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The Un-Reformation

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The Reform branch, more than any other in American Judaism, has defined itself by political action, from the Triangle Shirtwaist Company protests in 1911 to the March on Washington in 1963 to the Washington rally for Soviet Jewry in 1987. Reform began ordaining women as rabbis in the seventies, a decade before the Conservative movement. These days, however, the closest thing Reform has to a central controversy is the question of accepting same-sex marriage -- a cause that polarizes rather than unifies the ranks.

So it should come as no surprise that the Reform rabbinate is taking refuge in the tallith and kipah (prayer shawl and skullcap) it once disdained; that today's Reform cantor is more likely to lead the faithful in one of Shlomo Carlebach's Hassidic nigunim than in the Christian-like hymns of yore. The female clergy whom Reform's Hebrew Union College have been training at an increasing pace -- clergy who, on matters except those of gender, often admire the Orthodox model -- figure prominently in the neo-traditional faction. And most congregational rabbis know that, in a marriage requiring a conversion, it is generally the Jew-by-choice rather than the lifelong variety who craves a more substantial religious experience.

Still, all these forces are pushing against history itself. The founding document of the American Reform movement, the Pittsburgh Platform of 1885, depicted ritual as anachronistic, even anathema, in an enlightened age. "We accept only the moral laws and statutes as divine," the platform declared, "but reject all those so-
cial, political, and priestly statutes which are in no way shape or form adapted to our mode of life and our views and habits." The statement went on to dismiss the laws on diet, purity, and dress as "altogether foreign to our mental and spiritual state."

Through two later platforms, framed in 1937 and 1976, Reform leaders softened some of their rhetoric but did not alter the movement's fundamental distinction from Orthodox Judaism, which hallows the Torah as the inerrant word of God, and Conservative Judaism, which considers Torah divinely decreed although mutable in modern circumstances. The 1976 platform, while nodding to the value of ritual, study, and observance, put a premium on "our ethical obligations" and "action rather than creed."

The man who challenged a century's emphasis is Richard Levy. The Hillel director for the Southern California region, Levy drafted the "Ten Principles" during his recent term as president of the Central Conference. As if to ensure that the laity would notice, Levy posed for the cover of Reform Judaism magazine in a skullcap and prayer shawl, kissing the fringes.

Levy's bold words were diluted by six drafts and the multiple hands of a committee. The "Ten Principles" was renamed a "Statement of Principles." References to various mitzvot (commandments) were excised or weakened. Still, the final draft moves Reform closer to embracing what it once rejected, and the debate over the document has forced many Jews to reconsider just what it means to be Jewish.

Those who feel defeated, if not betrayed, by the result make a mistake in dismissing Levy as an Orthodox manqué. His support of same-sex marriage, for instance, places him in some respects on the farthest edge of Judaism's left wing. Yet he has accurately seen that beyond religious observance, Jewish identity in America, once throbbing with Yiddishkeit and garment unions and all the radical sects that could take an alcove in the City College cafeteria, has come to stand for little more than Seinfeld and a shmear.

"There was this naïveté in the nineteenth century that failed to recognize the power of American acculturation," Levy says, recalling the Pittsburgh Platform. "They thought they could drop the external trappings of Judaism because they really believed in the positivist, Hegelian tradition that God was moving toward increasing freedom and humanity. In retrospect, we see that America was much more powerful than anything they had anticipated."


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