The battle over Reform Judaism

The new head of the movement advocates a return to Jewish laws and traditions, and touches off a battle for American Jewish identity.

Published May 1, 1999 4:00PM (EDT)

When Rabbi Richard Levy posed last fall for the cover of Reform Judaism magazine, he donned a skullcap and prayer shawl. As the photographer clicked away, Levy pinched one of the shawl's fringes between his thumb and index finger and lifted it to his lips.

In much of American Jewry, the resulting image would hardly have merited a second glance, for Rabbi Levy in his attire and attitude resembled not only much of the rabbinate but a large segment of Jewish laity, which wears the yarmulke and tallit for worship and after touching the Torah scrolls kisses the tzitzis.

For hundreds of thousands of Reform Jews, however, the picture of Rabbi Levy on the magazine arrived as an in-your-face provocation. More than a century earlier, the Reform movement had disavowed clerical garb and many of the accompanying rituals and beliefs as the remnants of an atavistic past, one unsuited to the science and reason of modern America. "Why are you destroying the religion I grew up with?" Rabbi Levy recalls one subscriber writing to him.

The portrait was just the beginning of the shock therapy. Inside the magazine, Rabbi Levy, the president of the major association of Reform rabbis, introduced a platform of increased observance that he pointedly called "The Ten Principles." Freely using the Hebrew terminology that the Reform movement for decades eschewed, Rabbi Levy called for Reform Jews to explore, and even embrace, such practices as kosher dietary laws, the sanctity of the Sabbath and purifying immersion in the ritual bath called the mikveh.

Now, five months later, Rabbi Levy has succeeded at the very least in turning the normally obscure process of shaping the platform of his rabbinical association into a plebiscite on Jewish identity in America. Praised by many Conservative and Orthodox leaders -- and denounced by a large portion of the Reform constituency -- the Levy plan has forced the most assimilationist branch of American Jewry to ask just what it stands for and has revealed that the bitter divisions among American Jews exist not just between denominations but within them.

When the Central Conference of American Rabbis gathers for its annual convention in Pittsburgh later this month, it will debate a tempered but nonetheless controversial revision of the Levy principles.

Reform Jews, unlike Orthodox and Conservative Jews, consider religious laws advisory rather than binding, and the Levy document has been attacked in some quarters as an unwarranted surrender of Reform principles.

"Reform Jews are defined by what they don't practice," contends Rabbi Levy. "I've tried to remind people how hurtful it is to serious Reform Jews to have someone say, 'I'm very Reform' and mean, 'I'm not religious at all.' I want to reclaim Reform. I want to affirm that the Torah calls to all Jews, that we all stood at Sinai, that we are striving [for] holiness in a society that is persuasively secular."

But in Reform Jewish circles, those are fighting words. From the pages of Reform Judaism magazine through the columns of Jewish newspapers to the Central Conference's Web site, the proposed principles have been assailed as a betrayal of the Reform ethos, a concession to the branch's critics in Conservative and Orthodox Judaism.

"The danger is conceding that the Orthodox represent authentic Judaism and therefore non-Orthodox forms are to be measured against that scale," argues Rabbi Robert Seltzer, a professor of Jewish history at Hunter College in New York. "The principles have made ritual an end in itself, not the means. I'm not against observance or recapturing rituals that Reform Judaism has dropped along its history, but Richard's document doesn't articulate what are the tenets of our movement."

The founding platform of the American Reform movement, framed in 1885, disavowed many rituals and religious laws -- particularly those on diet, purity and dress -- as, "altogether foreign to our mental and physical state." Two later platforms softened the rhetoric, but left the fundamental difference between Reform and other branches of Judaism in place.

Meanwhile, the Reform movement's emphasis on "action rather than creed" led Reform Jews to prominent roles in many campaigns for social justice -- from the labor movement of the 1930s to the civil rights crusade of the 1950s to the anti-Vietnam War effort of the 1960s. Reform Judaism permitted the ordination of women as rabbis in the 1970s. Many Reform rabbis, though not the movement as a whole, now sanction same-sex marriages.

Yet Reform Judaism has also been whipsawed more than any other branch by the simultaneous pulls of identity and assimilation. Faced with rampant interfaith marriage by its adherents, the Reform movement alone among Jewish denominations accepts patrilineal (in addition to the traditional matrilineal) descent in deeming a child Jewish. That decision, made in 1983, makes Reform conversions illegitimate not only to the Orthodox movement but even to the Conservative, the largest in the United States.

More often in the recent intra-Jewish strife, Reform and Conservative Jews have been lumped together as apostates. Several years ago, an ultra-Orthodox rabbinical association based in Brooklyn derided both branches as "not Judaism at all." The Sephardic chief rabbi in Israel recently proclaimed that the non-Orthodox denominations had destroyed more Jews than had the Nazis.

But the identity crisis of Reform Judaism exists very much within the liberal American community, too. The frequent ridiculing of classical Reform practice -- with its business dress, unaccented English and organ music -- suggests much of what a rabbi like Richard Levy is rebelling against.

Melissa Fay Greene, in her 1996 book "The Temple Bombing," described an Atlanta Reform congregation of the 1950s whose members ate ham for Passover and would have changed the Sabbath to Sunday except that the choir members, all Christians, went to church that day. A cover illustration in the New Yorker late last year depicted an Orthodox Jew with beard and sidelocks, a Conservative Jew in yarmulke and a Reform Jew in Santa Claus hat. In an essay from the 1980s, playwright David Mamet referred to his own coming of age as a Reform Jew as "nothing other than a desire to 'pass,' to slip unnoticed into the non-Jewish community, to do nothing that would attract the attention and so the wrath of mainstream America."

Now 61, Rabbi Levy entered the rabbinate just as the ideals of cultural pluralism and roots consciousness were starting to replace the melting-pot myth. He bought the tefillin (phylacteries) that he still uses 35 years ago as a seminarian and began keeping kosher a few years after ordination. He moved close enough to his first synagogue that he would not have to drive on the Sabbath.

Most significantly, perhaps, Rabbi Levy spent most of his career outside of the pulpit. As the executive director of the Jewish campus foundation Hillel in the Southern California region, he moved instead among rabbinical colleagues from all branches of Judaism and the minority of Jewish students with active religious lives.

Thus Levy became part of a neo-traditional faction within the Reform movement -- a group that reclaimed ritual garments, restored Hebrew to the liturgy, borrowed ecstatic praise-songs from the Hasidim. Levy's experiences in Hillel largely explain what would otherwise seem the paradox of a man who sided with the branch's left wing in accepting patrilineal descent and expressing his readiness to perform homosexual marriages yet leads the right wing in matters of ritual and observance. One of his recent campaign stops to rally support for the principles took him, fittingly enough, to a national convention of female rabbis.

"This has nothing to do with Orthodoxy and validating its criticism," Rabbi Levy says of the principles. "I see it as a statement of recapturing our heritage. It was the naiveti of the 19th century to fail to recognize the power of American acculturation and think you could drop the external things. In retrospect, we see that American culture was much more powerful than anything we anticipated."

The vigorous and frequently bitter exchanges on the Central Conference's Web site indicate that conventional Reform Judaism still has plenty of defenders. There are various theories about where the fissures have formed -- between old and young, between clergy and laity, between East and West. All that is apparent from the online debate is that the chasms are deep indeed.

"I dropped out of synagogue membership for nearly 50 years because I was not interested in following the 613 commandments and I was tired of being made to feel guilty about it," wrote Martin Gouterman of Bellevue, Wash. "The Ten Principles reek of the type of hypocrisy I grew up with."

"Excess ritualism is a cop-out," Stefan Silverston of Chandler, Ariz., put it. "It tends to let things like head-gear and diet replace righteousness in the practice of religion. Fussing over yarmulkes is irrelevant, if not obscene, in the face of the great questions facing us. Let's keep Reform Reform."

Despite his critics, Rabbi Levy does not lack for supporters in cyberspace. Patricia Munro of Livermore, Calif., noted that the principles "do not insist, they encourage knowledge." Gabriel Lampert of Las Cruces, N.M., wrote, "By casting out ritual, we both lose our contacts with the generations ... and also assimilate ourselves so much that there is hardly a reason for a young Jew to remain Jewish."

Still, the criticism of the proposed platform has forced its moderation. The draft that will be voted upon by the Central Conference's membership is the fifth, and unlike the earlier iterations -- which bore Rabbi Levy's bold imprint -- it betrays the multiple hands of a committee seeking consensus. No longer, for instance, is the document titled "The Ten Principles," with that phrase's biblical resonance. It has been renamed a "Statement of Principles." No longer do the words mikveh, kashrut and tefillin appear in the text. Nor does the call for "observance of the mitzvot (commandments) of Shabbat." Gone, too, are the references to Israel as a "holy" land and Hebrew as a "holy" tongue, sentiments of Jewish exceptionalism.

Even if approved, the principles will not bind the Reform rabbinate. And the Central Conference itself forms only one part of the movement's infrastructure, the others being the Union of American Hebrew Congregations and the Hebrew Union College. Neither the congregational body nor the seminary have yet declared a position on the principles.

Levy maintains that even in their more equivocal form the principles can alter Reform Judaism's course and encourage further traditionalism in the future. "We encourage the learning of Hebrew, the language of Torah and liturgy, that we may draw closer to our people's sacred texts," the draft states at one point. "We are called by Torah to lifelong study -- in the home, in the synagogue, in schools and camps. Through study we are called to mitzvot, the means by which we make our lives holy."

"I preferred the wording of the earlier drafts," Rabbi Levy said, "because that's where I think the movement is heading. But we need some document. Without one, I fear, the discussion is going to die down. And this is an important discussion, not just in Reform, but for Jewish life."

By Samuel G. Freedman

Samuel G. Freedman, a professor of journalism at Columbia University, has written for Salon since 1996. His new book, “Breaking The Line: The Season in Black College Football That Transformed the Sport and Changed the Course of Civil Rights,” will be published in August 2013.

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