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Reform Rabbis Adopt Conversion Guidelines Which Continue Move Toward Traditionalism

Allan C. Brownfeld, Editor
Special Interest Report
July-August 2001

Reform rabbis voted in June to adopt new guidelines on conversion, which The New York Times (June 29, 2001) described as "a decision that reflected...how interest in traditional rituals within Judaism's largest liberal branch...has been growing. The voluntary guidelines were adopted on a near unanimous vote...The trend toward tradition is visible among the 570 men and women attending the Central Conference of American Rabbis' meeting in Monterey, California, where far more people are wearing skullcaps than a decade ago."  

The new guidelines suggest that converts commit to keeping a Jewish home, an effort that includes following Orthodox dietary laws. Women will be asked to immerse themselves in a ritual bath—known as a mikveh—and men will be asked to undergo circumcision.  

Hanna Rosin, writing in The Washington Post (June 27, 2001) notes that, "The change is...an extraordinary reversal for a movement that was founded in 1885 to allow Jews to blend into American life by explicitly rejecting many distinctly Jewish practices as `entirely foreign.'...The new conversion guidelines are part of a shift in direction unveiled two years ago, when Reform rabbis revised their `Statement of Principles' to place greater emphasis on mitzvot, the religious laws that govern Jews' daily lives."  

The guidelines are still voluntary, and individual rabbis can use their discretion in applying them. Ms. Rosin points out that, "The new guidelines...are strikingly similar to the rites of other branches of Judaism. They do not include the traditional Jewish principle of rejecting a convert three times to test his sincerity, as other Jewish movements do, but adopt some elements of that skepticism and scrutiny...The move toward orthodoxy does not sit well with all Reform congregations. Some are split between adherents to the founding principles of the Reform movement and adherents to what has come to be known as `contemporary Reform'—the new traditionalism."  

The Jewish Telegraphic Agency pointed out that, "Symbolic of the backtotradition approach, the guidelines are printed in a manner similar to a talmudic tractate, with basic principles in the center of the page surrounded by details and commentary along the sides...In contrast to the CCAR's 1999 Statement of Principles, which spurred rabbis to months of e-mail comments and debate about the soul of Reform Judaism, the conversion guidelines are generating little controversy."  

What the Reform movement has done, the Jewish Telegraphic Agency declares, is to "reverse" the 1885 Pittsburgh Platform and "overturn" an 1893 resolution that described conversion rituals as unnecessary and meaningless. (Washington Jewish Week, June 21, 2001)  

Critics of classical Reform Judaism have welcomed the recent changes. Rabbi Avis Miller, former chairman of conversion and outreach for the Conservative movement said that, "Anything that increases adherence to Jewish law will make it simpler for us...And it will help maintain kol Israel"—or the unified Jewish community.  

Editorially, Washington Jewish Week (July 5, 2001) declared: "Reform Judaism...has come a long way since that 1885 platform. It has evolved and changed...And these latest guidelines demonstrate that Reform Judaism is no longer the adolescent rebelling against what it sees as its parents' archaic ideas, but is maturing and learning that the ways of previous generations, the rituals that tied Jews together for thousands of years, have a place in modern spirituality."

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