Machlokes / Controversy

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

Eric Simon

'The Ten Principles': Can
We Take Another Step?

IN 1885, THE FOUNDERS of Reform Judaism in America strove to define the movement in a document called "The Pittsburgh Platform." With great fanfare -- and no small amount of controversy -- the movement's rabbinic leadership returned to Pittsburgh last month to adopt "The Ten Principles," their third-ever revision to that platform.

One thing is certain: the authors of the original probably wouldn't recognize the new document as being "Reform." "The Ten Principles" largely abandons "informed choice" in favor of a re-examination of traditional practices not often associated with the Reform movement. But given that this is the case, I am struck by the Principles' omission in one area which we have always claimed as our own: Jewish ethics.

Econophone As a member of the Union of American Hebrew Congregation's Commission on Synagogue Affiliation for the past two years, and outgoing vice president of my own Reform congregation in suburban D.C., I have always looked for ways that we can apply Judaism in our daily lives. I therefore believe that we missed a huge opportunity.

Over the last generation or two, "informed choice" has been the hallmark of Reform Judaism. The 1976 Centenary Platform says that "Reform Jews are called upon to confront the claims of Jewish tradition... and to exercise their individual autonomy, choosing and creating on the basis of commitment and knowledge." That's how it's supposed to work in theory; it has failed miserably in practice.

For one, it presumes that Reform Jews are knowledgeable about Jewish tradition. Reform leaders themselves admit the failure of that assumption; Rabbi Eric Yoffie, the leader of the Reform movement, called this generation the most Jewishly ignorant in all of Jewish history. "Informed choice" cannot happen when we're not informed.

There's also a problem with the "choice" part. The question that Reform asks, "is it meaningful to me", is entirely self-centered, an exercise in selfishness. The question more properly ought to be: Can it benefit me, my family, the Jewish community, or the world community, if I observe this mitzvah? Following Jewish ethics, for example, isn't always desirable or "meaningful" to me as an individual, but it is as a community. That's the point we were missing with our much-vaunted "autonomy."

The "Ten Principles" begins to address these problems. Individual "informed choice" is never mentioned; instead, the document says that "We are committed to the ongoing study of the whole array of mitzvot and to the fulfillment of those that address us as individuals and as a community." It admits that all the mitzvot demand study, and obligates Reform Jews to take the needs of the community into account. No longer is "individual autonomy" the be-all and end-all of Reform.

In the process, it endorses Jewish ritual to an extent never before seen in the Reform movement. Few of us recall that 40 years ago kippot were banned in many Reform synagogues, and were sparse even 20 years ago. Today, they are worn by many, but one symbol reflecting an overall "return to tradition." This platform embraces the movement's new direction.

Yet here is the down side of "The Ten Principles." It focuses upon both individual and communal rituals, but ethics are discussed only at a communal level -- it offers a litany of social action items under the rubric of tikkun olam, repairing the world, but never mentions the need for individual ethical growth.

Even the 1885 Pittsburgh Platform, which represented the most dramatic break with traditional ritual, argued that all ethical mitzvot were still binding. But if this is true, why do so many Reform Jews have trouble naming any positive ethical mitzvot beyond "love your neighbor," those that appear in the Ten Commandments, and that vague exhortation to engage in tikkun olam?"

It seems that we have forgotten that our tradition tells us, in great detail, how to go about becoming ethical individuals.

Let me focus upon one example: the laws relating to speech. Judaism has always demanded extreme care with what we say. Jewish tradition tells us that speech which denigrates others, even if true, is generally prohibited and a grave sin. If ever there was group of ethical mitzvot that simultaneously (a) encourages sensitivity; (b) furthers tolerance and understanding; is extraordinarily relevant to everyday life; and (d) demonstrates uniquely Jewish ethics -- this is it! Yet few Reform Jews have ever even heard of the area of law which I am discussing: "lashon hara", evil speech.

While many in the Reform movement denigrate the Orthodox for slavish adherence to the minutia of ritual observance, those same ritualists have multiple organizations devoted to the promotion of ethical speech, and even a hot-line for questions. That is dedication to Jewish ethics. Where are we by comparison? Where are our study materials on subjects like these?.

This is but one example, for Jewish tradition is full of ethical mitzvot. The largest tractate in the Talmud is not about ritual observance, but about business relations. We might learn "finders keepers, losers weepers" on the playground, and American law tells us we have no obligation when we find a lost object, but Jewish tradition tells us just the opposite -- demanding concern for our neighbor's property and not just our own. We seem to be oblivious to this kind of ethical tradition, while we restore kippot and kashrut to their former prominence.

The opportunity being missed in these "Ten Principles" -- indeed, in the entire "return to tradition" by Reform Judaism -- is in the failure to recognize that Jewish tradition has a lot to say, with great specificity, about personal ethics in our everyday lives.

But perhaps there is good news on this front. Last November, Rabbi Yoffie said, "We are a Movement dedicated not only to tikkun olam -- repair of the world -- but also to tikkun middot -- repair of that which is ethically flawed in our personal lives and behavior." But, unfortunately, I have not seen any recognition of this in anything said or printed by the Reform movement since that speech. We need to pick up on this ideal, both as a movement -- by instituting synagogue classes, programs, and developing material to promote Jewish ethical development, and individually -- by recognizing that our tradition has a lot to say about ethics, that it is a whole lot more than just "be a good person," and, if we are serious about ethics (and many of us are), making the time and effort to learn about it.

I commend the leaders of the movement for taking a great step in the right direction with the "Ten Principles", and encourage them to act on Rabbi Yoffie's observation and take one more step -- one that ought to be easy and right in line with the ideals of the movement: in our return to tradition, let's start in the area which we claim to have been concentrating upon all along -- the ethical mitzvot which our tradition has always provided.

Eric Simon is a member of the (Reform) Union of American Hebrew Congregation's Commission on Synagogue Affiliation and an outgoing vice president of Beth El Hebrew Congregation in Alexandria, VA. He may be reached by clicking here.

©1999, Jewish World Review