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November 17: The Pittsburgh Platform’s Radical Judaism

Lawrence Bush
November 17, 2016
The 1885 gathering of leaders of the movement for Reform Judaism in the U.S. entered its second day of proceedings on this date at the Concordia Club in Pittsburgh. The Pittsburgh Platform, signed by eighteen rabbis, became an influential document for the next half century or more, particularly in shaping Reform Judaism’s rejection of Zionism and the movement’s strong sense of ethical mission. Rabbi Kaufmann Kohler of New York’s Temple Beth El (later president of the Hebrew Union College) catalyzed the creation of the platform, which in eight paragraphs rejected ritualistic aspects of Judaism, including its dietary and “purity” laws (Kohler called circumcision “a relic of barbarism”), and the idea of Jewish “nationhood” that would reestablish itself in Jerusalem. “We acknowledge that the spirit of broad humanity of our age is our ally in the fulfillment of our mission,” said the Platform, “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 [sic]. . . . [W]e 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.” To read the Pittsburgh Platform, click here. “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.”

​​​​Lawrence Bush edited Jewish Currents from 2003 until 2018. He is the author of Bessie: A Novel of Love and Revolution and Waiting for God: The Spiritual Explorations of a Reluctant Atheist, among other books. His new volume of illustrated Torah commentaries, American Torah Toons 2, is scheduled for publication this year.