Reforming Reform: 2. The ‘Platform,’ ‘Principles,’ and Cafeteria Judaism

As I wrote in my first post, the question of the reasons for the commandments, ta’amei hamitzvot, has been a central issue in the historical evolution of Judaism from the middle ages till today.

In the 19th century, Reform, influenced by the European Age of Reason, took up the idea that if a ritual mitzvah didn’t serve a rational purpose, it should no longer be observed. Kaufmann Kohler enshrined these ideas in the 1885 Pittsburgh Platform of Reform Judaism. Here are key passages on reasons for the mitzvot:

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 rabbinical 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.

For classical Reformers, then, only the ethical mitzvot were lasting commandments from God. The purpose of the ritual mitzvot is spiritual elevation, and when times change and the customs are not spiritually inspiring they are to be altered or dropped.

I think there are serious problems with the Pittsburgh Platform, but I have great admiration for its courage and clarity. In the years since the Pittsburgh Platform, the distinction between ritual and ethical mitzvot was preserved, but the grounds for ritual practice became more individualistic, and less rationalist.

The Pittsburgh Platform had explicitly planted its flag in the rationalist camp, saying “We recognize in Judaism a progressive religion, ever striving to be in accord with the postulates of reason.” Further, it is clear from the “we” in every clause that the movement expects Reform Jews will rally to one standard, specified by the movement.

Starting in the 1960’s Reform, along with the rest of America, started to become more individualistic. Rabbi Eugene Borowitz, the leading Reform theologian, championed individual choice, or ‘autonomy’ as a key feature of Reform. Thus it was up to each individual Reform Jew to decide what rituals were meaningful for him or her. This individualism was qualified in Borowitz, but what spoke most loudly to the laity was the message of autonomy.

The 1885 optimism about what reason could accomplish was shattered by the terrible events of the following sixty years. American Jews were also influenced by the emotionalism of the 1960s and later, in which the standard was no longer a faculty of ‘reason’ but an even more problematic standard of ‘feelings’ that were to make decisions for us.

By 1999, the time of the Reform Movement’s ‘Pittsburgh Principles,’ the status of mitzvot had quite changed. The change of title from ‘Platform’ to ‘Principles’ is an indication that Reform no longer really knew where it stood. Where the ‘Platform’ was clear, concise, and vigorous, (see above) the ‘Principles’ waffles: “We are committed to the ongoing study of the whole array of mitzvot and to the fulfillment of those that address us as individuals and as a community. Some of these mitzvot, sacred obligations, have long been observed by Reform Jews; others, both ancient and modern, demand renewed attention as the result of the unique context of our own times.” In other words: “You’re on your own, buster.”

The impression of wooliness in the ‘Principles’ is confirmed by the book A Vision of Holiness (2005), by Rabbi Richard N. Levy, one of the writers of the ‘Principles.’ It proposes abolishing the Reform distinction in status between ethical and ritual mitzvot. In the context of the emphasis on feelings and autonomy, this has the unintended consequence that praying with tefillin and committing murder are both on the same level as a matter of personal taste and choice. ‘Reasons for the mitzvot’ have almost vanished.

In effect, Reform philosophy has now become “Cafeteria Judaism,” where each person picks the traditional mitzvot that he or she likes, or creatively makes his or her own. The advantage of this approach is that it is welcoming to people of almost all views. The disadvantage is that it provides little guidance or inspiration. It offers little guidance because it is almost all pick-and-choose, with few directives. It provides little inspiration, because it has drained the mitzvot of their traditional meaning, without providing any new, credible basis.

Rabbi Jacobs, the new head of URJ here has rightly emphasized the need to inspire current and potential members of Reform synagogues. This I believe is not only a matter of how synagogues reach out, but what they reach out with. To use a commercial analogy, there is a problem with the product, and not just how to sell the product. We need to reform Reform, so that it gives more guidance and inspiration to people. What reforms can strengthen Reform, I will discuss in upcoming posts.

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William Berkson

About William Berkson

William Berkson's is author of Pirke Avot: Timeless Wisdom for Modern Life (Jewish Publication Society 2010), He is Director of the Jewish Institute for Youth and Family,, and lead developer of its Becoming a Mentsh courses on Jewish values for teens. He is also designer of the typeface Williams Caslon Text (Font Bureau, 2010).

4 Responses to “Reforming Reform: 2. The ‘Platform,’ ‘Principles,’ and Cafeteria Judaism”

  1. Larry Kaufman

    The clarity of the Platform vs. the wooliness of the Principles is explained in part by the first having a handful of signatories acting as individuals where the second emanates from a large organization with the political need to maintain consensus (aka membership).

    To the Platform’s credit, it set an agenda and a direction that created a dominant brand which tended to obscure the pockets in the Reform movement that did not adhere.

    The Principles, on the other hand, reflected the way the brand had evolved, and described a reality rather than trying to create one. That evolution was as much amcha driven as was it was rabbi driven — Borowitz’s stress on autonomy built on the recognition that Jews were going to do what Jews were going to do, and that it was better to applaud them for their choices than to scold them. I.e.. don’t legislate what you can’t enforce.

    Moreover, one basic change in the need the movement had to fill, as formulated for me by my teacher Rabbi Fred Schwartz z”l, was the the 1885 rabbis were trying to help Jews be Americans, where the 1999 rabbis (and their predecessors in the Centenary Perspective) were trying to help Americans be Jews.

    Finally, and perhaps you will expand on this in future posts: how much of the new direction you call for is top down, and how much bottom up? You characterize P1885 as expecting us to rally to one standard (which even Orthodoxy has found impossible). As I have suggested before, Jews are going to do what Jews are going to do, and congregation needs to role model a set of practices that its constituency will find palatable. (Note that I use the word constituency rather than members — as Rabbi Jacobs has reminded us, we have to look beyond the prevalent membership model.) One role for the movement (and very specifically the movement, not the Union) is to provide resources to help congregations inspire more people to participate in doing Jewish things, ritual as well as ethical.

  2. William Berkson

    Larry, I like the insight of your teacher Rabbi Schwartz. You characterize the 1999 Principles as having “described a reality rather than trying to create one.” My translation: “We accept the status quo and aren’t going to risk rocking the boat by attempting to lead to anything new.” The only problem was, the boat was leaking, and the status quo needed changing.

    I am not under any delusion that the central authorities at the URJ can enforce their views on Reform Jews, either rabbis or laity. But they can play a leadership role in developing new ideas and guidelines. I am sure that for these to actually effect change, the ideas and guidelines have to be developed in an interaction between the top of the URJ and the synagogues, the clergy and the laity. How exactly to do this is an important question. Thank you for raising it! I will raise it again later, and by that time I hope you have some good ideas to suggest!

  3. Larry Kaufman

    One of the things I have observed vis a vis change in the Reform movement is that it is catalyzed by new ordinees pushing their seniors to reclaim a ritual, and the reluctant senior finds out that more people like it than hate it. Hakafa is a typical example. A more recent hiddush (innovation) is counting the Omer. The laity weren’t asking it, but they’re also not finding it objectionable, as long as they’re not also asked to observe the prohibitions that historically went along with the counting.

    You omit one key element when you say changes must come from interaction among URJ, synagogues, clergy and laity — academia, i.e., HUC. And that’s students as well as professors. And somewhere camps fit into this picture.

  4. William Berkson

    Yes, Larry, quite right, I should have included HUC. But the clergy will have to come and mix it up with the laity, such as commenting on this series—hint, hint.

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