Principles of American Reform Judaism

Commentary by Dr. Gerhard Falk



The Pittsburgh Platform


On November 16, 1885, Rabbi Kaufman Kohler of New York convened a meeting of American Reform rabbis in Pittsburgh, Pa., for the purpose of continuing the discussions already held by them in Philadelphia in 1869 and in Germany between 1841 and 1846.

The conference lasted four days, until November 19, after which the rabbis issued the most fundamental statement of American Reform Judaism then extant. This statement, know as “The Pittsburgh Platform”, consists of eight propositions which may be summarized as follows:

1. That the idea of God is the central religious truth for all humans.

2. That the Bible reflects the experiences of more primitive men than are living today but that the essential truths of the Bible are valid despite more recent scientific findings.

3. That the moral laws of the Bible are as binding on the Jewish people as ever but that the ceremonial requirements of an earlier age are of no meaning in the lives of Jews living now.

4. That the dietary laws and dress codes once important in an earlier age are foreign to modern American life and that they are obstructions rather than spiritually elevating.

5. That Jews do not “expect a return to Palestine” and are not a nation but a religious community. Reform Judaism rejects a Jewish state.

6. That Judaism recognizes Christianity and Islam as daughter religions and that these religions are also validly spreading the idea of monotheism throughout the world.

7. Reform Judaism rejects the idea of bodily resurrection but accepts the view that the soul is immortal and that the human spirit is divine.

8. That Judaism should remember the spirit of Mosaic legislation insofar as it serves to alleviate the problems of poverty and misery in this world.

Today about 45% of American Jews are members of Reform congregations. Although the Pittsburgh Platform still remains the fundamental source of the movement, much has been altered in view of events which could not have been known in 1885. This is particularly true of Paragraph 4, in that Reform Jews support Israel as much as other Jews. In fact, the great Reform Rabbi Abba Hillel Silver was a major Zionist leader in the 1940’s and 1950’s and was the first man to ever give a speech in Hebrew at the United Nations during the partition debate in 1947.

Reform Jews have accepted the largest number of converts to Judaism in comparison to Conservative and Orthodox (Torah true) Jews and also have an intermarriage rate of over 60%.

In 1972 the Central Conference of American Reform Rabbis reported that only one in ten rabbis believed in God and that 90% considered themselves atheists or agnostics or Bahai or “religious existentialists” or “theological humanists”.

More recently, in 1990, the Central Conference debated the issue of ordination for homosexuals, which Leviticus 18 calls an “abomination”. This view is rejected by Reform as well as Conservative rabbis.

Reform Judaism is the outgrowth of the philosophy of Moses Mendelssohn, who was the court philosopher of Frederick the Great, King of Prussia. He was a contemporary of George Washington. Mendelssohn was a Torah true Jew. However, he translated the Torah from the Hebrew into German, taught that the oral tradition was not binding and sought to bring the German Jews out of the Middle Ages. While he never used the word s “Reform Judaism” and could not have known the consequences of his ideas, his views led to the establishment of the first Reform temple in Germany. Four of his six children married Christians. His grandson, Felix Mendelssohn, who had a non-Jewish mother, was a major composer of wonderful music and his other grandson, Philipp Veit, the son of his daughter married to a non-Jewish man, was the greatest portrait painter of the 19th century.

In the 1930’s there was a non-Jewish professor Mendelssohn at the University of Hamburg medical school. He was labeled a Jew by the Nazi monsters and was fired as belonging to the so-called Jewish race. He then moved to Israel, where he founded the department of oriental medicine at the Hebrew University.

Shalom u’vracha.

Dr. Gerhard Falk is the author of numerous publications, including Football & American Identity (2005) &  Youth Culture and the Generation Gap (2005) with Dr. Ursula A. Falk.

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