Culture, Religion

The Pittsburgh Platform reloaded

Over at Mah Rabu, I’ve written a post defending the 1885 Pittsburgh Platform, founding document of Classical Reform in the US, from my not-so-Classical perspective. I’m not going to cross-post it here, because it’s too long and rambling, but if you’re interested, you should go over there and read it.

I have a confession.
You know those people whose practice is not Orthodox by any standard, but who know deep down that Orthodox Judaism is the only authentic Judaism? (Call them “Israeli”, or “Sephardi”, or “Chabad donors”, or whatever label you like.) I’m realizing that I’m the opposite. My Jewish practice may appear to 99% of the world (for these examples, let’s say my non-Jewish co-workers) to be ritually stringent — I take days off for holidays no one has heard of, I hurry home on Friday afternoons to go pray, I never eat meat out — but deep down, I know that it all really boils down to ethical monotheism, and Classical Reform basically had it right.

14 thoughts on “The Pittsburgh Platform reloaded

  1. Wow! On some level, I think many of us struggle between classic Judaism and “ethical Monotheism.”
    It’s when other movements claim to be to be “halachik” or even just Judaism that we are fighting over.
    Maybe on some level our debate is not really over faith or lack there of, but of definition of terms.

  2. I love finding contradictions. Here’s one:
    Having your cake:
    2. We recognize in the Bible the record of the consecration of the Jewish people to its mission as the priest of the one God , and value it as the most potent instrument of religious and moral instruction.
    Eating it too:
    4. We hold that all such Mosaic and rabbinical laws as regulate diet, priestly purity, and dress originated in ages and under the influence of ideas entirely foreign to our present mental and spiritual state. They fail to impress the modern Jew with a spirit of priestly holiness; their observance in our days is apt rather to obstruct than to further modern spiritual elevation.

  3. i’m all in favor of keeping the practice without doing violence to reason or philosophy – i call it being post-modern Orthodox.

  4. I just want to share something my Rabbi said to me last week that will stay with me forever whilst “summerizing” being a Jew. We were discussing the different sects of Judaism and how (generally speaking) Orthodox and Chasidics don’t recognise Reform or Reconstructionists or Conservatives as “real Jews” and that there is a lot of predjudice against those who aren’t striclty observant. What he told me is; first of all that he doesn’t like to think in categories or labels. A Jew is a Jew is a Jew. Even if a secular Jew is a doctor, for example, he may not be actively observant, yet he is doing a great Mitzvah by helping people. He also said that while ceromony is important to a lot of people, it is basically an action done to REMIND us of G-od, doing Mitzvahs for G-od conciousness. He took off his Kippa and said; “this piece of cloth is not whats important, what is important is that it REMINDS me of G-od.” Davening opens a channel to Him, keeping the Sabbath makes us think of Him. Even if we all observe at different levels I think it is so important to realize we are Jews and after (hopefully) the same things. I’d like to think we’ve got a leg up on the rest of the world when it comes to our values, actions and Tikun Olam. History shows us that so much of the destruction that has befallen the Jews has been caused in effect by OTHER Jews! Come on, man, can’t we all just get along???

  5. The drafters of the Pittsburgh Platform got one very important thing right – the centrality of ethical monotheism. However, they got plenty of things drastically wrong. First and foremost, 19th century classical Reform Judaism was a top-down, elitist movement. There was no recognition of the role of the community in determining modern ritual norms. Rather, the enlightened elite decided that kashrut could not possibly have meaning in the modern world. Second, the motivation behind what parts of Judaism were to be kept and which parts were to be discarded were based in large part on assimiliationist yearnings. (This is the flipside of the Orthodox position in which customs, even problematic ones, are preserved because they are distinctive.) Finally, the rejection of Am Yisrael denudes Judaism of an essential elements.
    Of course, I don’t have to tell you any of this. As BZ’s main post notes, Kaplan already did. And in the end, Kaplan won out. Today’s Reform Judaism has far more in common with Kaplan’s vision than it does with the Pittsburgh Platform.
    I happen to agree with BZ’s essential worldview, that I consider observance of the ethical mitzvot the ikar, or essence of Judaism, and yet despite that I find myself not eating shrimp and observing one (but not two) days of chag. But what the Pittsburgh Platform and 19th century Reform Judaism failed to realize is that the ritual mitzvot – even practiced simply as “folkways” rather than binding law, are what keep the Jews together as a people.

  6. dear formermuslim:
    your supposed logical fallacy is irrelevant, because it is based on semantics rather than argumentation. we all agree that a word can be used in two contexs in different ways, right? the first instance of priest referred to the Biblical quote of the people israel being a “nation of priests” whereas the second use of “priest” referred to the minutiae of the laws of ritual purity, sacrifices, and a caste system.

  7. Miss Yaicha- You said: (generally speaking) Orthodox and Chasidics don’t recognise Reform or Reconstructionists or Conservatives as “real Jews”.
    There is a huge distintion between acknowledging that someone is a Jew and that someone is living as a Jew. A Jew is a Jew is a Jew, and in Torah’s eyes, a Reform or Reconstructionist Jew IS a “real Jew,” but the Orthodox world recognizes that Reform or Reconstructionist beliefs are opposed to Torah, so they are not living as Jews.
    However, you may be referring to issues of conversion or children of non-Jewish women (where the father is Jewish); in these cases, yes, the Orthodox world takes umbrage and probably would not consider certain individuals as Jews, inasmuch as Halacha would not consider them Jews. Can’t we all just get along? Sure, once we all reclaim our heritage and start living by halacha.

  8. To invisible_hand
    My point, which I failed to convey evidently, was that you can call yourself a moral person if you follow the moral laws of the torah but not “holy” if you do not also follow the ritual (priestly) laws.
    The Torah commands the Jewish people to be both moral and holy. Morality maybe more basic and important in the sense that you cannot be holy without being moral, but it does not absolve you of your other obligations.
    Which brings me to my last point. The use of the phrase “light unto the nations” by liberal or generalized hipster Jews. For the love of G-d stop it. It’s the most arrogant thing I have ever heard coming from Jews who don’t even believe one quarter of what they read in that same torah.
    It doesn’t matter how many rallies for darfur you join or protest for a minimum wage hike. Not obeying the ritual aspects of the Torah proves to the gentiles that you’re insincere or incapable of obeying the commandments thus relativizing divine authority.
    Why do you think your rabbi’s told you that if you have to sin in public, at least take your kippah of. What message do you think it sends to a muslim watching a Jew drive a car on the sabbath while he is reading in the qur’an that Jews were punished for breaking the sabbath. Are you really that eager to let the truth catch up with the qur’an after 1400 years? Why do you think the arabs are so optimistic about defeating Israel? Because appearently they are convinced there is some truth in the qur’an.
    I’ve probably talked too much. Just let the reform movement shut it self down before causing more damage.

  9. G-d Squad—so, as you say, in order for us to all get along we have to follow Halacha? Are you speaking for all Sephardi, Ashkanazi and Mizrahi? Solomon Schechter writes “however great the literary value of a code may be, it does not invest it with infallibility, nor does it exempt it from the student or the Rabbi who makes use of it from the duty of examining each paragraph on its own merits, and subjecting it to the same rules of interpretation that were always applied to Tradition”. On the one hand, there is a principle in Halacha to not overrule a specific law from an earlier era, unless based on an earlier authority. On the other hand, another principle recognizes the responsibility and authority of later authorities, and especially the posek handling a concurrent question. In addition, the Halacha embodies a wide range of principles that permit judicial discretion and deviation (Ben-Menahem). Generally speaking, a rabbi in any one period will not overrule specific laws from an earlier era, unless supported by a relevant earlier precedent. There are important exceptions to this principle, which empower the posek or beth din responsible for a given opinion. I think to state that people are not living as Jews unless they follow rules that are thousands of years old aren’t ‘valid’ (paraphrasing here) is naive and almost elitist. We don’t sacrifice doves and drip their blood over the alter anymore, do we? Is it really sinful to move your oven or other kitchen appliances after you have set them in their place? Even Orthodox Jews use Halacha as a GUIDE, Orthodox Judaism holds that, given Jewish law’s Divine origin, no underlying principle may be compromised in accounting for changing political, social or economic conditions; in this sense, “creativity” and development in Jewish law is limited. Read” limited. Not ‘written in stone’, (no pun intended). I think the overall message is what is important here, folks. Can you really in good concious say that someone who lives their life respecting and honoring Ha Shem by Tikun Olam or just by simpy being a good person isn’t good enough in G-d’s eye’s? That, whoops! sorry kid, but you turned on a light switch on Shabbat, and your wife is barren, so sorry, but you aren’t Jewish enough! I belive the term is ‘Halacha le’ma’aseh’ ? Practical application.

  10. Miss Yaicha,
    Hm… thank you for your lengthy explanation of your understanding of the nature of halacha… I don’t exactly know what your point was with regards to my comment. But beyond theory, there is practice. For starters, crack open the Shulchan Aruch.
    As far as bringing up animal sacrifices, well, no, we don’t have the third Beis HaMikdash yet, so for the time being the best we can do is study the karbanos, which is supposedly equal to actually offering the karbanos, so in a sense, yes, we do sacrifice doves and drip their blood over the alter, at least symbolically. In any case, I don’t see why you brought up animal sacrifices in the first place.
    Because I’m not a woman, should I say, “Oh, I’m not a woman so I can’t fulfill hilchos niddah”? No, obviously not. I live by whatever halachos I can. The same obviously goes for mitzvas that apply only the the Beis HaMikdash.
    You said, “Can you really in good concious [sic] say that someone who lives their life respecting and honoring Ha Shem by Tikun Olam or just by simpy being a good person isn’t good enough in G-d’s eye’s?
    Well, as yesterday was Gimmel Tammuz, the yarzheit of the Lubavitcher Rebbe, here’s how he responds to your question: “I cannot deny the fact that many people keep the ethics and not Shabbat, and many observe Shabbat but not the ethics. Each has its own merits, and cannot be substituted; but all are connected. Each brings another. “A good deed brings another good deed,” and by not observing “one bad deed causes another bad deed.”
    “Many study the Ethics of our Fathers, which has a curious beginning. It is one of the tractates of the section of Damages (the 4th of the six sections of the Talmud), and in that section it is one of the last; yet the beginning of Ethics of our Fathers tells us that Moses received the Torah on Mount Sinai and gave it to Joshua, and so it was passed on to our times. This statement surely belongs at the beginning of the entire Oral Torah — at the beginning of the tractate of Blessings — to tell us that all the rulings of the oral Torah were given on Mount Sinai.
    “Nevertheless, we find this statement in Ethics of our Fathers, with the ethical rules. For it is not necessary for putting on tefillin (which can be done without believing)… There is no condition that one must know what’s the reason for fulfilling the commandment of tefillin. But if one is ready to keep the moral laws all his life, they can’t be based only on human reasoning and consulting friends. For then, one can deviate and stretch until you distort a mitzvah. From an ethical rule you make a sin, and from a sin, an ethical rule. And therefore we find this introduction, which was expressly meant to introduce the tractate which contains ethical rules.
    “To our sorrow, in our era and generation we all saw this distortion take place, in Germany. I studied in Germany for many years, before Hitler, and people in influential circles always quoted from Kant, Goethe and the ethical philosophers. They made no move without a footnote — with the book and page number. Then Hitler came to power with a new theory and philosophy, and an overwhelming majority of people, in my opinion 99 percent, were on his side — not after rejecting Goethe, Kant, but continuing to accept them, and they joined Hitler in all his actions, even the massacre of people.
    “This is an illustration of an ethical system based on philosophical theories and human reasoning, without a solid basis which will not change.

    Keep on learning, you’re doing good.

  11. where was the Beis Din at Gershom’s bris or Tzipporah’s conversion? Revelation at Mt. Sinai is continuous and Halacha has never been stagnant: rather it evolves through praxis and interpretation. Mi Yehudi? Reform Judaism serves a purpose in the ingathering of exiles and continuation of Jewish life in this era . It may redefine itself and break drastically from Judaism before the Haskala, but if something belongs to you, like your tradition, your culture, your religion, then to what extent do you then have licence to make changes, to meet the needs of your people in these times of excessive assimilation and cultural disintigration? The argument may come down to the Divine authorship of the Torah vs. modern biblical scholorship and the notion of human authorship inspired by the Divine (b’yad moshe–of course). If the Eternal One created everything, and is transcendent and immanent, did he not give us reason, the ability to chose that which is meaningful for us and that which is superflous. “You shall do and you shall hear” may reflect the need to do the mitzvah and then understand (Orthodox) , as opposed to trying to understand before you do (“informed choice”). But if you do mitzvos mechanically, without intention, whats the point? Has it not been advisable in the past to follow the ruling of the majority- like when Maimonides demonstrates why poultry should be considered meat and therefore not be eaten with dairy. What if the majority choose Liberal Judaism. The “Orthodox” world maintains that we must change ourselves to adapt to religion as opposed to changing our religion to adapt to ourselves. In this world of individualism, its no doubt that this approach of total transformation does not work for every Jew, hence the vitality of Reform Judaism–which has also changed dramatically from its foundation with the Pittsburg Platform. Its moving towards reclaiming many abandoned traditions, but not without contest: I remember when I was involved with NFTY, we all voted at a national convention for Kosher dining at all events, this was shot down by the leadership. Redefinition of Mi Yehudi, is probablly the most significant break from Halacha, but when were we last in an epoch of such widespread intermarriage? For a child of an intermarriage, is it better for them to be exposed to some kind of Judaism or no Judaism at all (are they just among the nations, or are can they authentically identify with the collective memory of the Jewish people? by the way, i am just defending pluralism in general, as opposed to furthering my own perspective/agenda, i am opposed to a contest of long distance urination. i’m more into the post-denominational Judaism, not necessarily post-halachic, we are like a fish without water without Torah. Korach argued that we are all essentially holy, and he was wrong, perhaps because we become holy only when we sanctify this life through ethical behavior and doing mitzvot.

  12. david waldbaum: You asked, “What if the majority choose Liberal Judaism.
    Within four generations there would be no more Judaism to speak of.

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