The Un-Reformation

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.”

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.”

The Un-Reformation