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"A Statement of Principles for Reform Judaism": A Critical View

Wolfgang Hamburger
Winter 2000

The last meeting of the (Reform) Central Conference of American Rabbis, which was held in Pittsburgh in May 1999, had the attention of the daily press. The reason for this widespread interest in a matter of concern to Reform Jews was the anticipated vote of the rabbinic leadership on the adoption of `A Statement of Principles for Reform Judaism." Its full text was published in Reform Judaism (Fall 1999), the quarterly magazine of the Union of American Hebrew Congregations. The statement was prepared by a committee of Reform rabbis. The original draft was reviewed and discussed by a larger group until the sixth draft was accepted as the official statement of the Central Conference. In the course of the reviews, the text underwent considerable changes from the original draft to the approved statement. The changes which moderated earlier formulations concerning rituals and observances still left the residue of the original traditional orientation. The knowledgeable reader recognizes that here something new and unfamiliar is introduced into the conversation about Reform Judaism. The vote was 324 for the adoption and 68 against the adoption.  

Not a Clear Picture  

The readers of the daily press did not get a clear picture of reality, because the figures were not put into perspective. The proper perspective is this: The Central Conference of American Rabbis has a membership of 1,700 to 1,800. Thus, less than 25% of the members expressed their opinion on the adoption of the new principles. Nobody can claim that the intended change of Reform Judaism's course in the future was approved by an impressive representation of the Reform rabbinate. At best it can be said that the proponents of the statement had the response of their colleagues. The preceding publicity notwithstanding, the result of the effort was not the success it has been claimed to be.  

Even a less than successful effort can have its reward if there are influential sympathizers. The rabbi who was the moving force behind the formulation and the adoption of the new principles during his tenure as president of the Central Conference of American Rabbis was associated with the Hillel Foundation in Los Angeles. During the summer, he was appointed to the directorship of rabbinic studies on the campus of the Hebrew Union College in the same city. This position will empower him to influence future rabbis and educators of Reform congregations in the spirit of his Jewish orientation.  

Traditional Character  

The appointment, obviously made out of sympathy with the desire to reshape the appearance and content of Reform Judaism and to give it a much stronger traditional character, is premature. Surely, rabbis were urged to familiarize their congregants with the proposed revision of Reform Judaism by inviting them to study and discussion groups. The success of organizing such meetings, the extent of participation, and the reaction of the participants can hardly be known yet. Although technology has provided us with instancy in areas like communication and information, matters of a religious nature take time to be comprehended and evaluated. In view of two unknown facts, the attitude of the congregants and the position of those rabbis who did not attend the meeting in Pittsburgh, the appointment of the principles' principal advocate to an influential office at the Hebrew Union College is astonishing.  

Reform Jews have observed the tendency of some of their rabbis to introduce traditional habits at worship services which previously had not been in common use. The purpose has been to give the service a more distinctly Jewish appearance. This trend was initiated when the Central Conference of American Rabbis published Gates of Prayer in 1975 to replace the Union Prayer Book with which several generations of worshipers had been familiar. It is obvious that dissatisfaction with the transmitted forms of, and thoughts about, Reform Judaism has spread among rabbis and lay people who think that Reform Judaism is too assimilated to liberal Christian forms of worship and thoughts, that it is not Jewish enough. This they deplore; they find the root of their dissatisfaction in a declaration which fifteen Reform rabbis signed at their meeting in Pittsburgh in 1885. The declaration became known as the "Pittsburgh Platform," the description of Reform Judaism at that time. It is that document which segments of Reform Jews consider unacceptable. The last meeting of the rabbis in Pittsburgh and their vote on "A Statement of Principles for Reform Judaism" proposed to invalidate the declaration of 1885, in the spirit of which many Reform Jews have continued to live until now without being consciously aware of it.  

Massive Migration  

The century between the platform and the statement was marked by events which not even a very concise history of the Jews will be permitted to overlook. There was the massive Jewish migration from Europe to this country, setting in motion the shift of gravity within Judaism from there to here. The rise of Zionism as an ideological and political movement among Jews gave the theological hope of the past a secular version for activists. The Second World War with the eradication of Jewish life across Central and Eastern Europe completed the transfer of the center of Jewish life with its components to America. Finally, the State of Israel was established in order to become the home of the survivors of the Holocaust and of the persons displaced by the political rearrangements in Eastern Europe. The platform and the statement reflect the history of the century.  

The platform of 1885 states the religious attitude of those who were members of the signers' congregations. They had come to this country and founded their congregations in the image of their view of Judaism. Liberated from political and economic restrictions in Europe, they proceeded to disregard the laws and traditions rooted in "Mosaic-Rabbinical Judaism." That comprised a great deal of what previous generations had still deemed essential for living a Jewish life. This turning to a new time and the experience of a different feeling about themselves were clearly expressed: "We consider ourselves no longer a nation, but a religious community, and therefore expect neither a return to Palestine, nor a sacrificial worship under the sons of Aaron, nor the restoration of any of the laws concerning the Jewish state."  

New Kind of Judaism  

This was self-description or self-definition. A new kind of Judaism was presented here as the national underpinnings of the past and the national expectations for the future were abjured. It was an honest assessment of conditions and chances for wholesome Jewish living in the new home which offered individuals opportunities not available to them in their former dwelling places. Previous generations of Jews, unless they were willing to abandon Judaism, had to look inward and rely on each other for their human needs, but now they could begin to look outward and gain a new perspective on society of which they were becoming a part. It is no wonder that the spirit of the platform has taken so strong a hold of Reform Jews through the eleven decades since its adoption. It is this fact which the moving spirit behind the new statement deplores. The new statement is to replace the old platform. Will the attempt be successful? The answer will be given by Reform Jews as time goes on and they determine what being Jewish should mean to them.  

Contrast to Pittsburgh Platform  

In contrast to the Pittsburgh Platform, the Statement of Principles for Reform Judaism is not a description but a program. A description observes and is satisfied with that; a program presupposes that there is a lack or a need and goes on to make suggestions in order to correct or improve the situation. The reader of the statement who looks for suggestions which would affect him/her as a Reform Jew must be disappointed. There is no new enlightenment nor is there an appealing and understandable outline of sensible, tasteful, and meaningful Reform practices, such as have been kept by people whose Reform Judaism is not an excuse but their spiritual home. Instead, the reader finds generalities which are neither instructive nor inspiring, because they move on the surface. They give the impression of having been hastily written down in order to meet a need which exists only in the perception or fantasy of the authors of the statement. Surely, belief in God becomes an issue when humans give voice to their doubt about God and their inability to believe in Him. If they keep doubt and inability to themselves, there may be a hidden, personal problem when belief would be a source of strength in troubling situations of life. But someone who is not sure and would like to have some guidance in his/her search for a sustained belief may not find it in a formulation like this: "We affirm the reality and oneness of God, even as we may differ in our understanding of the Divine presence." To one who cannot make such an affirmation these words sound strange, for he/she still stands outside the orbit of their validity. Jewish people, like others, though attending services, may find themselves outside that orbit.  

Awe and Reverence  

Under the rubric "God," the statement rightfully mentions awe and reverence as necessary dispositions when humans turn seriously to God. It is generally agreed that God cannot be comprehended and therefore not be defined; God is beyond the reach of reason. Thus, the emotions of awe and reverence must take the place of ordinarily employed reason. Awe and reverence spring forth from thoughtful observation and wonderment or from what scientists can relate about the universe or from what they must be satisfied just to adumbrate. They are the flowers of spirituality, the roots of genuine religiosity. Genuine religiosity is effective piety in every condition of life; its beneficiary can be anybody, not necessarily a Jew. Awe and reverence are important for living a genuinely religious life, but the climate of our time is not conducive to the encouragement and nurture of spirituality. The present time is dominated by the rapid development of technology and the constant changes it effects. Life has become ever faster, leaving ever less time for thought and wonderment. Humans, unable or unwilling to resist the influence of technology upon their personal lives, have become enjoyers of consumption and entertainment. Jews like Christians are spellbound by technology and its inexhaustible promises, and genuine religiosity is overshadowed by the glitter of our age. If only awe and reverence could be saved from being engulfed and smothered by the artificiality and pretentiousness of our time.  

Increased Observance  

The section under the heading "Torah" subtly refers to the observances which Reform Jews should add to those which they have kept for a long time. The increase of observances, mostly rituals and ceremonies, is urgently suggested "as the result of the unique context of our times," but the statement fails to inform the reader about the characteristic of that uniqueness. Should awe and reverence be the reason for suggesting more observances, then those who wrote the statement overlooked the fact that observances do not guarantee the flowering of spirituality. An abundance of observances, of rituals and ceremonies, may easily turn into a mechanical routine and deny the performance conscious motivation or the urge of the heart. The old reformers whom the new reformers of the statement want to correct had a more valid appreciation of Judaism for their lives than their improvers now show. About five generations or so ago, non-Orthodox Jews were beset by numerous rituals which had been carried over from the Middle Ages and which had been designed to strengthen the cohesiveness and self-reliance of Jews in their ghetto existence. When that existence ended and Jewish contacts with the Christian environment could privately be established on various levels, non-Orthodox Jews discovered that many of the encumbering rituals and rules did not enhance their Jewish life outside the ghetto. They began to discard what appeared to them exaggerated and devoid of meaning, and they selected for their continued use those ceremonies, rituals, and institutions which, in their opinion, enriched their Jewish lives as religious people.  

National-Ethnic Entity  

Why the authors and supporters of the statement should urge that Reform Jews become more observant is not quite clear on the surface. Is it possible that they themselves are victims of the erroneous notion that being observant means being religious. If that were the case, one should feel sorry for them and their confusion, for they must not have met truly religious Reform Jews who are observant in their own limited way. However, there is perhaps no confusion behind the drive for more observances but rather a definite philosophy of what Jews are. That philosophy becomes apparent in the rubric entitled "Israel." It is not the Israel of "Hear, O Israel," but the Israel of Jewish peoplehood. In this section, the Jew is understood to be the member of a national-ethnic entity. Usually, this definition is offered by non-religious Jews who are at a loss when they have to describe themselves as Jews. However, the appearance of this definition in a document which Reform rabbis composed in order to replace classical Reform Judaism with their envisioned kind of traditional Reform Judaism is stunning. Their eagerness and self-assurance have taken them to extreme opinions and positions which are detached from reasonableness and rarely attract adherents.  

Studying Hebrew  

About halfway through the text, the importance of studying Hebrew is affirmed, because it is "the language of Torah and Jewish liturgy, that we may draw closer to our people's sacred texts." In principle, the study of Hebrew for the sake of gaining access to the genuine spirit of prayers and the bible is a valid part of the spiritual life of Reform Judaism, although teen-agers and adults are not easily persuaded to devote their leisure hours to the serious and ongoing study of a language so different from English, and although excellent translations in the spirit of the original are available. What is valid is not always realized, because the initial enthusiasm is often not sustainable. This human weakness makes the affirmation of the statement not very effective. One could argue against the affirmation of the importance of studying Hebrew by saying that the time devoted to it would be more beneficially spent were it allotted to reading good Jewish literature in English. The concluding reason for the study of Hebrew — "that we may draw closer to our people's sacred texts" — is pure ethnic pietism which, because of its artificiality, lacks the strength to endure.  

The national-ethnic view of Jews as being an entity which can simply and easily be classified is a characteristic of the statement. That understanding of the essence of the Jewish group is clearly expressed in three passages which "urge Jews who reside outside Israel to learn Hebrew as a living language," to "affirm the unique qualities of living in Eretz Yisrael, the land of Israel, and encourage aliyah, immigration to Israel." The connection between these programmatic points of the statement and Reform Judaism in this country cannot be detected by any reader's acumen. It sounds like Zionist fantasy or propaganda. It is impossible to say why rabbis who intend to strengthen and revitalize Reform Judaism should find justification for their case in such irrelevant, if not mischievous, affirmations. They do not seem to realize that by bringing strange and unrelated matters to the presentation of their view they make their own stance ludicrous.  

A Religious Community  

One of the salient points of the platform of 1885 had been the declaration that the reformers of that time, rabbis and congregants, considered themselves to be a religious community and no longer a nation. That was the way they thought of, and felt about, themselves, and about three generations of Reform Jews after them shared that self-understanding. As religious awareness and ties grew weaker among Christians and Jews after the first half of this century, nonreligious Jews, under the influence of Zionism and moved by the establishment of the State of Israel, based their being Jewish on the feeling of solidarity that was naturally common before the remnants of the ghetto walls had been removed: We are a people, an ethnic group. The purpose of the statement of 1999, composed from the viewpoint of Jewish ethnicity, purposes to nullify the declaration of 1885 and to eradicate its spirit of openness to the human environment. The trouble the refashioners of Reform Judaism have is the fact that the older platform is embedded in life while their absurd program is to be inflicted upon Reform Jews.  

Poorly Conceived Assault  

Classical Reform Jews who take their form of Judaism seriously and cherish it as part of their lives need not worry about this poorly conceived assault upon their religious convictions and values as long as they have the courage and perseverance to defend them in their congregations against rabbis of the ethnic outlook. In the long run, that which is genuine in daily living will abide.

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