The Pittsburgh Platform is a pivotal 19th century document in the history of American Reform Judaism that called for Jews to adopt a modern approach to the practice of their faith. It was adopted in 1885 by the Central Conference of American Rabbis.
This founding document of what has come to be called “Classical Reform” ideology was the culmination of a meeting of Reform rabbis from November 16–19, 1885 at the Concordia Club in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. It explicitly calls for a rejection of those laws which have a ritual, rather than moral, basis. An example of a ritual rejected by the Pittsburgh Platform is kashrut, or the observance of Jewish dietary laws. These ritual laws were seen as detracting from Jewish life in the modern era by placing undue emphasis on ritual, rather than ethical considerations.
The platform affirms God’s existence, and recognized a universal desire in all religions to experience “the indwelling of God in man.” In this vein, the Pittsburgh Platform also calls for a recognition of the inherent worth of Christianity and Islam, although it still holds that Judaism was the “highest conception of the God-idea.”
Instead of a nation, the Pittsburgh Platform envisions Jews as a religious community within a nation. For this reason, there was an explicit rejection of Zionism, which was viewed as unnecessary because American Jews were at home in America. The platform seems to acknowledge the concept of Jewish chosenness accepting in the Bible “the consecration of the Jewish people to its mission as the priest of the one God.”
Although the platform is remembered today mostly for its rejection of Jewish nationhood and return to Zion, it is particularly noteworthy for its formulation, in Paragraph 8, of Reform Judaism’s commitment to social and economic justice. Previously, American Jewish religious organizations had largely stayed away from engaging with social issues in the broader society, focusing mainly on issues of particularist issue to Jews.
In adopting what was in effect the social gospel that was gaining traction in American Protestantism, the Pittsburgh Platform began laying the groundwork for the widespread embrace of liberalism by organized American Jewry. In that sense it can be seen as one of the founding manifestos of American Jewish liberalism.
The social justice declaration in the Pittsburgh Platform was expanded in the 1937 Columbus Platform, which opened the door for Reform Judaism’s reconciliation with Zionism while also deepening its commitment to liberalism.
1885 Pittsburgh Conference
Convening at the call of Kaufmann Kohler of New York, Reform rabbis from around the United States met from November 16 through November 19, 1885 with Isaac Mayer Wise presiding. The meeting was declared the continuation of the Philadelphia Conference of 1869, which was the continuation of the German Conference of 1841 to 1846. The rabbis adopted the following seminal text:
1. We recognize in every religion an attempt to grasp the Infinite, and in every mode, source or book of revelation held sacred in any religious system the consciousness of the indwelling of God in man. We hold that Judaism presents the highest conception of the God-idea as taught in our Holy Scriptures and developed and spiritualized by the Jewish teachers, in accordance with the moral and philosophical progress of their respective ages. We maintain that Judaism preserved and defended midst continual struggles and trials and under enforced isolation, this God-idea as the central religious truth for the human race.
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. We hold that the modern discoveries of scientific researches in the domain of nature and history are not antagonistic to the doctrines of Judaism, the Bible reflecting the primitive ideas of its own age, and at times clothing its conception of divine Providence and Justice dealing with men in miraculous narratives.
3. We recognize in the Mosaic legislation a system of training the Jewish people for its mission during its national life in Palestine, and today we accept as binding only its moral laws, and maintain only such ceremonies as elevate and sanctify our lives, but reject all such as are not adapted to the views and habits of modern civilization.
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.
5. We recognize, in the modern era of universal culture of heart and intellect, the approaching of the realization of Israel s great 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 expect neither a return to Palestine, nor a sacrificial worship under the sons of Aaron, nor the restoration of any of the laws concerning the Jewish state.
6. We recognize in Judaism a progressive religion, ever striving to be in accord with the postulates of reason. We are convinced of the utmost necessity of preserving the historical identity with our great past.. Christianity and Islam, being daughter religions of Judaism, we appreciate their providential mission, to aid in the spreading of monotheistic and moral truth. We acknowledge that the spirit of broad humanity of our age is our ally in the fulfillment of our mission, and therefore we extend the hand of fellowship to all who cooperate with us in the establishment of the reign of truth and righteousness among men.
7. We reassert the doctrine of Judaism that the soul is immortal, grounding the belief on the divine nature of human spirit, which forever finds bliss in righteousness and misery in wickedness. We reject as ideas not rooted in Judaism, the beliefs both in bodily resurrection and in Gehenna and Eden (Hell and Paradise) as abodes for everlasting punishment and reward.
8. In full accordance with the spirit of the Mosaic legislation, which strives to regulate the relations between rich and poor, we deem it our duty to participate in the great task of modern times, to solve, on the basis of justice and righteousness, the problems presented by the contrasts and evils of the present organization of society.