Wednesday, July 12, 2006

Below is a post MahRabu wrote over at his blog. I haven't figured out a good way to formate a point-by-point response so i will leave ben's comments in plain text, the platform in numbered text, text ben quote's in italics, and my text in bold. I know it's confusing but i think it will work.
The Pittsburgh Platform (founding document of American "Classical Reform", adopted in 1885) often gets a bad rap, especially from people like me. But, to be fair, a lot of stuff in there is pretty good. For the rest of this post, I'm going to go through the Pittsburgh Platform section by section and comment on it. These comments will be primarily on the text itself, and not on the implementation. The Reform movement's implementation has had some problems; as Gates of Prayer itself admits on page 324, "Our failings are many -- our faults are great." But I'm not going to focus on the failings of Classical Reform in execution; beating a dead horse is considered rude. In a later post, I'll write about how the contemporary Reform movement fails to live up to its own ideals (which, on paper, are swell).
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.
So right off the bat, God is described as both transcendent ("the Infinite") and immanent ("the indwelling of God in [hu]man[kind]"), and there is a hint here (which I'm surprised isn't more than a hint) of exclusive monotheism -- all religions are experiencing the same God, even though the language is different.
This sounds somewhat like religious relatavism. I like the way that this is embracing of other religious forms. It is somewhat troubling that this doesn't leave open the possibility that some books are not in fact attempting the same basic thing. This first claim is rather reminiscent of the core teachings of Bahai. from wikepedia:
Fundamental to Bahá'í teachings are the principles of the oneness of God, the oneness of religion, and the oneness of humanity. These principles have a profound impact on the theological and social teachings of this religion.
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.
Judaism's conception of the God-idea (God is One, we are created in God's image, etc.) is pretty cool. But is it "the highest" (holy brothers and sisters, mamash gevalt)? I don't think I've studied other religions enough to make that claim, nor do I think there's a point in trying to pick a winner. But it's good enough for me to stick with.
I think it is important to reject religious supremecy. On this point, we are in agreement.

Mordecai Kaplan devotes Chapter IX of Judaism as a Civilization (which, apparently, no one reads anymore -- there are no Google hits for "Religious-Culturist" or "Secular-Culturist" outside of Mah Rabu) to a "Critique of the Reformist Version of Judaism". (He insists on "Reformist" for grammatical reasons, because "Reform" as an adjective is only correct in the original German. In a footnote he says "The term 'Progressive Judaism' would have been a more exact equivalent of 'Reform Judentum.' 'Liberal Judaism,' if not a happier designation, is at least good English.") Don't worry - "Neo-Orthodoxy" gets its own critique too. (Kaplan doesn't recognize Conservative Judaism as a coherent religious philosophy in its own right; he says that those who identify as "Conservative" are basically either Reformist or Neo-Orthodox. Plus ca change.)

Some of Kaplan's critiques are dead-on, but are more directed at the implementation of 1930s (and earlier) Reform Judaism than at the concept. But he also addresses the statement in the Pittsburgh Platform under discussion:

Reformism admits that the God-idea, as taught in Scripture, has always been "developed and spiritualized by the Jewish teachers, in accordance with the moral and philosophical progress of their respective ages." If this be true, then it was not always the Jews who evolved the most spiritual conception of God. On the contrary, they found it necessary to bring their traditional teachings in line with the moral and philosophical progress achieved by others. Such progress, according to the Reformist way of thinking, necessarily involves a better understanding of what God means and a deeper insight into his [sic] nature. The conclusion is therefore inescapable that there were frequent periods in the history of the God-idea when the Jews had to learn from the Gentiles.

So yeah, I'm not into the Jewish superiority part. But I'm still into the Jewish "God-idea".

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.
This is an important point. On the surface it sounds like the opening sentence of a Federation appeal, until you realize that the thing that has been kept alive for all these centuries through all these tribulations, and is implied to be worth preserving, is not "the Jewish people" or "Jewish identity" or "Jewish continuity" or even "Judaism", but the "central religious truth" of monotheism. Jews are a vehicle for preserving the essence of Judaism; Judaism is not a vehicle for making Jewish babies.
I agree that it sounds a lot like a federation appeal. The idea that our vision of monotheism is the central religious truth for the human race is way too extreme for me. if there was to be a central univeral religious truth it would be primarily moral in nature. there is little connection between monotheism and not killing, raping, or beating people. insofar as there is a connection i suspect that it doesn't go the direction the pittsburghers would like. The central contribution of any system of thought should be in the behavior it fosters and communities it creates. I suppose this puts me in the recon camp.
2. We recognize in the Bible the record of the consecration of the Jewish people to 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 doctrines 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.
Call me impolitic but the bible isn't the most "potent insturment of religious instruction", it probably isn't even a good insturment. The second sentence, though quite long, is one i can get behind, well done late 19th century reform jews!

I would expand this beyond the Bible to include rabbinic and later Jewish "instruments of religious and moral instruction" (up to the present), but I agree with everything here. Here they say that the science-vs-religion debate doesn't have to be a debate: obviously, the classic works were wrong about a few things (including, I would add, some things outside the "domain of nature and history" and more in the domain of "religious and moral instruction"), but the big picture is strong enough that dismissing these things doesn't invalidate it. They also foreshadow the Slifkin affair.
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.

We are not able to suffeciently anticipate which practices will have significance and meaning in various time periods to come, and it seems that we need a braod framiliarity with jewish life, practice, and historical practice to be able to make informed choices. Suggesting we make decesions about relevance without a two-way procedure (things exit and re-enter the system) setup the decades in which we lost more and more aspects of our legacy. I find Zalman's idea about shabbat, that we ought to all spend a year celebrating it in the orthodox style and then improvise on that to be a good starting point for how to engage with parts of jewish practice that are not fundamentally offensive.

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.
These sections may be the most frequently quoted parts of the Pittsburgh Platform. ("only such ceremonies as elevate and sanctify" has 71 Google hits, and "diet, priestly purity, and dress" has 105. In contrast, "highest conception of the God-idea" has 34, and "contrasts and evils of the present organization of society" has 36.) It's not surprising; it's human nature to focus on the elements that more people disagree about. These sections are quoted by contemporary Reform Jews explaining how the movement has changed, and they play a central role in the Conservative creation myth.

But even though I'm one of those contemporary Reform Jews (albeit an expatriate one) who disagrees with these sections, I'm going to be fair and say that I only half-disagree. These sections can be restated as a syllogism:

Major premise: If X does not "elevate and sanctify our lives" and "is apt rather to obstruct than to further modern spiritual elevation", then X should be rejected.
Minor premise: "Mosaic and rabbinical laws as regulate diet, priestly purity, and dress" do not "elevate and sanctify our lives" and "their observance in our days is apt rather to obstruct than to further modern spiritual elevation".
Conclusion: "Mosaic and rabbinical laws as regulate diet, priestly purity, and dress" should be rejected.

So I agree with the major premise, and merely disagree with the minor premise (and therefore with the conclusion). I agree that "ceremonies" have value if and only if they inspire us to be better people (whereas following "moral laws" ipso facto makes us better people).
However, I think that some of the practices that Classical Reform rejected do in fact qualify under this test, and are therefore worth keeping around (and evolving).
If laws and practices are neither necessary morally or necessarily immoral then another test is necessary, one primarily of happiness, wellbeing, balance, etc. Do these practices improve our lives?
I won't say that they were wrong about what their "present mental and spiritual state" was in 1885; they would know that better than I would. But times have changed. In 1885, they faced a choice between maintaining particularistic Jewish practices and being full members of American society. In 2006, now that the melting pot has given way to the salad bowl, we can do both without contradiction. And before we trash the Classical Reformers for making the choice that they did, we should thank them for making our lifestyle possible. They did what they had to do to become fully American, and as mainstream American society expanded to include Jews, it became more multicultural, so that we no longer have to make the same choices.

I wish Classical Reform had been more self-reflective, and, over time, applied its methodology to itself. For me, "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" is an excellent description of prayer services with responsive readings and choirs. If Classical Reform still took itself seriously, then these elements would be axed in favor of practices more in line with "the views and habits of modern civilization".
Stong point!
Instead, Classical Reform has become a small-o orthodoxy, maintaining its practices for the sake of tradition.
[Irony noted]
For this reason, people have their directions all wrong when they label proponents of kashrut, Hebrew, etc. (such as myself), as the "right wing" of Reform. The "right wing" is those who hold onto antiquated practices (organ music, sexism, whatever) because that's the way we've done it, while the "left wing" is those who recognize the necessity of evolving and adapting to changing circumstances.

So anyway, even if the implementation went bad, I agree with the major premise that ritual practices cannot be seen as ends in themselves and must serve a greater goal, and should be rejected if they obstruct that goal.
I agree. Now what about the large proportion of jewish halacha and minhag which doesn't obstruct the moral goals nor lead people closer to them?
This position should not be mistaken for the straw-man position that each individual should be determining his/her own practice in a vacuum (rather, the way that ritual practices can "elevate and sanctify our lives" is often in the context of a community), or for the straw-man position that individuals/communities should determine their practice by picking and choosing individual practices from a list (rather, these practices can better "further modern spiritual elevation" when they are part of a coherent system, whatever that system is). I'm not actually making any claims here about the process by which it should be determined which practices are to be observed and how, but only about a goal that should be kept in mind during that process.
5. We recognize, in the modern era of universal culture of heart and intellect, the approaching of the realization of Israel s 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.
Ok, here's one where they messed up. In my Tisha B'Av post last year, I pointed out that they were far too optimistic about how close we are to "the establishment of the kingdom of truth, justice, and peace". (They weren't alone. Physicists of that time also thought they were almost done discovering the physical laws of the universe.) It's going to take longer than we initially thought.

As Kaplan points out in his critique, both the paradigms of "nation" and "religious community" are too narrow to describe the Jews; I won't belabor this point, since the synthesis has long since killed off the thesis and the antithesis as Kaplan's "civilization" paradigm became mainstream. Nor will I belabor the reasons why "a return to Palestine" turned out to be necessary and a good thing. (I'll cut them some slack, since they were writing before the Dreyfus affair. I don't think anybody anticipated the breach of the levees.)

As for "a sacrificial worship under the sons of Aaron", I think they just didn't get the joke. Of course no one really wants to physically rebuild the Temple and start slaughtering animals in it. But that's not the point. It's a metaphor, which their literalist reading failed to pick up.

Well, i stand with the pittsburgh posse in their opposition to the various crazy extremists who are trying to blow up the dome of the rock and resume that spaces fuctioning as the apex of a sacrificial cult.
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.

Great! No argument there. While the Jews have a mission to redeem the world, this mission is not limited to the Jews.
Yes, but, this seems to imply that we have a greater knowledge of moral truth than other folks and that the closer religions are to judaism, the better sense they have of what is true. this is deeply offensive and one of the main reasons so muhc bloodshed exists around religion.
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.
This sounds nice, but I have no idea what it means. Maybe it made sense in 1885.
its not clear what epistemological principle was utilized to come to the conclusion that the soul is immortal nor is it clear which logical principle guided them to the conclusion based on that premise.
We reject as ideas not rooted in Judaism, the beliefs both in bodily resurrection and in Gehenna and Eden (Hell and Paradise) as abodes for everlasting punishment and reward.
Oh snap! Not only are these beliefs false, but to add insult to injury, they're "not rooted in Judaism". As I said under #1, (Kaplan and) I think that being rooted in Judaism is neither necessary nor sufficient for a belief to be correct or worthwhile.
And the rest of the text of the Pittsburgh Platform seems to suggest that its authors would in general agree, so this zinger may be a bit disingenuous, but it's a point worth making anyway. And I still agree with their rejection of bodily resurrection and of heaven and hell.

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.

Word. This part is the punch line. Just like the Mishneh Torah (its rationalist predecessor), the Pittsburgh Platform begins with the "God-idea" and ends with the establishment of a just society. The purpose of religion is to get from one to the other. The Pittsburgh Platform and the Mishneh Torah don't agree on much in between, and what I would put in between differs from both. But I respect our differences about the intermediate steps as long as we agree on the end goal -- both the final goal of a world redeemed and the preliminary objective of preparing ourselves to act toward that goal (whether we accomplish that objective through ritual practice or by other means)

(Kaplan questions how much the Reform movement of his day was actually practicing what it preached. In a scathing endnote, he writes "Committees have been appointed and resolutions drawn up bearing on the strife between capital and labor. The Union Prayer-Book ... contains a trenchant statement on the question to be recited once a year. All these measures are, however, about as potent as whistling at a thundering express train. The frequent appeals for cooperation between workers and employers are mere verbiage. 'Cooperation toward what?' it has been asked. Each has his dominant objective: The employer asks for cooperation toward increased production; the worker toward increased wages. Just what, then, is implied in the appeal to cooperate?" Since then, the Reform movement has gotten better about this, though no one should stop where they are.)
look forward to a post later this week along these lines.

In conclusion, let's keep working towards "the establishment of the kingdom of truth, justice, and peace", even if it's farther away than we thought, and let's do what we need to do to "elevate and sanctify our lives" so that we can accomplish this.


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