The Pittsburgh Platform is a pivotal 19th century document in the history of the American Reform Movement in Judaism that called for Jews to adopt a modern approach to the practice of their faith. The Union of American Hebrew Congregations (UAHC) adopted it in 1885.
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.”
The Pittsburgh Platform helped shape the future of American Reform Judaism by calling for American Jews to engage in acts of social justice. Today this principle is adopted by the Reform Movement among others through their commitment to Tikkun Olam (the repair of the world).
Rather than resolving the issues of religion and Jewish nationalism it addressed, the adoption of the Pittsburgh Platform only intensified the debate within American Judaism about how Halacha, Jewish peoplehood and Zionism should be viewed. By openly disavowing those concepts, the radical Reformers alienated more moderate reformers like Sabato Morais who believed in a liberal approach to Halacha that maintained Jewish continuity. Morais and his supporters (including Rabbis Alexander Kohut and Bernard Drachman) joined moderates within the traditional community such as Rabbi Solomon Schecter, in establishing the Jewish Theological Seminary which would grow into the Conservative Jewish movement in the late 1880s.
The non-Zionist ideas of the Pittsburgh Platform remained (and remain) controversial within the Reform movement, particularly for those who supported the movement. Every successive major platform of the UAHC (now the Union for Reform Judaism) backed off further from the ideas contained in the Pittsburgh platform. The Union’s 1937 Columbus Platform included a more nuanced endorsement of Zionism, noting “In all lands where our people live, they assume and seek to share loyally the full duties and responsibilities of citizenship and to create seats of Jewish knowledge and religion. In the rehabilitation of Palestine, the land hallowed by memories and hopes, we behold the promise of renewed life for many of our brethren. We affirm the obligation of all Jewry to aid in its upbuilding as a Jewish homeland by endeavoring to make it not only a haven of refuge for the oppressed but also a center of Jewish culture and spiritual life.” This major re-statement of the “Guiding Principles of Reform Judaism” was an acceptance of the massive demographic shift caused by previous waves of Eastern European Jewish immigrants attracted to Zionism, as well as influential pro-Zionist Reform rabbis like Stephen S. Wise, Abba Hillel Silver, and Max Raisin, the formation of the competing and ‘ardently Zionist’ American Jewish Congress, and the recent sharp increase in European antisemitism brought on by the rise of Fascism.
In 1976, nearly thirty years after the establishment of Israel, the recognition of Jewish ‘peoplehood’ was noted by the Central Conference of American Rabbis (CCAR) in their “Centenary Perspective”, adopted in San Francisco, and marking the centenaries of the founding of the Union of American Hebrew Congregations and the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion. Marking the 100th anniversary of political Zionism in 1997, the CCAR dealt specifically for the first time with issues related to Reform Judaism and Zionism in its “Reform Judaism & Zionism: A Centenary Platform”, also known as the “Miami Platform”. The perspective noted the trends that had occurred within Reform Jewish thought with respect to the religion, its people and religious practice, their movement from degradation to sovereignty, their relationship and obligations to Israel, as well as Israel’s obligations to Jews of the Diaspora, and redemption. The Union’s new 1999 “Statement of Principles for Reform Judaism”, also called the Pittsburgh Platform, again noted the trends that had occurred within Reform Jewish and codified these with respect to religious practice and Israel. The 1999 platform called for “renewed attention” to “sacred obligations,” of which it mentioned the observance of holidays and Shabbat, study of Torah and prayer, and the Hebrew language. The statement endorsed aliyah for the first time, and notes differences within Israel and Reform Judaism, concerning competing concepts of Medinat Yisrael and Eretz Yisrael, included in on-going debates regarding conceptions of Zionism. Reform still holds that Halacha is not binding and has since embraced other concepts like patrilineal descent that keep it in tension with the more traditional movements of Judaism, and in control of religious law in Israel.