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Debate Continues Over Future of Reform Judaism

Fall 1999

Since the Central Conference of American Rabbis convened in Pittsburgh in May,  
1999 and adopted a new statement of principles of Reform Judaism, there has been  
continuing controversy in Reform Jewish circles.  

The guiding principles include encouraging observance of traditional rituals  
like wearing yarmulkes, keeping kosher, the wide use of Hebrew, and emigration  
to Israel.  

Rabbi Lance Susman of Temple Concord in Binghamton, New York, reports that,  
"In reality, less than 20 percent of the Reform rabbinate actually voted  
for the new Platform. Many stayed away in silent protest. The majority of those  
who voted in favor of Pittsburgh II did so with reservations and few raised  
their hands in support with real satisfaction about the religious content of  
the Platform."  

Jewish Nationalism  

The new Principles reverse those adopted by Reform Judaism in its founding  
document, the Pittsburgh Platform of 1885, which, among other things, rejected  
Jewish nationalism and declared that Judaism was a religion of universal values  
and that Jews were at home in America.  

Rabbi Sussman, who also serves as associate professor of American Jewish history  
at the State University of New York at Binghamton, attended the May 1999 meeting  
in Pittsburgh and voted against the new statement of principles. In his view,  
"The defining moment at the Pittsburgh 1999 CCAR Convention came on Tuesday,  
May 24 when Rabbi Arnold J. Wolf, no stranger to controversy or histrionics,  
delivered a wild, demagogic attack on classical Reform Judaism. (Kaufmann) Kohler’s  
(1885) Platform, he declared, was ‘the original sin of Reform Judaism.’  
Then, in urging the Conference to ‘repudiate it’ in the places of  
its origin, he attacked the teachers, architecture and convictions of every  
expression of Reform Judaism from David Einhorn to Stephen Wise with such vehemence  
that even party leaders from the Haredi camp could have been pleased, if not  
stunned. Even social justice, the calling card of Reform Judaism for decades,  
was savagely ripped apart as insincere, bloodless and un-Jewish by Wolf. When  
he finished, scores of rabbis jumped to their feet and howled their approval  
and pleasure. The self-hatred of some Reform rabbis, the unwillingness to deal  
in an affirming way with the movement’s past, and contempt for Reform’s  
current sociology was manifest and overwhelming."  

Universalist Agenda  

During the summer of 1999, a group initiated by Rabbi Jay Brickman of Milwaukee,  
a contributor to Issues, responded to these developments by adopting  
what it declared to be a "Jewish Universalist Agenda" (JUA).  

It affirms "the reality and oneness of God" and states that "the  
Jewish people is bound to God by an eternal covenant." With regard to the  
Bible it declares that, "We affirm that the Bible is the foundation of  
Jewish life. We cherish the truths revealed in the Bible, God’s revelation  
to our people and the record of our relationship with God. We affirm the value  
of studying Hebrew. We feel the use of Hebrew in the liturgy should be limited,  
and the words understood by the majority of participants."  

Concerning the Jewish people, the declaration states: "We, the Jewish  
people aspire to holiness. We were selected through our ancient covenant and  
our unique history among the nations to be witnesses to God’s presence.  
We are linked by that covenant and that history to all Jews in every age and  
place...We pledge to fulfill Reform Judaism’s historic commitment to the  
complete equality of women and men as to rights and responsibilities in Jewish  
life. We believe in an outreach program to intermarried families. We believe  
that we must not only open doors for those ready to enter our faith, but must  
also actively encourage those who are seeking a spiritual home to find it in  
Judaism...We are committed to extending moral and financial support to Israel,  
and rejoice in its accomplishments...."  

Explicitly Theological  

One of those who participated in developing this agenda is Professor Paul Gottfried  
of Elizabethtown College in Elizabethtown, Pennsylvania, a frequent contributor  
to Issues. He argues that, "Reform Judaism can and should be more  
explicitly theological and stop mimicking those Unitarians who chatter about  
how the world gets better every day in every day." He points out that he  
and Rabbi Brickman followed the Pittsburgh Platform of 1885 "selectively,"  
and expresses the view that, "Much of that platform is full of questionable  
liberal Protestant concepts about human progress and the evolution away from  
an objective Deity toward one that phases into some kind of individual consciousness.  
While we readily accept the Classical Reform attempt to move away from Jewish  
tribalism and to distinguish prophetic and biblical Judaism from later Rabbinic  
accretions, there is no reason to have to buy what seems time-bounded late nineteenth  
century liberal religion, be it Jewish or Christian."  

In a letter to Issues (Summer 1999), Rabbi Brickman responds to an article  
by Ralph Dombrower ("Can Classical Reform Judaism Be Revived in the 21st  
Century?" Issues, Spring 1999). He writes: "The affirmations  
by which Mr. Dombrower defines Reform...do not in any way differentiate Judaism  
from Ethical Culture or Unitarianism...My quarrel with the ethnicity factor  
is that it has been stressed at the expense of our religious orientation. That  
there is and should be a natural affinity between Jews is not only an essential  
element of traditional teaching, but one that was not challenged by most early  
leaders of Reform."  

Dombrower Response  

Following is Ralph Dombrower’s response to Rabbi Brickman’s letter  
and his comments on the recently adopted Jewish Universalist Agenda.  

To the Editor:  

This is my response to Rabbi Jay R. Brickman’s letter published in  
the Summer 1999
Issues, and continues some exchanges I have had recently  
with Rabbi Brickman who is one of the founders of the new Jewish Universalist  
Agenda (JUA).

Our major difference centers on whether or not the new JUA can claim to  
promote the philosophy of the Pittsburgh Platform of 1885 and, therefore, consider  
itself to be renewed Classical Reform Judaism. Closely related differences between  
us are: whether or not the 1885 Pittsburgh Platform produced a valueless, stripped-down,  
non-comforting "Unitarian type" religion; what those who accept the  
Pittsburgh Platform as their doctrine should believe about morality; the extent  
to which the Bible should be accepted and acted upon by Classical Reform Jews.

Having no formal credentials but only the viewpoint of a "Seasoned  
Citizen," veteran Classical Reform Jew re-acting from my back pew in my  
ghost Classical Reform temple of the past, my challenge to a distinguished rabbi  
may be considered by readers a difficult one to sustain. Nevertheless, in the  
clash of ideas it is the ideas themselves which must take precedence.

Pittsburgh Platform  

The Pittsburgh Platform of 1885 was not accepted throughout the Reform movement  
by a single religion-wide vote. For many years, there was much debate and disagreement  
about the pronouncement. There is, however, solid evidence that the platform,  
in fact, was gradually, but fully, accepted by Classical Reform Jews. It became  
so important that it was considered the official document that had to be abolished  
to make way for the Platform of 1937—the start of the slide down the slippery  
slope of Reform’s neo-Orthodoxy of today.

The men who created the Pittsburgh Platform in one brief succinct statement  
showed Judaism a way out of ancient and contemporary physical and mental ghettos,  
and a way to adapt Jewish circumstance to the new, swiftly evolving and spreading  
scholarly theories about humanity. Considering their time period, these Pittsburgh  
pioneers had ventured into newly-charted waters of the latest worldwide philosophical  
and religious intellectual search. They carved out a rational, definitive plan  
for blending American Reform Judaism into the wondrous new religious and philosophical  
enlightenment being woven into the fabric of world-wide discovery.

Like a tidal wave, enlightenment swept through all Western religious and  
academic centers—first across Western Europe, then across the religious  
and scholastic centers in the United States.

Classical Reform  

Classical Reform Judaism as defined by the 1885 Pittsburgh Platform became  
a part of this tidal wave of enlightenment. The finest minds of two of the great  
Western cultural and religious traditions, Judaism and Christianity, using the  
same knowledge of the day, not unexpectedly came to parallel conclusions. Thus,  
many traditional and Orthodox Jewish theologians display disdain for some of  
Classical Reform’s tenets, chiefly because they parallel the tenets of  
other enlightened religions and philosophies that also relegate old ritual and  
doctrine to obscurity.

I think the argument that Classical Reform Judaism is not able to survive  
because it is too much like certain other "unworthy" religions deserves  
further scrutiny. Rabbi Brickman, in his Summer 1999
Issues response  
about our exchange wonders "what remains when these elements are stripped  
away," and believes that his perception of "what remains" does  
not "in any way differentiate Judaism from Ethical Culture or Unitarianism."  
It seems that this approach fails to conceive that any religion, including a  
revived Classical Reform Judaism, concentrated on substance rather than form,  
could flourish and be meaningful to its followers.

Examination of the JUA’s principles makes it apparent that Rabbi Brickman  
and his colleagues are far removed from Classical Reform Judaism. They seem  
to infer that those of the Jewish faith have a contractual partnership with  
God in a trade of land for privilege with obligations. While in JUA‘s statement  
of philosophy, it allows for rejection of ancient and subsequent Rabbinic or  
Legislative law, the JUA Principles do not similarly allow for the questioning  
of Biblical formulations about the structure and location of God, or about God  
making a covenant with a particular group of human beings. Hence my assertion  
that Rabbi Brickman is something of a Biblical Fundamentalist.

Progressive Religion  

By contrast, the 1885 Pittsburgh Platform recognizes that "truth"  
may not be the same today as it was in ancient times, and may be different tomorrow  
than it is today. In its Plank Number 6 it specifically terms its version of  
Judaism "...a progressive religion, ever striving to be in accord with  
the postulates of reason." There are no "walls" rejecting acceptance  
of modern empirical thought and scientific reasoning. The Pittsburgh Platform  
frees its followers to accept whatever evolved from the unbounded expanse of  
the free human intelligent, logical and rational mind.

The JUA, it seems, maintains a rigid dogma about God, a Covenant, and Jewish  
Peoplehood. Its inclusion in its root religious doctrine of the declaration,  
"We are committed to extending moral and financial support to Israel, and  
rejoice in its accomplishments" seems to be a benchmark, 180 degree divergence  
of this new movement from the Pittsburgh Platform of 1885 and Classical Reform  
Judaism. This overlooks the important fact that many mainstream Reform Jews  
are disenchanted with trends in the Union of American Hebrew Congregations not  
only which reflect "Orthodox creep," but also because they believe  
their status as Americans is threatened by the desire of a large majority of  
the Reform rabbinical group that each Reform Jew seriously consider giving up  
American citizenship and permanently immigrating to Israel.

Immigration Hope  

A realistic vision can contemplate the 324 Reform rabbis who voted into  
their Principles this wholesale immigration hope, spread across the nation,  
teaching and defining Judaism to other religious groups, to school and college  
students, to civic groups and Rotary clubs—with concern for and identification  
with Israel on the tip of their tongues, hence voicing their deeply heartfelt  
desire that their congregants seriously consider abandoning their friends, neighbors,  
business associates, home towns and the nation, and permanently emigrating to  
Israel. What do Rabbi Brickman and his colleagues specifically have to say to  
Americans of Jewish religious persuasion who think that the Israel connection  
has gone so far afield that it is threatening their well-being in the United  

Paragraph seven of the 1885 document could not more clearly show how remote  
the JUA position about Israel is from that of Classical Reform Judaism. Classical  
Reform, according to that document, is "a religious community"—"no  
longer a nation, but a religious community." Jews concerned that mainstream  
Reform rabbis may corrode their status as Americans should carefully consider  
whether or not JUA’s Principles about Israel portends JUA’s ability  
to assuage their concerns. That JUA principle is certainly at odds with Classical  
Reform Judaism.

Is history to repeat itself as the JUA claims association with Classical  
Reform Judaism and the Pittsburgh Platform, then immediately starts the dilution  
process for JUA followers right on the new group’s launchpad? Will those  
who want to build a new Classical Reform Judaism see to it that Orthodox baggage  
is checked outside the new entity’s gate? Will they recognize, finally,  
that Classical Reform Judaism is a meaningful, comforting, mind-expanding and  
full-serving religion?

Ralph Dombrower  



Those who would like to receive further information about the Jewish Universalist  
Agenda are invited to write to Rabbi Jay Brickman, 8041 N. Linksway, Milwaukee,  
Wisconsin 53217 or Professor Paul Gottfried, Elizabethtown College, 1 Alphra  
Drive, Elizabethtown, Pennsylvania 17022.  

Those who are interested in pioneering an independent fellowship for Classical  
Reform Jews who want to consider readopting the Pittsburgh Platform of 1885  
and return to the doctrine of the original Reform movement are invited to contact  
Ralph Dombrower, Box One, Richmond, Virginia 23218. E-Mail: rdombrower@juno.com.  

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