American Reform Judaism

Commentary by Dr. Gerhard Falk



The Pittsburgh Platform


     In 1885, delegates to a meeting of the Union of American Hebrew Congregations met in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, and there adopted a document outlining the beliefs of American Reform Jews. (The h at the end of Pittsburgh refers to the Scottish borough). The principal effort of that meeting was to promote a “modern” approach to Judaism by doing away with practices which the delegates believed to be outmoded and not in accord with American life.

     The reform rabbis who met there from November 16-19 rejected the food laws or “kosher” laws of traditional Judaism. They claimed that these dietary practices emphasized ritual over moral law and “ethical” Judaism as they understood it. The rabbis also rejected Zionism, claiming that Jews were a religious community and not a nation. Furthermore, the original Pittsburgh platform ignored the European Jews and held that Zionism was not necessary because Jews were home in America.

     The concept of “the chosen people” was also voided by this 1885 meeting and sought to acknowledge Christianity and Islam as equal to Judaism.

     These ideas were largely proclaimed by Isaac Meyer Wise, a German immigrant, and by Kaufmann Kohler and David Marx, likewise German born. Kohler became president of the Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati (The city was named for Roman general Lucius Quinctius (519 BCE - 438 BCE) who had curly i.e. kinky hair. The c is pronounced k in Latin).

     The intent of the reform Jews was to emphasize “social justice” over ritual. This is now called “Tikkun Olam,” or repairing the world, but has unfortunately led to the assault on Israel by Rabbi Michael Lerner and his journal by that name. That journal denounces Israel and supports Arab terrorism against our brethren in Israel and elsewhere.

     In 1937, reform rabbis met in Columbus, Ohio, and there moderated their opposition to Zionism, “affirming the obligation of all Jewry in ‘upbuilding the Jewish homeland”. In 1937, the leading voice of Reform was Rabbi Abba Hillel Silver of Cleveland, an ardent Zionist.

     In 1997 and again in 1999, Reform rabbis revised their view of Israel and Zionism once again. Now, Zionism was labeled a “sacred obligation”, aliyah (rising up) i.e. moving to Israel was endorsed, and the Hebrew language and observance of the holy days and the Sabbath were encouraged. Reform continues to hold that “Halacha” i.e. Jewish ritual law is not binding. Reform also holds that a Jew is anyone who has a Jewish mother or father. This is a departure from the traditional view that Jewishness is conferred by descent from a Jewish mother, no matter who the father.

     Today, 1.1 million Jews are affiliated with Reform, making it the largest Jewish denomination in the U.S.

Shalom u’vracha.

Dr. Gerhard Falk is the author of numerous publications, including The American Criminal Justice System (2010).

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