh.
“In the new guidelines, Jewish life-cycle, ritual and holiday observances are emphasized more than ever before,” Rabbi Levy said. He said the Torah “shows us the way to kedushah [holiness]. The path lies through mitzvot [commandments] through responding to God’s call in our day-to-day actions.”
In comparison, the original Pittsburgh Platform of 1885 considered all the mitzvot dealing with diet, dress and purity to be “altogether foreign to our present mental and spiritual state.”
Critics slammed Rabbi Levy for betraying traditional Reform theology, which advocates the critical analysis of biblical and rabbinic commandments to determine whether they are relevant to modern life.
But platform supporters contend that a new generation of Reform families hungers for a return to traditional religious practice and spirituality, and are voluntarily donning skullcaps and prayer shawls. They say Rabbi Levy’s principles are merely reflecting the desires of the next generation.
Other Reform experts say the conflict breaks down along regional lines, with the platform being panned in the South and Midwest and garnering some support in the Northeast.
Rabbi Yoffie is slated to meet with 300 UAHC board members this weekend in Memphis, Tenn., to study the newest version of the platform and formulate an official response from the congregational arm. But he stressed that the UAHC only plays an advisory role, and that the CCAR ultimately will decide whether to adopt a new platform.
The American Reform rabbinate has approved platforms — documents to help guide the theology and practice of the movement — only three times in the last 150 years. The most recent was adopted in 1976, and before that in Columbus, Ohio, in 1937.
Rabbi Yoffie said he was shocked by the level of criticism of the published platform. (The platform has since been amended but has not been distributed publicly.) “What surprised me is there seems to be opposition coming from all quarters,” Rabbi Yoffie said. “It’s not only from the right or the left. This has generated some discomfort among laypeople, rabbis, faculty at HUC, among those more classically inclined, but also among those more traditionally inclined. I must admit I’m a bit perplexed.”
But those who have been studying the platform, including supporters, told The Jewish Week the “Ten Principles” appears as an unfocused, preachy document that fails to adequately articulate Reform ideology. Some feared it reads more like a Conservative movement treatise.
It has caused such concern that Rabbi Sheldon Zimmerman, president of the Hebrew Union College, last month wrote an emergency letter from Israel to U.S. colleagues urging the rejection of the platform.
In a written critique, Robert Seltzer, a professor of Jewish history at Hunter College, said: “We must guard against turning Reform Judaism into Conservative Judaism Lite.”
Seltzer warned that the platform seems to be part of a global trend toward a right-wing conservative religiosity, “even fundamentalism.”
Seltzer, a Reform rabbi, also criticized the document for obscuring the essence of Reform Judaism, which he says involves “a living Judaism thoroughly compatible with contemporary science, historical understanding and ethical sensibilities,” in favor of increasing traditional observance and piety.
“We must guard against any tendency to turn the hands of the clock backward instead of forward,” Seltzer said in his response published in Reform Magazine.
Some critics feared that the “Ten Principles” was an attempt to appease the Orthodox movement, with which the Reform has been locked in a battle over pluralism in Israel. Rabbi Yoffie scoffed at that notion.
Even supporters of the platform found it flawed and the process chaotic, and they urged caution.
“Calls have been issued across the country to postpone the vote and to involve laypeople in a greater discussion,” said Rabbi Leon Morris, director of Kollel, the center for adult Jewish study at Hebrew Union College in New York. But while admitting the proposal is sometimes unclear and inarticulate, Rabbi Morris called the tenor of Rabbi’s Levy’s proposal “courageous and bold.”
“I suspect that lurking behind the voices to delay a vote is a fear of saying loudly once and for all that Reform is not what people think it is,” he said. “To say that a Reform Jew who keeps kosher and observes Shabbat is Conservative is to assert that the essence of Reform Judaism is non-observance.”
Criticism has also focused on Rabbi Levy, whom opponents contend is the wrong person to write guidelines for the movement because he comes from the extreme right wing of the Reform movement.
“Where he is, most of our people would not recognize,” said one Reform leader. “It’s probably not a good idea for someone like that to write the platform.”
Rabbi Levy couldn’t be reached for comment but he has stressed that the platform is a working document.
Meanwhile, the backlash has forced the offering of a fourth draft that omits the words kashrut and mikveh and references to standing at Sinai. For example, in the published draft, Principle No. 6 discusses expanding the observance of mitzvot, including kashrut.
“Others may wish to utilize the mikveh or other kinds of spiritual immersion not only for conversions but for periodic experiences of purification,” it states.
But in the new draft, Principle No. 6 says: “We may seek to put into our mouths the foods that match our religious and societal commitments.” It adds: “We may build a shelter on Sukkot and a shelter for the homeless. We may seek rituals now unknown.”
Some critics said language changes won’t calm the anger of platform opponents and that the process already has been tainted.