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Rabbis Vote to Revive Observance of Traditions

Judaism: Reform movement endorses an optional return to practices such as following kosher dietary laws.

May 27, 1999|LARRY B. STAMMER | TIMES RELIGION WRITER

Rabbis of the nation's largest Jewish denomination, which once jettisoned ritual observances in favor of a religion of rationalism, voted overwhelmingly Wednesday to endorse an optional return to traditionalism by congregants.

The 324-68 vote by the Central Conference of American Rabbis, the rabbinical arm of the 1.5-million-member Reform movement, came after two days of sometimes heated debate in Pittsburgh.

In one sense, the vote--which was delayed a day--merely ratifies what has already been occurring in Reform congregations across the country as congregants wear yarmulkes in services or observe kosher dietary laws. Nonetheless, Reform rabbis said adoption of the new Statement of Principles for Reform Judaism marks a historic milestone for a denomination founded in the 19th century and steeped in the rationalism of the Enlightenment.

"On the eve of a new century, when so many individuals are striving for religious meaning, moral purpose and a sense of community, it is important that we have a modern set of principles that define and invite commentary on Reform Jewish belief and practice," Rabbi Paul J. Menitoff, executive vice president of the conference, said after the vote.

The chief architect of the statement, conference President Rabbi Richard J. Levy of Los Angeles, said the declaration "recognizes the importance of Jewish tradition in deepening the holiness of our lives in a time when that is very difficult to find."

Its approval came after two years of sometimes heated controversy and six rewrites after meetings throughout the country involving hundreds of rabbis and congregants. Nevertheless, some opponents in Pittsburgh told rabbis that they were under no obligation to approve it.

"It wasn't broken. Why are we fixing it?" Rabbi Eric Wisnia of New York asked during floor debate.

But for too long, supporters said, the biggest complaint about Reform was that it defined itself by what it was not rather than what it stood for. Now, they said, the rabbinical conference is encouraging Reform Jews to feel free to study and explore the full range of their religious heritage, including its ritual observances.

"Being a Reform Jew allows the individual to have the freedom to choose from the traditions of the past, as well as create for the future," Rabbi Lawrence Goldmark, president of the Board of Rabbis of Southern California, said.

Rabbi Laura Geller of Temple Emanuel of Beverly Hills, who also attended the conference, added: "If they hadn't passed it, it would have sent a message that reinforced the most negative stereotype of Reform Judaism--that it is a religion of minimalism."

Until Wednesday, Reform rabbis had met only three times since the denomination's founding in 1873 to set down declarations of what it meant to be a Reform Jew in America. The first, the 1885 Pittsburgh Platform, as it is known, was hostile to ritual. Statements in 1937 and 1976 brought the denomination closer to rabbinical tolerance if not acceptance of some ritual.

But the statement approved Wednesday was described as unprecedented in its emphasis on piety, the use of Hebrew and its call for the ongoing study by Reform Jews of "the whole array of mitzvot [religious obligations], including acts of social justice and, tellingly, ritual observances."

At the same time, the conference reaffirmed Reform's emphasis that even as Reform Jews seek more spiritual expressions of their faith, their commitment to social justice remains unchanged.

For example, the statement declares, "We are obligated to pursue tzedek, justice and righteousness, and to narrow the gap between the affluent and the poor, to act against discrimination and oppression, to pursue peace, to welcome the stranger, to protect the Earth's biodiversity and natural resources, and to redeem those in physical, economic and spiritual bondage."

Another section calls Reform an inclusive community whose doors are open "to people of all ages, to varied kinds of families, to all, regardless of their sexual orientation, to gerim, those who have converted to Judaism, and to all individuals and families, including the intermarried, who strive to create a Jewish home."

The next step for the nation's Reform congregations, rabbis said, is to open discussions on what the new statement of principles means to them. That could prove difficult, rabbis said, because many of the specifics contained in earlier drafts--such as the overt mention of wearing yarmulkes and talitot (head coverings and prayer shawls) during services--were removed in the face of opposition.

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