Local rabbis give mixed reviews to Ten Principles

Bay Area Reform rabbis are voicing mixed reactions to the "Ten Principles of Reform Judaism," a proposed new document urging the movement's Jews to heighten their focus on Jewish observance.

"I don't think it's a good idea for the movement to have them," said Rabbi Stephen Pearce of San Francisco's Congregation Emanu-El. "It almost seems counterintuitive or antithetical to the goal of Reform Judaism, and that is that each individual is free to decide for himself."

The principles, if adopted, would serve as guidelines and not edicts.

Still, "even the world `guidelines' is a little too strong," Pearce said. "Guidelines makes it sound like it's something you have to be guided by. I think liberal Jews should do a lot [to lead a Jewish life], but I think that's a personal decision."

The principles urge Reform Jews to pray daily, keep the Sabbath and follow the laws of kashrut. They also proclaim the Torah as the center of Reform Jewish life, and encourage Reform Jews to immigrate to Israel.

Contrary to Pearce, Rabbi Judy Shanks does not fear the principles would compromise the essence of Reform Judaism.

She sees the platform points as "goads to commitment — to study, learn and accept mitzvot, whether on a permanent or trial basis, and to imbue their lives with as much holiness as people can. Sometimes people just don't know where to look to do that."

The associate rabbi of Lafayette's Temple Isaiah views the document as positive, as long as it is adopted with a strong emphasis on personal autonomy, "so that no Reform Jew who doesn't make all these principles part of their lives has to feel illegitimate within the movement."

Authored by Rabbi Richard Levy, leader of the movement's rabbinic arm, the document has spawned a passionate national debate. At its heart is the gap between those who yearn for a greater dose of tradition and those who consider themselves "classical Reform" Jews.

Rabbi Michael Barenbaum of Congregation Rodef Sholom in San Rafael said he likes the idea of principles to help give the Reform movement shape. "I think we should be committed to some sort of process of defining ourselves."

Still, fearing the Ten Principles could lead to a "different kind of orthodoxy," Barenbaum is not convinced they are what the movement needs.

At Barenbaum's congregation, reaction has been similarly mixed.

"Some say, `That's what we really need. We need to be told what we should practice,'" the rabbi said. "The greater number are concerned that someone other than themselves is going to determine what is going to create the criteria for being a valid Reform Jew."

Reform rabbis were originally scheduled to vote on the platform this spring at their annual convention in Pittsburgh. But the national debate over the platform makes it unlikely the issue will be resolved before the May gathering gets under way.

Rabbi Martin Weiner said he would probably vote yes on the principles if balloting were held today. But he is waiting to see how the document evolves as it is re-examined and edited.

"In principle, I'm for the principles," said Weiner of San Francisco's Congregation Sherith Israel. "They have caused a very positive ferment in Jewish life. They are, in my mind at least, helping us to answer that most fundamental question: What does it mean to be a Reform Jew?"

Weiner believes the principles reflect tremendous changes in American Jewish life and Reform Judaism in the last decade.

"Examples are the enhanced role of women as rabbis, cantors and lay leaders, the yearning for more spiritual experience in our Shabbat and Holy Day services, and the longing for enriched Jewish study, not just for children but for adults," he said.

Though he has yet to formulate his personal opinion of the document, Rabbi Allen Bennett also sees great value in the debate.

"I'm not convinced the principles can adequately or accurately define the movement, but I think the discussion is worth having," said the rabbi of Temple Israel in Alameda.

Shanks agreed. "I am delighted Rabbi Levy put this on the table," she said. "It has spurred discussion among rabbis and lay people that's absolutely necessary at this time in our history."

Leslie Katz
Leslie Katz

Leslie Katz is the former culture editor at CNET and a former J. staff writer. Follow her on Twitter @lesatnews.