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Judaic leaders battle over reforms

(ran PW, PS editions of PT)

America's Reform rabbis, representing progressive Judaism, are currently engaged in a spirited debate over a new set of principles of faith.

The debate has long-term implications for all liberal religions because, under some of the same pressures other groups face, the rabbis are attempting to change their movement from one that has historically favored extraordinary personal autonomy and freedom to a more tradition-based Judaism calling for the reintroduction of rituals, intensive religious study and increased personal piety.

Such fundamental changes are never easy, and the initial reaction to the proposed 10 new guidelines has created a firestorm of opposition from both rabbis and lay leaders. Indeed, the opposition has been so fierce that a scheduled June vote on the issue by the Reform rabbis has been postponed.

As usual, history plays a significant role in the debate.

For more than a century, a radical set of principles adopted in 1885 by the Central Conference of American Rabbis, or CCAR, has decisively influenced Reform Judaism. Reflecting the prevalent values of the Enlightenment that was so much a part of the late 19th century, the rabbis of that day emphatically rejected the Jewish dietary laws and the "social, political and priestly statutes" of the Bible "which are in no way, shape or form adapted to our mode of life they are altogether foreign to our mental and spiritual state."

Instead the rabbis accepted "only the (Bible's) moral laws and statutes as divine."

The CCAR of that period was following many other groups seeking to mold an ancient faith into an "ever-growing, progressive and rational religion."

Like every generation, the 1885 rabbis were products of their unique time and experience, and they strongly believed a "higher culture of mind and heart" was operating in the world. They had, of course, not yet encountered the grim reality of two destructive world wars, the Holocaust, weapons of mass destruction and the severe limitations of science in aiding humans to achieve spiritual fulfillment.

Auschwitz and the mushroom nuclear cloud severely weakened, if not destroyed, the eloquent and glorious dreams of 1885. After the Holocaust, no Jew could honestly agree with the 1885 CCAR that "the views and habits of modern civilization" should determine Jewish behavior or belief. It was, after all, "modern civilization" that perfected and carried out the mass murders of the Holocaust.

In addition, the creation of the state of Israel in 1948 shattered the CCAR assertion of 63 years earlier that Jews were a "people scattered among the nations of the world throughout the civilized globe." Israel became the one place where Jews were no longer "scattered" but, instead, constituted the majority population; a place where they were free to be totally at home in their own country.

Since those giddy, optimistic days of 1885, the CCAR has adopted two other far more temperate platforms: one in 1937 on the eve of World War II and the other in 1976. But it is the Pittsburgh Platform of 114 years ago that remains the lodestar of the Reform Judaism.

The proposed principles seek to develop a sense of "holiness" in Reform Jews many believe is lacking. For example, they call for observing the kosher dietary laws and expanding ritual practices, including immersions in the mikveh, or ritual pool, for physical and spiritual purification.

The Reform Jewish link with modern Israel, already strong, is made more explicit in the new guidelines. They proudly call the state of Israel "a historic triumph of the Jewish people and of modern Zionism" and encourage "Reform Jews to make "aliyah,' immigration to Israel" a central part of their faith commitment.

The architect of the new platform is the current CCAR president, Rabbi Richard Levy of Los Angeles. Levy wants to shift Reform Judaism away from its historic emphasis on modernity and contemporary society, arguing the Reform movement has for too long taken its cues from the prevailing outside environment rather than drawing spiritual resources from within the rich traditional Jewish religious experience.

Levy argues that "separation, or diversity, is becoming the norm, particularly in dietary preferences . . . we need to be concerned with low fat and low cholesterol. Why shouldn't we pay at least equal attention to the spiritual dimension of what we consume?"

Levy's position has been publicly criticized by Rabbi Robert Seltzer of Hunter College in New York, who wryly termed the new principles "Conservative Judaism Lite."

Seltzer warns Reform Judaism about the dangers of abandoning "rational thought . . . modern knowledge, and the hard-won place of Jews and Judaism at the center of modern Western society."

While there will be no immediate resolution of the debate, the battle for the soul of the Reform movement has been joined.

_ Rabbi Rudin is the national interreligious affairs director of the American Jewish Committee.