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Building a Reform Platform

Building a Reform Platform

Orthodox Judaism claims that its only platform is the Torah itself. The Conservative movement was in existence for three generations before it finally created its only set of principles in 1988. But in American Reform Judaism we have had no less than four platforms following an initial set of principles--mostly denying the legitimacy of Orthodoxy--in 1869. There have been the Pittsburgh Platform of 1885, the Columbus Platform of 1937, the San Francisco Centennial Statement of 1976, and the current Statement of Principles, adopted once again in Pittsburgh, in 1999.

Why has the Reform movement needed to define and redefine itself so often? What purpose does a platform serve? Like a political platform, a religious platform sets out positions on issues, except in this case the "planks" are not on such matters as domestic or foreign policy. Instead, they are usually positions on the classical Jewish categories of God, Torah, and Israel (meaning the Jewish people).

Writing a platform is indeed a challenging task. The platform has to be so constructed as to be wide and long enough for most every Reform Jew to stand on it without falling off. Consequently, the platforms can't be so specific as to exclude large numbers of serious members of our congregations. But at the same time, if the language is too vague, it becomes platitudinous and meaningless. The platform must also strike a balance between the descriptive and the prescriptive, at once reflecting the actual beliefs and practices of Reform Jews while at the same time also considering what the movement regards as the ideal Reform Jewish life. Similarly it needs to be both timely, addressing issues that are on the minds and in the hearts of Reform Jews today, while also being sufficiently timeless not to be quickly outdated. Its language has to be understandable to lay people without losing the nuances that matter to the rabbis. Finally, the platform should be both logical in its structure and eloquent in its style.

Each of the platforms of the Reform movement was prompted by events of its time. The original Pittsburgh Platform of 1885 was a response to attacks on Reform Judaism from the right by an incipient Conservative movement and on the left by the wholly universalist Ethical Culture movement. Reform Judaism had to show where it stood between these two competitors. The Columbus Platform of 1937 was necessitated by a shift in Jewish attitudes by both the rabbis and the laity. In 1885 most Reform Jews had been opposed to a Jewish national identity, believing Jews were simply a religious community with universal principles and little regard for religious ritual. Fifty years later opinion had changed on both issues. Now Reform Judaism was espousing Zionism and recognizing the value of the particularism inherent in Sabbath and holiday observance.

But not long thereafter two historical events made the Columbus Platform inadequate. The Holocaust dimmed the optimism of the earlier statements and the coming into existence of the state of Israel created a new sense of Jewish identity. Moreover, the Reform movement in America was celebrating its centennial. Thus the San Francisco statement focused much more on history than did its predecessors. Jewish survival under new circumstances was its key concern.

Since 1976, however, the Jewish situation has not undergone a major historical change. Why then the need for a new platform in 1999? The answer lies not in historical events, but rather in a change of focus within the religious lives of Reform Jews. Whereas the in 1976 the situation of the Jewish people as a whole was of major concern, by 1999, there had arisen a new interest in the religious life of the Jewish individual. The new Principles were devoted less to issues of survival and more to kedushah, holiness, a word that occurs numerous times in its text. It suggests that Reform Jews go to synagogue in order to find a transcendent meaning in their daily existence. It too is divided into God, Torah, and Israel, but it is at pains to indicate how each one of these can, in the words of the platform, "give meaning and purpose to our lives." One finds God, it notes, not only in moments of awe and wonder, but also in the experiences of everyday life. Torah represents an ongoing relationship between God and our people; and Israel is "a people aspiring to holiness." This platform is also the first to make extensive use of Hebrew words, indicative of Reform Judaism's greater desire to stress the unique meanings offered by the Hebrew language.

So will we need another platform again soon? Certainly not in the immediate future. But eventually, almost certainly. For Reform Judaism is by its very nature more open both to historical change and to shifts in religious priorities. As Reform Jews we shall no doubt continue to define and redefine our religious identity within the framework of historical Judaism.

Michael A. Meyer , Ph.D. is the Adolph S. Ochs Professor of Jewish History Emeritus of Hebrew Union College -Jewish Institute of Religion. The author and editor of many publications, Professor Meyer has served as president of the Association for Jewish Studies, international president of the Leo Baeck Institute and is a fellow of the American Academy for Jewish research.

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