American Reform Judaism and the Southern Baptist Convention: Responses to Social Trends

Article excerpt

This article addresses current trends in Reform Judaism by examining the role played by the new platform adopted in 1999 by the Central Conference of American Rabbis. The approval of a new statement of faith by the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC), known as the 2000 Baptist Faith and Message, demonstrates a parallel response to the demands of modern society and institutional survival. Yet, in choosing similar responses, the Reform movement and the SBC are seeking to achieve different purposes. Although Reform has tried to reflect the diversity found in American society, the SBC has chosen to stand apart from it, often taking on an adversarial position, while also attempting to transform it. These differing uses suggest that the role of confessions in religious organizations should be re-evaluated.

Introduction

The Central Conference of American Rabbis (CCAR) adopted a new platform in May 1999, at its 110th annual convention held in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. The passing of these principles has attracted a great deal of interest, not only in the American Reform movement, which claims about 1.5 million members, but also in the broader American Jewish community and beyond. The day after the conference, The New York Times reported on the passing of the platform in an article that appeared on page one of the first section of that newspaper, a place of honor extremely rare for a religious conference.1 This article will seek to describe the current trends in the Reform movement today, and the place of that platform within those trends, while at the same time juxtaposing these with trends within the Southern Baptist Convention. These two entities have chosen to respond to the same social and cultural developments in ways that at times are strikingly similar. Yet their responses have taken them in different directions.

The American Reform movement claims to be the largest liberal denomination in the United States and is organized into the Union of American Hebrew Congregations (UAHC). Local Reform synagogues are part of the national structure that includes the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion (HUC-JIR), the CCAR, and UAHC. The UAHC is a constituent of the World Union for Progressive Judaism (WUPJ), and in fact is the largest constituent organization of the WUPJ.2

The CCAR adopted their new A Statement of Principles for Reform Judaism, popularly known as the "1999 Pittsburgh Platform," in May 1999.3 Despite the popular perception that a "platform" had been passed, this was not semantically accurate. There was a conscious decision made to call the document a statement of principles rather than a platform because a statement of principles would indicate where the movement stood today, whereas a platform would indicate where the movement was going in the future. This was something that many of the rabbinic leaders wanted to avoid. However, for the purposes of this article and for the sake of brevity, the authors will use the word "platform" interchangeably with "statement of principles."

Contained in A Statement of Principles for Reform Judaism were principles that had caused much consternation in the months prior to its passing, and the controversy was of interest not only in the American Reform movement, but also in the entire American Jewish community. The media, questioning the meaning of the final vote, put forth various interpretations of this document. From one point of view, it was seen as a victory for the resurgence of traditionalism, but the neo-traditionalists saw it as less than they had expected and more of a compromise with those who had maintained ties to Classical Reform Judaism. The debate brought home the fact that congregants within Reform Judaism are as diverse as its numbers. Regional factors certainly play a role, but the personal religious backgrounds of the congregants are probably a more important factor. The scope of Reform Judaism is a wide continuum, and while most Reform Jews practice their Judaism with a certain amount of ritual, many are virtually non-practicing Jews. …