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Reform Judaism Pittsburgh to Chicago

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The rabbinical conference in Chicago this week may be historic for Reform Judaism. For this session is to be devoted to a revaluation of the Pittsburgh platform adopted exactly fifty, years ago. In many of its provisions that platform has stood the test of these troubled years and remains even today a fairly adequate guide for Reform Jews.

Life, however, has completely repudiated one of its most important principles. In 1885, it must be remembered, Reform Jews thought that brotherhood was just around the corner. A wave of humanitarian liberalism was sweeping the Western world, and they gladly yielded to it. Especially in America, where they enjoyed a freedom Jews had not experienced in millenia, were they willing to renounce their Jewish nationality and to become another sect.

Thus, we find Kaufman Kohler saying at the time: “For us as Reform Jews, the question has been decided long ago—we recognize in the Fourth of July the offspring of the Sixth of Sivan.” Anything associated with the ghetto was considered unworthy of the new humanitarianism and Kohler went on to promise that, “From the very ruins of ghetto Judaism, the foundation will be laid to a Temple of God, spacious enough to embrace all sects and races, and rally them around the uplifted banner of the one God.”

Isaac M. Wise was even more definite in his assurances: “Within twenty-five years all the world will have accepted Reform Judaism.” The only fly in this unctuous ointment was the insistence of some East European Jews that Israel had a national destiny which could be fulfilled only in Palestine. Against them, Wise hurled his strongest investives: “Zionists are the phantastic dupes of a thoughtless Utopia which is to us a fata morgana, a momentary inebriation of morbid minds and a prostitution of Israel’s holy cause to a madman’s dance of unsound politicians.”

All of these ideas were summarized in Article V of the Pittsburgh platform: “We recognize in the modern era of universal culture of heart and intellect, the approach of the realization of Israel’s Messianic hope for the establishment of the kingdom of truth, justice and peace among all men. We consider ourselves no longer a nation, but a religious community, and therefore exact neither a return to Palestine …nor the restoration of any of the laws concerning the Jewish State.”

However beautiful this may be as a hope, it has no foundation in reality. The world is considerably farther today from “the kingdom of truth, justice and peace among all men” than it was when those words were written. It is in the grip of an intense nationalism, which has set nations against one another in ever increasing fear and hatred. It is in the throes of a world-wide depression, which has made even more glaring the injustices of our social order. Many of the nations are in the clutches of oppressive dictatorships, a throwback to the era of medieval tyranny.

The Jew has been one of the worst victims of all of these evils. The combination of war, depression and dictatorship has evoked and accentuated immemorial prejudices against him. In the very birthplace of Reform, anti-Semitism has become an outspoken government policy. In this respect Germany has been different from other European nations only in its brutal frankness. Anti-Semitism is an effective element in the policy of many other countries. The Jew today is more clearly set apart from the other peoples of the world than at any other time since the Pittsburgh platform was framed. The whole notion of assimilation is completely exploded. The Jews are a distinct people. As such, they have needs, problems and hopes. As such, they require a national home to which they may come as of right and not on suffrance; from which shall come a fructifying spirit for all of Israel. Zionist Palestine has become that home. It is certainly fortunate for German Jewry that not all Jews accepted the philosophy of the early German reformers, else its plight today would be too terrible to contemplate. By a kind of tragic irony, those who were the bitterest opponents of Zionism have become its chiefest beneficiaries. Beyond meeting these physical, human needs, Palestine has brought about a renaissance of Hebrew culture and is re-vitalizing Judaism all over the world.

Of Course, the concept of Jewish peoplehood is much more than an answer to anti-Semitism. It is a dynamic life-giving principle. The proof is found in Reform Judaism itself. Apart from questions of personality, the vitality of Reform temple seems to vary in almost direct proportion to the Jewish consciousness of their leadership. Reform congregations whose rabbis have insisted for half a century that Judaism was ethical monotheism and nothing more, are a sad proof of the inadequacy of a religious abstraction as an answer to the needs of Jewish life. It is ironic that those who maintained that Judaism consists exclusively of religion have proved to be the least devout group in Jewish religious life. If my Reform colleagues are inclined to protest against this conclusion, let them but look objectively at the third and fourth generations of German Reform families in their congregations and consider to what extent ethical monotheism is a motivating factor in their lives.

On the other hand, those congregations whose leaders have led or pushed them into the main stream of Jewish life, exhibit a healthy vitality and make of their youth more intelligent and loyal Jews. If I may be forgiven a personal allusion, our own temple, where Poale Zion and Hashomer Hatzair, B’nai B’rith and ORT, Young Judea and Junior Hadassah, share with Sisterhood and Brotherhood our facilities and our leadership, displays much more vitality and promise than it did before. Contact with the Jewish masses, not as a benevolent patron but as a member of a people, is a source of never ending strength and inspiration.

When the Pittsburgh platform will be revaluated in Chicago, account should be taken of the changed psychology, problems, needs and hopes of the Jewish people, and particularly of the role of Palestine in the program of Judaism. The mistakes of 1885 should be rectified and the rabbis should weave back into the very fabric of Liberal Judaism the concepts of Jewish peoplehood and Zionism.

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