Rabbi Joseph Krauskopf, Reform Triumphalism, and the 1885 Pittsburgh Platform

In November, 1885, a small group of Reform rabbis met in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, to discuss the basic principles of the then growing Reform Movement in Judaism in America. Their deliberations were summarized in what quickly became the foundational document of “Classical” American Reform Judaism. Bold and controversial, the Pittsburgh Platform continues to evoke powerful reactions and scholarly interest 130 years after its promulgation.

Scholars of the Pittsburgh Platform have primarily focused on the leading role Rabbi Kaufmann Kohler played in the convening of the conference, its writing and its contentious post-promulgation reception in the American Jewish community of the late 19th century. Similarly, historians have largely located the genesis of the platform as a specific reaction to the high pitched public debate Rabbi Kohler was having in the summer of 1885 with Rabbi Alexander Kohut, an ardent proponent of “traditional” Judaism and leading critic of Reform theology and practice.

A critically important perspective was offered by Prof. Sefton Temkin in 1985 when he demonstrated that the final version of the platform was as much a reaction to the then emerging Ethical Culture movement founded by Dr. Felix Adler and its criticism of Reform theism and the Reform Movement’s continued attachment to Jewish ethnicity.  Indeed, it seems that the best way of reading the Pittsburgh Platform as an historical document is to understand it as a dynamic “middle position” between the secularism of the Ethical Culture movement and traditionalism of the nascent Conservative Movement in American Judaism during the 1880s.

Given the great importance of the Pittsburgh Platform in the history of Reform Judaism in America, it would seem a bit strange then that the rabbi chosen to preside over the Conference that produced it was 27-year-old Joseph Krauskopf who had been ordained only two years earlier in 1883, a member of the first graduating class of the Hebrew Union College (HUC) in Cincinnati. An investigation of the role Krauskopf played in the process which led to the writing of the platform reveals not only his role as the person who first thought of the idea of a Reform platform, but also as an unrestrained champion of a long-forgotten triumphalism which once characterized American Reform Judaism.

Although the original correspondence between Krauskopf and Kohler seems to be lost at the current moment, a lengthy article published about Krauskopf immediately after he returned home from Pittsburgh clearly explains why such a young rabbi was chosen to head the Conference in Pittsburgh. In a recently obtained copy of an article from the Kansas City Daily Journal (November 21, 1885), it is clearly reported that it was Krauskopf who urged Kohler to consider convening a conference of Reform rabbis. At that time, Krauskopf was serving as the rabbi of Congregation B’nai Jehudah in Kansas City, Missouri, and was basking in the light of national media attention given to his popular lecture series on the Jews of Spain which quickly became a book, The Jews and Moors in Spain (1886).

In his groundbreaking book, Krauskopf waxes ecstatically about the intellectual achievement of Spain’s rationalist Jewish philosophers and predicts the demise of non-rational approaches to Jewish life. Krauskopf was studying Iberian Jewish history as part of his post-ordination doctoral studies at HUC. From Krauskopf’s perspective, America was the new Spain and Reform Judaism was the ultimate expression of a Maimonidean approach to Jewish life and thought which would move Judaism forward as the cutting edge of redemption, i.e., the “Mission of Israel,” in modern times. Interestingly, Krauskopf’s next blockbuster series of sermons lined him up clearly with Darwin and evolution, in sharp contrast to the views of HUC president, Isaac M. Wise.  

Krauskopf was an unrestrained religious modernist and Reform triumphalist whose growing fame later brought him to the attention of Reform Congregation Keneseth Israel, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, then one of the largest, wealthiest synagogues in the United States. Once settled in Philadelphia, the indefatigable Krauskopf went on to found the Jewish Publication Society and the National Farm School, now the Delaware University, located near Doylestown, PA. He also served as president of the Central Conference of American Rabbis.

Today, as we reconsider the Pittsburgh Platform on its 130th anniversary, it is important to understand both the spirit in which it was conceived and the dynamic context in which it was promulgated. In the end, the platform was more than a defense of Reform Judaism to its critics, it was a clarion call to its followers to move forward in its redemptive work with confidence. In a similar manner, we might also reconsider our own specific historical moment and the manner and spirit in which we practice and advocate Reform Judaism today.

Rabbi Lance J. Sussman, Ph.D. is the senior rabbi of Reform Congregation Keneseth Israel in Elkins Park, PA. He has written numerous books and articles in the field of American Jewish history and has taught at Princeton University, Binghamton University (SUNY), and Hunter College (CUNY). Rabbi Sussman is currently working on a book on Jews, Judaism, and law in America.