From the Pages of History: Reform Judaism and Social Justice
This article first appeared in the Jewish Daily Bulletin on January 21, 1927.
The attitude of Reform Judaism toward labor and social justice was formulated at the thirtieth biennial convention of the Union of American Hebrew Congregations (now the URJ), following a long and heated discussion of the subject.
Six principles were established in the platform adopted by the convention. The platform, which recognizes the dignity of labor and that “human rights must take precedence over the rights of property,” states:
“The recognition of the principle of mutual service through the performance of economic function as of first importance to our social philosophy.
“The recognition of the dignity of labor and the realization of society’s dependence upon the efforts of the toiler.
“That human rights take precedence over the rights of property.
“That a man’s labor is his very life, and constitutes his primary service to society; it is not a commodity to be bought or sold in the market.
“The recognition of the duty on the part of employer and employee alike to exercise in the adjustment of their own interests a due regard for the paramount rights of society.
“The duty of the synagogue and its pulpit to speak courageously on human rights as part of its prophetic function.”
A seventh proposal which would open membership in Reform congregations to workingmen, was rejected.
It was further recommended that: “first, the committee on social justice become a permanent committee of the union; second, that due consideration be given to the establishment of a department of social action whose business shall be to secure a consensus of economic opinion on industrial and economic questions and to study them from a Jewish point of view and to keep the synagogues of the Union informed as to the development of thought and activity in the field of social justice.”
Dr. Louis Wolsey presented the report for the Committee on Social Justice. In the preamble to the report signed by Henry Morgenthau, Dr. Lee K. Frankel, Marcus Aaron, Dr. Samuel Goldenson, Karl Pritz, Milfred Stern, and Dr. Wolsey, the present system of society was described and the conditions of workingmen analyzed. The preamble calls attention to the economic sufferings of the workingman, and refers to the program of social justice adopted at the St. Louis Convention of the Union in 1925. Dr. Wolsey presented seven proposals as a part of the activities of the Union.
The debate lasted six hours. Amendments and substitute motions were put forward by many of the delegates. The controversy became almost a struggle between capital and labor. On the one side were almost all the rabbis and the layman, Marcus Aaron, one who signed the report and on the other laymen. Adolph S. Ochs of New York, Meier Steinbrink, of Brooklyn, Mr. Meitzer of Bridgeport, Mr. Weir of Buffalo, Aaron Strauss of Baltimore and Rabbi Solomon Foster of Newark were among those who criticized the proposals. Rabbi Edward L. Israel of Baltimore, supporter of the Committee’s report, contended that by rejecting the proposals “we prove that justice can merely be preached and not executed.” Dr. David Philipson of Cincinnati stated: “We must remove the suspicion that Reform Judaism is a religion of the rich man.” Dr. Samuel H. Goldenson of Pittsburgh stated, “We are with labor, because justice is on its side.”
Rabbi Abba Hillel Silver urged the adoption of the proposals, with certain amendments which he presented.
Adolph S. Ochs stated that he represents what he termed “capitalism”. He asked that careful consideration be given to this matter and urged that the proposals should not be adopted at this convention. Mr. Steinbrink and Mr. Meltzer pleaded not to involve religion in economics.
Rabbi Keller of Cincinnati, Rabbi Ferdinand M. Isserman of Toronto, Rabbi Ephraim Frish of San Antonio, Texas, Rabbi Abraham J. Feldman of Hartford and others emphasized that religion is not abstract and has to do with every aspect of life, especially economic, where injustice can be committed more easily than in any other field. These speakers urged the adoption of the report.
Rabbi Ferdinand M. Isserman, a young Rabbi of Toronto, charged that a Reform rabbi could not espouse the cause of labor from his pulpit if he hoped to keep his position in the synagogue.
“I was with a congregation,” he exclaimed, “where I expressed the views of the dispossessed, the poor and the disinherited. I paid for my views, but I am proud I paid.”
So incensed were the rabbis by these remarks that they voted to expunge them from the records. Dr. Isserman was applauded when he finished, however, and several delegates commended him for his courage.
Rabbi Foster was the only rabbi who strongly opposed the adoption of the proposals. His motion to refer the report for further study was defeated by a large majority, after the explanation of Rabbi Wolsey and Mr. Aaron that all the accusations and fears of radicalism and the possibility that this may lead to a split in the Union were unjustified because the proposals are merely the expression of Prophetic Judaism.
The adoption of the proposals, with some modifications, followed. The proposal concerning labor membership in the Congregations, which was rejected, read: “The duty of the synagogue is to assure the workingman a welcome to its membership and administration.” The proposals were voted on seriatim.
The evening session was devoted to a further discussion of the Perpetuation of Judaism. Roger W. Straus of New York, president of the National Federation of Temple Brotherhoods, presided. Dr. Samson Benderly of New York, called attention to the present critical condition of Jewish education and presented suggestions of how to solve the problem. He stressed the need of money and organization for the one million young men and women, the youth of tomorrow. “Not only the home, the synagogue, and the school, but other forces must work toward making American Judaism more spiritual. Palestine is a great and valuable factor in the survival of American Judaism,” he said.
A. L. Sachar of the Illinois State University spoke on “Approaching the Jewish Student.”
Rabbi Silver, who closed the discussion, censured the layman and women for not being sufficiently interested in education and Judaism. ” Judaism,” he said, “should not be a matter of conventions, but of daily life.” He strongly criticized the attitude of parents who do not send their children to religious schools and for their opposition to Hebrew and for expecting to find sensations in rabbinical sermons.
Mr. Straus spoke on the “Mind of the Youth.” “The Catholic Church has for centuries said in effect ‘Give us the child until he is five years old and we do not fear but that he will be a Catholic forever.’ he declared.
“This observation has been approved by modern psychology which says that child’s character is largely formed in its earliest years. Although this is undoubtedly a fact, nevertheless usually the mind of a youth goes through certain definite stages in its attitude towards religion. At first it absorbs the religion of the home either from the home, or if there is nothing there it nevertheless conjures up from its environment a something, if nothing else a fear-complex with its superstitions just as primitive people did. Next we often find a stage of indifference, sometimes either hand-in-hand or followed by a stage of skepticism or positive disbelief. If there is no positive home education in the back-ground or no strong impulse in environment the mind of the youth usually remains set in this stage and we have the man or woman, either indifferent or unbelieving.
“If, however, the back-ground of the home is there, or the environment of strong religious idealism presented, the mind of youth goes beyond these stages and a philosophy of life is developed which is distinctly religious. Therefore, as I see it our problem is first of all in the home, and next amongst the youths themselves,” he declared.
“A great number of Jewish young men and women are apparently indifferent. I say, apparently, because more and more I find that although often youth seems to be indifferent at first there is a yearning for some philosophy that is not purely materialistic, and if our religion is properly presented it secures whole-hearted adherence; but sometimes because Judaism is not properly presented turns to isms. The presentation is often more difficult because frequently there is a distinct resistance due to the fact that youth feels Judaism is old and shopworn. The fact that Judaism is old but that in its fundamentals it is always modern is unfortunately not appreciated.
“Therefore, the problem so far as the mind of the youth and its attitude to Judaism is concerned seems to devolve itself to: first, home influence, second, education: because a lack of knowledge develops indifference or hostility, or both.
“The solution is far beyond my ken, but of one thing I am certain and that is that many youths will be held to Judaism or won back to it by education not only through the religious school, not only by the pulpit nor in any other one way, but by using these any every other means of reaching the youth. The Men’s Club is one of the newer ways and it can and does much good, but it is only one of many means. All of these means must be multiplied, changed, modernized. There is no criticism intended of the Rabbinate nor of the Reform ritual when I say that it seems to me that in a large measure youth’s lack of interest in Judaism is because of its manner of presentation. All of us are not constituted the same way; to some the purely intellectual appeal is the greatest, some are more swayed by the emotional appeal, some by oratory, art or music. Modern life is varied and complex. Youth, and the more elderly as well, are accustomed to seek in this world that side of life which most readily tends to appeal to the particular individual. Our religion is all inclusive and when young men or women say that Judaism does not appeal to them it does not mean that Judaism is at fault-it means that the method of presentation has failed. Why should we limit this appeal, let us provide the variations, not necessarily all at one time, but at different times and places,” he said. “The Reform movement was a step in this direction. let us in this same spirit have some of our best minds, some of the men and women who have in the affairs of the world, either in business, medicine, politics, etc., shown their ability to judge their fellow man, join with our rabbis and lay leaders, and make a study of how our methods of interpretation can be widened and made more varied and effective. Judaism is not backward in its religious and ethical ideas-if it is backward at all it is I repeat only in its form and methods of presentation, and to correct this we must have first the will, second the intelligence and third the spirit of cooperation, so that all existing forces may work together.
“The age of materialism is passing and youth is, after its post-war debauch, returning to Idealism-it is returning not with the false feverish activity of war but with the slow steady, tolerant pace of peace. In this return Judaism has taken a part, but it has not taken the spiritual leadership which its traditional position demands.
“Let us re-dedicate ourselves to the spirit of Judaism and by so doing lead others to follow,” Mr. Straus concluded.
This article first appeared in the Jewish Daily Bulletin on January 21, 1927 and is part of the JTA Archive.