“The Guiding Light: The Columbus Platform: The Guiding Principles of Reform Judaism in America” by Alexandra Kay

Reference: Slideshare

Origins of The Columbus Platform

American Reform Judaism was first formed when it was brought to America by the immigrated German “reformers” during the mid-1800s. Reform Judaism quickly became the dominant faith of American Jews of the time. In its earliest years, American Reform Judaism benefited from the lack of a central religious authority. However with the influence of Rabbi Isaac Mayer Wise (largely considered to be the founder of the Reform Movement in America) and his desire to make Judaism more relevant to the values and promise of America, a new Jewish movement began with his 1867 prayer book, Minhag American. This movement reached its pinnacle in 1885 when fifteen Rabbis met in Pittsburgh to discuss and set forth a set of unifying Principles of Reform Judaism, known today as the Pittsburgh Platform. But by 1937, the immigration of increasingly larger numbers of more traditional Jews from Eastern Europe changed the face of Reform Jewish practice. The rise of Nazism and the first stirrings of the Holocaust made the political necessity of a Jewish homeland more and more apparent. Ultimately, a council was convened by the Central Conference of American Rabbis (created by Rabbi Isaac Mayer Wise six years after the Pittsburgh Platform) in order to create a new set of Principles of Reform Judaism, that would address these developments, correct any oversights, and serve as a new guide for American Reform Judaism. Created in 1937, and known as the Columbus Platform, the document was written in large part by Samuel S. Cohon.

1885 Pittsburgh Conference

In 1885 a group of fifteen rabbis met in Pittsburgh to create and issue the first cohesive set of Reform Jewish Principles- The Pittsburgh Platform. The Pittsburgh Platform of 1885, which Wise called a “Declaration of Independence,” called for Jews to adopt a “modern” approach to the practice of their faith  and to its rejection of a “return to Palestine,” or Zionism. Today it is considered founding document of “Classical Reform” ideology. The Pittsburgh Platform explicitly calls for a rejection of Torah laws which have  a ritual basis, rather than moral one- as these laws were seen as distracting from modern Jewish life by placing undue emphasis on ritual, and not on the growth of Ethical Culture. The Pittsburgh Platform also contributed to the separation of Reform Judaism and the increasingly popular Conservative movement.

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 recognized in the Bible the record of the consecration of the Jewish people for 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 doctrine 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 rabbinic 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 a 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 postulate 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 Gehanna 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.

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