For Rabbi Howard Berman, lecturing at Rodef Shalom Congregation last weekend was as much a pilgrimage as a speaking engagement.
Alright, maybe not a pilgrimage, but still pretty meaningful.
Berman is the executive director of The Society for Classical Reform Judaism, and Pittsburgh is where the Pittsburgh Platform, which codified Classical Reform values, was codified in 1885.
“For us, the Pittsburgh Platform is still the definitive statement as to what Reform Judaism is all about,” Berman said.
He came to Pittsburgh last week to speak about the mission and views of Classical Reform Judaism as the scholar in residence for the annual Harris Interfaith Luncheon and Lecture series. And though his appearance in Pittsburgh was cut short by last weekend’s snowstorm, he spoke with The Chronicle Friday, Feb. 5, about the state and future of Classical Reform Judaism.
The Society for Classical Reform Judaism, a national organization, was founded two years ago to promote “the preservation and creative nurturing of the historic ideals of Classical Reform Judaism with its progressive spiritual values, rich intellectual foundations, and distinctive worship traditions,” according to a statement on its Web site.
Reform Judaism modified the Pittsburgh Platform in 1999 when the Central Conference of American Rabbis met, again in Pittsburgh, and adopted a statement of principles, which affirmed the oneness of God, Torah as the foundation of Life, and Israel as “a people aspiring to holiness.”
The statement also affirmed, “We are committed to (Medinat Yisrael), the State of Israel, and rejoice in its accomplishments. We affirm the unique qualities of living in (Eretz Yisrael), the land of Israel, and encourage (aliyah), immigration to Israel.”
That runs counter to the 1885 Platform, which is still embraced by Classical Reform Judaism, that sees Judaism as a universal religion — not a people — with a prophetic vision. As a religion, Berman said, Jews are a “spiritual community. … We are not a people in the nationality sense, but rather in the spiritual sense.”
In Classical Reform Judaism, “our focus is on our faith and search for the God of Israel, rather than the Land of Israel,” he said.
That does not mean, however, that there is litmus test for Classical Reform Jews. Berman, for example describes himself as a non-Zionist, who wears neither tallit or a kippa when he prays.
But nothing in the Classical Reform tradition “can be construed as ant-Zionist,” he added, noting that Classical Reform Jews share a concern for Israel’s wellbeing with all Jews.
And the society does not make an issue out of wearing tallit or kippa.
“We have ardent Zionists and board members of ARZA (the Zionist organization for Reform Jews) on the board the society, and members like myself,” Berman said.
Berman can’t say how many Classical Reform Jews there are.
“It’s not a card-carrying movement,” he said, though he noted, “Every historically Reform congregation has a strong presence of people committed to these ideas.”
In addition, 15 to 20 congregations across America “explicitly identify themselves as Classical Reform.”
“We do not see classical reform as a separate movement … we see it a heritage that every Reform Jew at any point on the spectrum shares.”
In fact, the new siddur of the Reform Movement, “Mishkan T’filah,” is based on the value system of Classical Reform Jews, even though it restores more Hebrew and traditional prayers and references to the liturgy.
Berman, himself a fourth generation Classical Reform Jew, sees his as one of many legitimate expressions of Reform Judaism, and the Society as a way to support young rabbis and lay leaders who want to “reclaim” their Classical roots.
“So many congregations have largely cut themselves off this piece of their history,” he said.
Berman said American Jews developed a worship tradition much the same way as Polish, Hungarian or Litvak Jews did, and that tradition is no less legitimate.
“American Reform movement created minhag as rich as all the other strands of the Jewish tapestry,” Berman said, “and it (the Classical tradition) deserves its own place.”
(Lee Chottiner can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.)