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September 3, 2015 | 19th Elul 5775

"A Statement of Principles for Reform Judaism" was adopted by the Central Conference of American Rabbis on May 27 at its convention in Pittsburgh. The following day, the New York Times wrote that these principles would "encourage the observance of traditional rituals...that were set aside at the movement's founding." But the New York Jewish Week, on the same day, stated that "the new platform is seen as a victory for the classical wing of the movement, which rejected attempts by Reform leaders to inject more tradition and observance into daily practice."

Who is correct? What are these principles really about?

An early draft of the principles appeared in the Winter 1998 issue Reform Judaism magazine and generated much criticism from congregational leaders who felt that its traditional language was inconsistent with Reform practice and belief. I expressed my own concerns to the Union's national board in Memphis last December, suggesting that the need of the hour was Jewish doing, and that articulating principles at this time was unnecessary and likely to be divisive.

While the leadership of the Central Conference disagreed, it proceeded in a cautious and responsible manner. A broad task force, including lay leaders, was established to supervise the process, and those passages most troublesome to many of our members were deleted. The document approved in Pittsburgh, which offers guidelines rather than religious mandates to Reform congregations, is moderate and thoughtfully constructed.

On the one hand, it gives voice to the religious renewal that we see all around us. Reform synagogues throughout North America report a revival of text study, a thirst for heart-felt worship, and a renaissance of theological language. Our members want a Reform Judaism that is about what we do, rather than what we don't do. A large number of Jews are demonstrating a readiness to seek God and to create a life of holiness appropriate for such striving. The new principles reflect these trends, and call on Reform Jews, in making their religious decisions, to study and explore all aspects of Jewish tradition.

On the other hand, the document reasserts Reform Judaism's long-held commitments to diversity, personal autonomy, and inclusiveness. It makes clear that our movement is a broad tent with a wide range of observance and belief, and that we embrace both those who value ritual and those who do not. It also reaffirms Reform's commitment to social justice, to reaching out to intermarried Jews, and to welcoming gay and lesbian Jews into our synagogues.

Not surprisingly, the secular media emphasized the "return to tradition" aspects of the document, while the Anglo-Jewish media emphasized the "retreat" from the earlier, more traditional versions.

Both are correct, of course, because the document, like the three platforms that preceded it, is a compromise, and therefore a bit messy and awkward. It struggles to reflect new directions, without abandoning distinctive Reform values. And because it was assembled by a committee, it lacks the elegance that might have come from a single author.

Virtually every speaker at the CCAR Convention began his or her remarks with the comment: "This is not a perfect document." Nonetheless, eighty percent of the rabbis present voted for it because, imperfections and all, it accurately reflects the current state of our movement, in all of its richness and diversity.

Despite my reservations, I am pleased with the final outcome, and grateful to the CCAR for initiating a process of movement-wide introspection and self-evaluation. In the past year, reacting to the principles, tens of thousands of our members have struggled with the meaning of their Reform identity. This process will continue in the year ahead, as the UAHC and CCAR cooperate in organizing study sessions on the new document. These sessions will encourage both lay leaders and rabbis to explore the concrete implications of the principles, and to write commentaries to clarify and enrich the text.

This is a process that will, I pray, strengthen our liberal Jewish consciousness, deepen our commitment to Torah, and broaden our understanding of what it means to be a Reform Jew.


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