American Reform rabbis called this week for a bilateral nuclear freeze and released a 307-page manual to be used by the Jewish community nationwide in working toward that ban.

The manual, titled "Preventing the Nuclear Holocaust," includes sections on Jewish theology applied to the nuclear arms issue, recent articles and speeches by theologians and scientists, statements by national Jewish organizations calling for a halt to nuclear arms escalation, and reference lists of secular and religious organizations and programs involved in the antinuclear movement.

"We, of all people, must recognize that the unbelievable a nuclear holocaust can happen," it states. "The world would not believe Auschwitz existed until the smoke ceased to rise from its chimneys."

About 1,500 copies of the manual were ordered by Reform, Conservative and Orthodox rabbis prior to publication, officials said.

The manual was written by the social action commission of the Union of American Hebrew Congregations, an organization representing 760 Reform synagogues in the United States and Canada.

"Reversing the nuclear arms race must become a Jewish and American priority if we are to prevent the nuclear holocaust that threatens to destroy us all," said Albert Vorspan, vice president of the organization.

Organization officials said the depth of the focus on Jewish theology in the manual was inspired by a U.S. Catholic bishops' pastoral letter that focuses on Catholic theology on the nuclear arms issue. The Catholic pastoral is expected to be adopted next Tuesday at a meeting of the bishops in Chicago.

A plan by a Cottonwood, Minn., church group to plant vegetables for the needy on about 500 acres of crop land set aside to be idle under a federal government program has been turned down by the U.S. Agriculture Department.

The Garden and Pantry Truck Project, a nonprofit church-led organization, had sought to grow vegetables on the land for church food shelves and soup kitchens for the poor.

Clarence Tardy, a deputy administrator of the Agricultural Stabilization and Conservation Service in Washington, said he could "understand the situation," but that "the policy of the department is not to use this land for the production of crops that can be harvested."

Tom Vongarlem, an assistant deputy administrator, said that using the land to produce free vegetables could create a surplus and "upset the balance" in the vegetable market.

The service runs the government's payment-in-kind program, which offers grain and cash to farmers who agree not to plant substantial portions of their normal wheat and corn acreage because of an already existing surplus of those crops. Minnesota farmers have pledged to put about 5 million acres under the program.

The program regulations require a farmer to plant the idled acres in a cover crop such as alfalfa to minimize erosion.

The Rev. John Christianson, a Lutheran pastor, launched the hunger project last year after he read about people who said they were stealing food because they couldn't afford to buy it. Last year, the project collected 32 tons of food, largely from home vegetable gardens.

A Methodist minister in Montgomery, Ala., was cleared last week of immorality charges after a widely publicized church trial, but he was suspended from the ministry for "undermining" the work of a fellow minister. He said Sunday he felt he had been wronged by his church and would appeal the verdict.

The Rev. Thomas Lane Butts, the 53-year-old pastor of the 2,000-member First United Methodist Church in Montgomery, the largest Methodist church in the city, was tried by a jury of 13 Methodist ministers. Last week, the jury ordered him suspended from the ministry until the denomination holds its annual conference in 1985.

Butts was brought before the church court April 12 on a variety of charges, including drunkenness and sexual misconduct, after a married woman in his congregation accused him of having sex with her. He denied all the allegations.

Bishop Leroy C. Hodapp, of Springfield, Ill., said Butts was convicted of depriving his former associate pastor, the Rev. Al Norris, of due process under church law by forcing Norris to resign after the associate pastor admitted he had been involved in a sexual affair with a woman in the congregation. The woman was the married daughter of a politically powerful church member.

Norris, who became one of Butts' chief accusers, did not deny having an affair with the woman or with several others, but testified at Butts' trial that Butts was more immoral than he was.

Butts' supporters said that Norris wanted to get back at Butts, that the woman who charged that Butts had an affair with her was emotionally unstable, and that Norris was encouraged to file a complaint by the church district superintendent, who, they charged, was jealous of Butts' popularity and power. Butts had been expected to be nominated as a bishop at the church's annual conference in May, many parishioners said.

Butts insisted on a public trial and invited the press. His wife and teen-age son and daughter supported his decision and sat in the front row throughout the two-week trial, which was packed each day by about 250 people, most of them parishioners from his church and ministers from across the state.

An opera has been written based on the conflict between the Reformed Mennonite Church and an excommunicated farmer in central Pennsylvania who was "shunned" by members of the Mennonite community, including his own wife and children.

The opera, titled "The Ban," was written by two professors at the United Methodist-related Lebanon Valley College in Annville, Pa., and was scheduled to have its premiere this week at the college.

It describes the struggle of Robert Bear of Carlisle, Pa., who was excommunicated in 1972 by his church for criticizing church elders. The church also ordered him shunned under a rule forbidding any contact with excommunicated members. In obedience to that ruling, Bear's wife stopped living with him.

Bear attracted wide notice in 1979 when he was tried on charges of attempting to abduct his estranged wife at a vegetable market. He was acquitted of the charges, and finally announced in 1980 that he had given up trying to be reunited with his wife, two sons and three daughters.

The idea for the opera originated four years ago after a college English professor, Arthur Ford, read of the trial. He said he was "fascinated by the heroic and tragic elements of Mr. Bear's story." He wrote the opera with composer Thomas Lanese, associate professor emeritus of music at the college.