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Reform Judaism Encourages A Return To Tradition And Emigration To Israel In Its "Pittsburgh Principles"

Allan Brownfeld, Editor
Special Interest Report
May-June 1999

By an overwhelming margin, the rabbinical leadership of Reform Judaism approved guiding principles that, The New York Times (May 27, 1999) reports, "for the first time encourage observance of traditional rituals like wearing skullcaps, keeping kosher, and the wide use of Hebrew that were set aside at the movement’s founding . . . The 324-68 vote of the Central Conference of American Rabbis (CCAR) . . . ended with cheers and celebratory songs, and brought to a conclusion two years of discussions, disagreements and debates over how best to express what it means to be a Reform Jew."  

The statement of principles encourages Reform Jews to "make aliyah," or emigrate permanently to Israel. It rejects the philosophy of the 1885 Pittsburgh Platform of Reform Judaism which rejected Jewish nationalism and declared that Judaism was a religion of universal values and that Jews were at home in America.  

"What is different about this statement is that it calls on people to take seriously the whole array of traditions," said Rabbi Paul J. Menitoff, executive director of the CCAR.  

Discussing the initial draft of the principles by Rabbi Richard Levy, president of the CCAR, Rabbi Robert M. Seltzer, professor of Jewish history at Hunter College of the City University of New York, wrote in Reform Judaism (Winter 1998) that it "fails to convey the distinctive ongoing 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."  

Rabbi Lance J. Sussman, the rabbi of Temple Concord in Binghamton, New York and associate professor of American Jewish history at the State University of New York at Binghamton, who voted against passage of the new principles, said: "The statement doesn’t really address the religious needs of Reform Judaism at this time. It doesn’t show the way to faith and doesn’t explain what redemption is in Reform terms. What it has succeeded in doing is marking the direction of the movement with more tradition. I hope to serve as a bridge to the tens of thousands of Reform Jews who will be uncomfortable with it."  

Ronald Sobel, senior rabbi at Temple Emanu-El, New York City’s largest Reform synagogue, said that in elevating ritual to parity with ethics, the new guidelines constitute a "distortion of the uniqueness of Reform Judaism."  

The Washington Jewish Week (June 3, 1999) reports that there has been much opposition among Reform Jews to the new guidelines: "In response to its request for feedback, the Reform Judaism magazine Web site received approximately 70 pages of comments from Reform Jews throughout North America. Some respondents favored the changes, but others were very critical, voicing fears that encouraging traditional mitzvot would soon give way to coercion and blur the lines between Conservative and Reform Judaism. ‘If I wanted this much dogma, I’d be a Conservative Jew,’ wrote Don Rothschild of Denver. ‘I feel disenfranchised by my own religion,’ wrote Barbara Stern of Winchester, Virginia. ‘It is beginning to feel like the only option that will be open to classical Reform Jews is the Unitarian Church, an option that will not be spiritually satisfying for many reasons.’ The board of one Reform temple, Lakeside Congregation in suburban Chicago, even passed a resolution urging the CCAR not to vote on any statement of principles."  

A leader of Orthodox Judaism, President Norman Lamm of Yeshiva University, welcomed the changes in the Reform movement and said, "They have come a long way and that journey is to be applauded."  

The Washington Post (May 26, 1999) described the new statement as "an historic change in the movement’s principles . . . redefining it in more traditional religious terms and reversing the direction of what has long been the most progressive and popular wing of American Judaism . . . In 1885, Reform Judaism’s declaration of principles outlined a way for Jews to blend into modern American life . . . The new charter reverses this mandate."  

The New York Times (May 27, 1999) reports that, "Acceptance of the principles in no way marks the end of the debate. Rabbis are now expected to organize meetings and study sessions to translate them into concrete terms. Members of the clergy and congregants will be invited to write commentaries, and it is from these that the meaning of the principles will take shape.

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