Q & A With Rabbi Richard Levy
by Amy Klein, Religion Editor
In his new book, "A Vision of Holiness: The Future of American Judaism" (URJ Press, 2005), Rabbi Richard N. Levy explains The Pittsburgh Principles - the position paper, if you will, of the Reform Movement that was published in 1999. In many ways, these principles advocate a return to traditional Judaism - from practicing mitzvot and praying in Hebrew to making God and Torah a central belief. Levy, director of the School of Rabbinic Studies at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion in Los Angeles, helped write the principles. He sat down with The Journal to talk about how Reform Jews can integrate them into their modern American lives.
Jewish Journal: The Reform movement has issued three other comprehensive statements in its history: The Pittsburgh Formation in 1885, The Columbus Platform in 1937 and Centenary Perspective in 1976. Why another set of principles now?
Richard Levy: There was a sense that a great deal had happened in the Reform movement since the Centenary Perspective was issued in 1976. The movement has changed demographically - there were three or four women rabbis then, but by 1999 there were 300. Other major things had changed also: Mixed marriage had increased, as well as conversion, and there was a great explosion of desire for more serious learning. And the view of Israel had changed, too, since 1976. The movement had clearly become so much more observant - much more than the previous statement had indicated.
JJ: So now Reform Judaism allows - or encourages - observing mitzvot such as Shabbat, kashrut, even the going to the mikvah, the ritual bath, when at one point it was only the ethical commandments between human beings that were important. Why is that?
RL: Mitzvot are sacred obligations and the means by which we make our lives holy. It's both spiritual responding to what God has asked us to do, and practice-oriented - doing things that are in the Torah. This document no longer privileges ethical commands over ritual commands. It's not second-guessing God; it's saying that God gave all the mitzvot - one is not above the other.
JJ: I'm not sure I understand. Do Reform Jews have to do mitzvot now?
RL: My wife, Carol, says a mitzvah is something that God has told us it is very important for us to do. Why don't I say it's a commandment? Because that's not the language of dialogue. A mitzvah is the stuff of a relationship between God and the Jewish people. The Reform way is always an individual one. I don't see it as a choice - a mitzvah jumps out at me, and I have to deal with that. I feel drawn to the idea or action. This is the Jewish experience. It's not in the language of autonomy [as written in past statements] to sit here in a room and make decisions only on my own. It's a dialogue with God, the Torah and the Jewish people.
JJ: The principles now recognize the Jews as a nation. It says, "We are committed to the mitzvah ahavat yisrael, love for the Jewish people and to k'lal Yisrael, the entirety of the community of Israel." Does this mean Jews should be helping only other Jews?
RL: We've seen that the distinctions are more and more meaningless as we live in a more integrated world. A lot of Jews are sobered by all the work done for Soviet Jews that in the end liberated not only Soviet Jews but the Soviet Union, because they became a force that inspired other people as well. I think the Reform Movement is much less concerned about which comes first [Jews or non-Jews]. Part of dialogue is where do you feel called to go? Katrina called people.
When our students have gone out to support worker justice in various ways, most of the grocery workers or the hotel workers or security workers weren't Jews, but we've come as Jews.
JJ: The principles say, "We affirm the reality of God." I'll bet God is very pleased to hear that. No, seriously, this seems radical for Reform Jews to talk about belief in God - and that the Torah is divine, or has divine sparks in it. How should atheistic and rationalist Jews - who don't believe the Torah is from God, or that God even exists - deal with this new stage of Reform Judaism?
RL: Nineteenth century Reform Jews were horrified at the more mystical strain of Judaism. Today, many more Reform Jews do accept the reality of God or want to struggle with finding God in their lives, feeling that God is in their lives. I don't think anybody really rejects a belief in God. I think that anybody who sees connection in the world and is willing to say there's a source for those connections believes in God.... So I think people who say I don't believe in God haven't had the opportunity for sufficient conversation - dialogue, if you will.
JJ: Speaking of dialogue with God, in the new Reform prayer book, "Mishkan T'filah," due out in spring, the major prayers will be transliterated so that "everyone may pray to God in the Hebrew tongue." The principles advocate a return to reading and understanding Hebrew. Why?
RL: There has been always a sense that Hebrew was an important part of prayer. Hebrew is the way back to the original dialogues between God and the Jewish people. By reading the Torah in Hebrew and other Jewish texts in Hebrew, one gets at one's own roots, and what's understood to be the original language in which God spoke to the Jewish people.
JJ: Are you worried people won't understand what they are saying?
RL: There's a way of understanding, even if you can't read it but you are uttering the sounds. That's important, too. Not that "baruch" equals "blessed," but baruch equals the sound of the cantor when I went with my grandparents, baruch are two blessings that I painstakingly learned in Hebrew school - so the meaning isn't just a literal translation.
JJ: The principles state: "We are an inclusive community, opening doors to Jewish life ... to all individuals and families, including the intermarried, who strive to create a Jewish home." Do the principles fight intermarriage at all?
RL: The 1973 statement by the Central Conference of American Rabbis calling on Reform rabbis not to conduct mixed marriages - although we understand that many of them will - is still on the books. It's not mentioned in the principles out of our desire to make mixed families feel at home, to make synagogues welcoming places for the Jewish and non-Jewish partner and for the children.
There are more synagogues today that have a large number of mixed married couples and offer all kinds of outreach programs to mixed families. Which is better - a synagogue that is open to them, to which they can come and bring their children, or a synagogue that only says we don't want people to intermarry, and we don't want to encourage people who have?
There are a number of rabbinic students who are children of mixed marriages (some aren't mixed anymore, because the non-Jewish partner converted), and they're wonderful students, and we think, "What would the Jewish people have lost had they felt the Reform movement was not open to them?"
JJ: You write in your book, "We need not fear if we are called to do mitzvot similar to Jews in other movements that we are betraying the Reform." How are Reform observances different from other observances?
RL: If we can come out with some guidelines of dietary practices, it will go beyond the halacha of kashrut. A Reform Jew who refuses to eat veal and who monitors the various products being boycotted by United Farm Workers - that Reform Jew is also observing dietary practice. So we in some ways are extending the halacha. Another example is the mezuzah. Most Reform Jews have one in their house. I think it would be wonderful if we had them in every room, with text that wasn't only the Shema, but indicated the holiness of that room: mitzvot dealing with food in the dining room; with the welcoming of guests in the living room. Paradoxically, greater observance by Reform Jews in some areas might separate us from Orthodox or Conservative Jews.
JJ: Do you think the movement's more traditional approaches will result in more acceptance from Orthodox Jews?
RL: Not so much acceptance as understanding. When this was promulgated, some Orthodox Jews were pleased to discover that Reform Jews believed in mitzvot. Other Orthodox Jews saw the new direction as an indication that Reform was useful, because it could start Jews on a path that the Orthodox could complete for them, rather than be antithetical.
JJ: Does that bother you?
RL: It's no surprise that they feel their observance is stronger and deeper than mine. But to see that my observance is related to theirs, on the same path to theirs, is a good thing. In the end, each of us stands on our own beliefs and principles.
JJ: What happens in 20 years, 30, 50 years, if people don't like these proclamations? Do they make another one?
RL: Prophecy has been dead since Malachai, so it's hard to know. I think the principles indicate where the Reform Movement is, and the book explains more where it should go. Should it move in other directions, it may well be time for another statement. And that would be wonderful. It would only show the continued vitality of Reform Judaism.
Rabbi Richard N. Levy will discuss and signs his book Nov. 13 from 3-5 p.m. at the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, 3077 University Ave., Los Angeles. R.S.V.P., (213) 749-4225.
Reprinted with permission from The Jewish Journal.