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The Un-Reformation

A new statement of principles urges Reform Jews to return to tradition; attendance at Woody Allen films no longer qualifies as religious observance.


On the night before America's Reform Jewish rabbis climaxed months of cacophonous debate by voting to reclaim many of the religious rituals that their movement had once disowned, a Brooklynite named Michael Klein took to the Internet to offer his unsolicited endorsement. "I am an Orthodox Jew," he wrote on the Website maintained by the Central Conference of American Rabbis, Reform's governing body. "But I was surprised . . . that there was nothing I would object to or disagree with, save for a few paragraphs . . . It's not sufficient, of course, because it does not accept G-d as the Commander and ultimate Authority, and neither does it state an ironclad commitment to Halacha religious law. But it's a good start."

Compliments from such quarters demonstrate exactly why the new Reform principles have so deeply divided the largest branch of American Jewry. Even as the Central Conference's members approved the platform in late May by a lopsided tally of 324 to 68, scores of the nation's 1.5 million Reform Jews continued the controversy that has raged since the guidelines reasserting traditional values, including Hebrew literacy, Torah study, and observance of Shabbat and kashruth, were introduced last December. As if the text alone were not divisive enough in Reform circles, it went by the provocative title "The Ten Principles."

From the very outset, opponents of the platform have attacked it as a concession to Orthodoxy. "I thought the proposed principles were almost 'fundamentalist,' " Dr. Frank Miller of Greenville, South Carolina, wrote on the Website. Jean Hecht, a member of Temple Concord in Binghamton, New York, warned of "a fear out here in congregation land that we are turning into Conservadox congregations." Max Wiesenfeld, who identified himself only as a resident of New Jersey, contended that "it would be a terrible mistake for the leadership, for whatever reason, to force the views of the minority on the majority."

Given the rancor within Judaism -- the haredi attacks on mixed-gender worshippers at the Western Wall, the dismissal by fundamentalist rabbis of Reform and Conservative practice as "not really Judaism" -- one can understand a certain demagogic temptation to attack the principles by linking them to Reform's enemies. But that misses the point. Less than proving the triumph of Orthodoxy, the platform attests to the demise of Jewish ethnicity as the basis of Reform. By urging a return to the rites that their forebears deemed atavistic, the Reform rabbis are acknowledging that ethical precepts and communal bonds alone can no longer provide for Jewish continuity. Even a religion founded on the altar of Enlightenment rationalism has decided that it has to be, well, more religious.

"It you remove belief from the mix of tradition and history, you weaken the entire identity structure," the author Anne Roiphe put it in an essay about secular Judaism several months ago in The Jerusalem Report. "It's all very well to speak of the Yom Kippur ball on the Lower East Side and the deep Jewish feelings of skeptics such as Freud and Herzl, but their descendants have trouble hanging on. The rituals turn empty, the knowledge of Hebrew, of Jewish culture, of Jewish history fades. Without religion or Jewish nationalism heated up to a fever pitch, or Holocaust memory fresh in the mind, what remains is pale and limp and hangs around for only a generation or so."

A major study of American Jewry released last October lent statistical credence to Roiphe's argument. Stephen M. Cohen, a Hebrew University sociologist specializing in the Diaspora, found that contrary to conventional wisdom, American Jews are becoming not less religious -- but less ethnic. "Younger Jews," he wrote, "are just as religiously committed, God-oriented, and ritually observant as their elders." But in a variety of secular measures -- attachment to Israel, attitudes toward intermarriage, membership in communal organizations -- Jewish identity is waning.

No fact speaks more profoundly to the Reform conundrum than Cohen's finding about the decreasing importance of political activism. While half the Jews older than 65 in Cohen's sample considered social justice integral to their identity, only one-sixth of those aged 25 to 34 felt similarly. "Even if Jewish political views remain as far to the left of the American center as they always have," Cohen concluded, "Jews are apparently attaching declining significance to politics as an expression of their Jewishness."

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