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More Emphasis on Religion Urged for Reform Judaism

Times Religion Writer

The liberal wing of American Judaism is making so few spiritual demands on its synagogue members that “we give substance to the perception that Reform Judaism is but a religion of convenience,” its rabbi-president charged Saturday.

Addressing the biennial national convention of Reform’s Union of American Hebrew Congregations at the Century Plaza, Rabbi Alexander M. Schindler said that figures released last week showing that the union has a record-high 791 affiliated synagogues and 1.3 million members “is nothing to boast about” because of the laxity in religious practice.

“For most of us, that synagogue affiliation is only marginal. It is mere form without sufficient substance,” Schindler said.

Many Jews do not join any synagogue; only about 25% of Los Angeles Jewry belongs to one. Organized Judaism is divided primarily by how closely traditional Jewish law is observed on religious garb, women’s roles, worship requirements and other matters. The innovative Reform and the centrist Conservative movements attract most American Jews, while others align primarily with traditionalist Orthodox congregations.

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Schindler called for continued efforts by a task force the union formed two years ago to recommend ways to instill greater religious commitment.

An interim report to delegates by Rabbi Samuel E. Karff, the task force co-chairman, said Reform Jews, unlike traditionalists, do not have to believe that God is directing every life experience or that sacred texts were written by God. But the Houston rabbi said that does not mean “the presence of God” cannot be detected. He suggested that Reform Judaism has focused too much on “ethnic” concerns rather than responding to faith questions.

Retired Los Angeles business executive Joseph Kleiman, the task force’s other chairman, said in a separate report that many Reform Jews want more than a “minimal” religious life.

“They would like to have a better understanding of the meaning of their lives and to develop the personal ability to experience the sacred,” said Kleiman, a member of the large Stephen S. Wise Temple.

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Schindler told the 3,000 delegates, who will end their four-day general assembly Monday, that the task force has so far raised more questions than it has solved because of “its almost exclusive emphasis on individual spiritual commitment.” Individual choice must be reconciled “with the Reform movement’s need to reach a collective consensus on religious practice in order to remain both authentically Jewish and whole,” he said.

In an interview, Schindler explained that “you have religious anarchy” if there is nothing against which to measure spiritual progress.

“I’m not trying to impose a code of practice--that would be Orthodoxy,” Schindler said, though he acknowledged that some Reform Jewish families observe kosher diets because it is meaningful for them.

The rabbi said more Jewish holidays should be observed. “The High Holy Days and Passover, at least as far as the seder is concerned, still seem to have strong emotional claims on our hearts, but some of the other festivals have lost their power,” said Schindler, president of the union since 1972. He cited the lingering influence in the Reform movement of a “hyper-rational” approach to religion from the pre-World War II era.

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