Home  Principles & Statements  Positions of the ACJ  Articles  DonationsAbout Us  Contact Us  Links                                         

Classical Reform Judaism: Did It End in 1937?

Ralph Dombrower
Winter 2002

Recently accelerated efforts are underway by some within Reform Judaism to revive understanding of the ageless wisdom of the rabbis who founded organized American Reform Judaism in 1885. These efforts have resulted in increased use of the designation “Classical Reform Judaism” to distinguish the drastically different characteristics of the 1885 “Classical Reform” doctrine from all following Reform doctrines.  

I write as one of the last still-living second generation of native Americans born into American pre-1937 Reform. I am one of a very few remaining Jews instructed in and confirmed into American Reform Judaism prior to 1937. I am uneasy with younger rabbis, scholars and teachers associating themselves and their constituencies with the rationality, logic and luster of Classical Reform, but who also believe Classical Reform includes post 1937 doctrine. Worthy as some may think it is, post 1937 Reform doctrine, I maintain, is not compatible with the major thrust of Classical Reform.  

Review Definition  

I ask those who claim to articulate what it means to be under the banner of Classical Reform Judaism to review the definition of the words “Classical” and “Classic.” Meaning in modern American vernacular is clear, as shown by Coca Cola’s return to its original formula and advertising it as “Classic Coke,” and designation of older automobiles restored to their original conditions as “Classical.” My dictionary offers one pertinent definition of “Classic:” ― “An author whose works serve as a standard.” Full acceptance of and use of the original formula, writing, document, doctrine or condition, I submit, is clearly a needed condition to warrant a definition of “Classical” or “Classic.”  

The original formally adopted written statement, doctrine and formula of organized American “Classical Reform Judaism” is the Pittsburgh Platform of 1885. This platform’s claim to being official pre-1937 organized American Reform doctrine was fully validated by the necessity of organized American Reform to officially abolish it in 1937 to make way for the Columbus Platform. This new platform was adopted because it was felt that something new was needed! A new doctrine, a new text, a new formula, a new model! I think it follows that logical minds cannot include any doctrinal change in Reform Judaism after 1937 as part of “Classical Reform Judaism”  

Uncomfortable with Present Stance  

Those who are uncomfortable with Mainstream Reform’s present stance and direction and want to return to some earlier Reform doctrine and practice ― if they include any post-1937 doctrine ― cannot gather under the Classical Reform banner. They are not “the real thing!”  

“The Faith of Classical Reform Judaism” article by Rabbi Howard A. Berman in the Summer, 2001 Issues makes it clear to me that Classical Reform doctrine, if buffeted by changes and additions that alter or dilute the meaning of the Pittsburgh Platform of 1885, will not remain distinguishable for very long. Such changes chip away at a new chance for a long shelf-life of a renewed Classical Reform Judaism. Without strict doctrinal guards at the gate, a renewed Classical Reform effort will, I submit, repeat history and again be incrementally submerged, then drowned by the weight of add-on baggage with no Classical Reform doctrinal basis. Those who will rebuild Classical Reform must always keep in mind that the Mainstream Reform of today ― which they may now think has run amok ― began based on the Pittsburgh Platform of 1885, and was battered into its present state by weakly challenged, non-Classical Reform, post-1937 changes.  

1937 Platform  

Rabbi Berman, in his 1982 theme, outlines “...principles of liberal Judaism as taught and practiced in our Temple.” His claim to be describing a Classical Reform temple, I submit, fails because he adds: “The inner dynamic force of growth and development was at work later when, in the Columbus Platform of 1937, the Reform Movement recognized new dimensions and options in the role of tradition in religious life.” The 1937 Columbus Platform was such a clear rejection of the Pittsburgh Platform’s Universalism (The Temple is everywhere.) in favor of Particularism (The Temple is in Jerusalem.) that Rabbi Berman’s point-of-­departure from Classical Reform is, I believe, too important to ignore. 1937 was probably the most momentous year in American Reform history.  

The emphasis on “Jewish People-hood” ― rejected by Classical Reform ― began its steady rise to primary prominence within Reform religious doctrine in 1937. Classical Reform’s stance that Judaism is a religion only simultaneously began its steady retreat in 1937.  

Original Doctrine  

Those who desire to re-establish viability to Classical Reform cannot study or review too often how organized American Reform Judaism’s original doctrine was abandoned.  

Compare the 1885 Pittsburgh Platform’s Plank 6 with the 1937 Columbus Platform’s Plank B. Description of Judaism only in a religion context by the Pittsburgh document sharply contrasts with description of Judaism in the context of “People,” “group-loyalty,” “community” and “lands.” by the Columbus document. The doctrinal switch is obvious.  

Pittsburgh Platform, Plank 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.”  

Columbus Platform of 1937 Plank B ― “The Jewish People”  

“The Jewish People ― Judaism is the soul of which Israel is the body. Living in all parts of the world, Israel has been held together by the ties of a common history, and above all, by the heritage of faith. Though we recognize in the group-loyalty of Jews who have become estranged from their religious tradition a bond which still unites them with us, we maintain that it is by its religion and for its religion that the Jewish people has lived. The non-Jew who accepts our faith is welcomed as a full member of the Jewish community. In all lands where our people live, assume and seek to share loyalty the full duties and responsibilities of citizenship and to create seats of Jewish knowledge, and religion.”  

More Than a Religion  

Pervasive insistence by newer, younger would-be Classical Reform rabbis and scholars that Classic Reform Judaism is something more than a religion only, and that the “something more” is a “Peoplehood” bond, in my opinion, shows lack of understanding of the 1885 Pittsburgh Platform’s origins and teachings. Indeed, science seems to confirm that a “Jewish Peoplehood” is myth.  

Apply here part of Pittsburgh Platform’s Plank 2: “We hold that the modern discoveries of scientific research in the domain of nature and history are not antagonistic to the doctrines of Judaism...” The August 7, 2001 Forward headline reads: “Studies Casting New Light On Origin of Europe’s Jews ― Stanford’s Risch Puts Mythic Theory To Rest.”  

We now have the “modern discovery” of DNA research as a scientific tool with which to explore the notion of a specific Jewish “People” bloodlined from European Jews back to Jews of Biblical Israel. The “Forward” article indicates that some Europeans may have simply adopted Judaism in Khazaria, a southeastern European area peopled by Turkish stock; and/or that some Europeans may have simply adopted Judaism who were of Central European stock. One of Dr. Neil Risch’s lineage scenarios does suggest a possibility of some European Jewish/Mid-Eastern genetic linkage, but such would also link those European Jews to whom this may apply to all people in the Palestinian area.. .no separate Biblical-time lineage to Jews only.  

Pockets of Isolation  

Significantly-high numbers of Jews lived in pockets of social isolation in various parts of the world, and at widely separated times in history, building distinguishable cultures. Probably due to long periods of ghetto-type isolation and inbreeding, many acquired identifiable Jewish mutations and illnesses which they passed down the generations. These characteristics, I suggest, are not indicators of “Peoplehood.” They are, I think, results of lengthy survival of different groups in relative isolation. Consider how such dynamics work by carefully scrutinizing two or three distinct religions which bred distinct cultures right here in the United States. My experience has been with the separate cultures of Classical Reform Jews, Irish Catholics and Episcopalians. I am certain that any astute human behaviorist looking for it, can distinguish subtle shades of differences between followers of each of these three exampled religion’s rich religious history and culture.  

If Classical Reform doctrine does not include the post-1937 notion of a “Peoplehood” component and adheres to its stance that Judaism is a religion only, it appears to be unacceptable to most Reform rabbis and scholars. It seems to me they cannot conceive that a Judaism can survive and flourish without a multitude of customs and traditions, including the “peoplehood” component. Yet, a Judaism primarily of substantive concepts and ideas is exactly what the brilliant rabbis produced in 1885. I think it is essential to bridge this intellectual inability to appreciate the advantages of a viable Judaism, solidly based on ideas not on form and ritual. Needed is widespread education about and explanation of why and how Classical Reform can thrive very well just on the fuel of ideas ― ideas from the Prophets ... ideas from general history ... ideas from all of modern knowledge.  

Power of an Idea  

The first chapter in any textbook which might offer basic understanding of “Classical Reform Judaism,” I think, would have to be titled “The Power of An Idea.” It is essential to drill into the minds of those who desire to comprehend Classical Reform that a simple idea, conceived in the mind of a single human, can influence the world more than all the atomic bombs and other war weapons ever exploded. Once a student of Classical Reform keeps this foremost in his or her mind, his or her road to understanding Classical Reform becomes much easier, and scholars adroitly repeat the factoid that early Reform Judaism is a product of the ideas of Western Europe’s Age of Enlightenment. They either don’t understand ― or rarely take the next deeper step and explain ― how the rabbis who crafted the Pittsburgh Platform of 1885 wove these exciting new ideas about the power of humans to shape events into the fabric of early American (Classical) Reform Judaism.  

To understand this important departure from form and ritual bound Fundamentalist Judaism and adoption of the new (Classical) American Reform Judaism’s almost-total relationship to and reliance upon the substance of powerful ideas, lengthy and serious contemplation is needed of the following snapshot from the Minutes of the deliberations of the rabbis as they fashioned the Pittsburgh Platform of 1885. Rabbi Kaufmann Kohler, Chief Architect of the document, speaks about an important foundation stone of Judaism ― Revelation:  

“Of course, I do not believe that God stepped down in person from heaven and spoke on Mount Sinai, but when a new truth, instead of being sought for, seeks its instrument, taking hold of a single person or a people and impelling them to become its herald, this is revelation, and in this sense I want to have it understood and accepted.”  

1885 Platform  

Inclusion in Classical Reform of the importance and power of human-originated ideas is clearly marked by Rabbi Kohler’s thrust.  

Further fusion into Classical Reform of the importance and power of an idea is emphasized by the 1885 platform builders in their first plank of the 1885 document: “We hold that Judaism presents the highest conception of the God idea as taught in our Holy Scriptures...”  

Like a slumbering intellectual giant, harboring fantastic ideas that, if unleashed, could greatly benefit all of humankind, Classical Reform Judaism awaits a wake-up call from the few Reform Jews who can make the intellectual leap from absolute need for form and ritual to recognition that the power of innovative, human-generated ideas can be all the power a great religion requires.  

< return to article list
© 2010 The American Council For Judaism.