Machlokes / Controversy

Jewish World Review June 14, 1999 / 31 Sivan, 5759

Rabbi Avi Shafran

A Remarkable Reform Manifesto

AT THE END OF MAY, the Reform rabbinate resoundingly passed its first new set of principles in 22 years, and the happening was noted widely in both the Jewish and general media.

And for good reason. It is a remarkable document. It not only speaks of G-d and Torah and prayer, it acknowledges the importance of mitzvot - "sacred obligations." And it invites Reform Jews to "engage in a dialogue with the sources of [Jewish] tradition."

Granted, the Central Conference of American Rabbis manifesto would have been even more remarkable had it been adopted in its original draft, prepared by Rabbi Richard Levy. That document spoke specifically of keeping kosher and mikvah and tefillin, and included references like one to how "standing at Sinai, the Jewish people heard G-d reveal the Torah." It openly suggested that Reform Jews "may feel called to other mitzvot new to Reform Jewish observance." But even the less decisive final draft was -- from an Orthodox perspective -- a turn in the right direction.

Econophone Some in the Orthodox camp, to be sure, may regard both drafts as meaningless, for leaving crucial words like "Torah" and mitzvah undefined, and for merely "suggesting" rather than demanding increased observance. But there can be no denying that a body that once decried Jewish ritual traditions as "ideas entirely foreign to our present mental and spiritual state" and as a hindrance "to modern spiritual elevation" has now declared its commitment "to the ongoing study of the whole array of mitzvot," even those the movement had long rejected, and is now characterizing them as "demand[ing] renewed attention."

No one is suggesting, of course, that the Reform rabbinate is ready yet to acknowledge the divine nature of the Written and Oral laws, or even that it is confronting the most basic, logical implication of the word mitzvah, or "commandment". But only a heart without hope could fail to be moved by the Reform rabbis' remarkable about-face. And only a denier of the holy spark in every Jew could squelch the image of the movement's leaders one day decisively confronting the origin of the path of mitzvot, and what it really means to be commanded.

For that matter, there are grounds for hope even in the remarkable banner behind which the foes of the original draft successfully rallied.

For, as it happened, passions not often associated with religiously liberal Jewish elements were given wide and loud vent when Rabbi Levy's draft was first featured, in the Winter, 1998 issue of Reform Judaism magazine. A large number of readers, rabbinic and lay alike, were offended by the magazine's cover, which featured Rabbi Levy bedecked with a prayer shawl and kissing its tassles. And some were nothing short of outraged when they got past the cover and read the references to Sinai and specific mitzvot.

Taking a cue from Rabbi Levy's rebutter in that very issue, Rabbi Robert Seltzer, who asserted that his colleague was at attempting to "turn the hands of the clock backward instead of forward," scores of Reform clergy and lay adherents wrote or e-mailed their ire over the draft.

"I could not even finish reading this in the magazine because it was so repulsive," a member of a California temple fumed, according to the Jewish Telegraphic Agency. Rabbi Levy's platform, she went on, "is too regressive and orthodox for me."

What was most remarkable, though, was the recurrent theme that permeated a number of the negative responses, expressed perhaps most clearly by Rabbi Seltzer himself. He wrote that his colleague's suggestions "stand in startling opposition to the standards of Classical Reform…" Elsewhere in his essay, he similarly expresses fear that Rabbi Levy's proposal, if accepted, might "obscur[e] the essence of Reform Judaism" and "undermin[e] the very foundations upon which our movement stands."

His objections, in other words, were rooted in a defense of… tradition.

The past, Rabbi Seltzer, along with other dissenters, seemed to be declaring, cannot be jettisoned like so much needless ballast. It is what we stand upon, it is vital and it demands our deepest respect.

The irony was luscious, and the grounds for hope substantial. For when Jews rise to the defense of the concept of tradition, even misguidedly applied, wondrous things can happen.

And so now it is time to hope. That all precious Jews, wherever they may reside on the spectrum of affiliation or observance, come to ponder the fact that there is an original, millennia-old Jewish tradition - their heritage as much as that of any Jew --- and that it is not just worthwhile but a gift of the Creator, and incumbent on each and every

Rabbi Avi Shafran is American Director of Am Echad, an international organization promoting Jewish unity. He may be reached by clicking here.


03/26/99: Message In A Bottle
03/09/99: The Times and The Timeless
01/20/99: Black Hats, Bad Guys
12/10/98: Bringing Wall Street Wisdom To the Quest for 'Jewish-Continuity'
7/06/98: Jaded
7/01/98: Full disclosure

©1999, Rabbi Avi Shafran