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Van Valkenburg 1
Katie Sue Van Valkenburg
Professor Filler
Religion 331
October 27, 2012
The Necessary Reformation of American Judaism
After years of discrimination in countries across the globe, many Jewish people came
across the ocean to settle in “The land of the free”. Once in America, Jews found practicing
the demanding and specific halakh of Judaism difficult due to the overwhelming inclination
of Americans to have priorities other than observation of religion. In addition, most Jews
discovered practices had become outdated. Mordecai Kaplan, author of Judaism as a
Civilization, argues Judaism in modern America is an economic and social handicap. This
results in a necessary reform of the Jewish institution as to allow for the preservation of the
ancient tradition in America, an idea also reflected in the Pittsburgh Platform of 1885 and the
Columbus Platform of 1937.
When Jewish families migrated to the United States, they came from places of severe
oppression and discrimination because of their religious beliefs. Upon their arrival, many
Jews were surprised to receive equal political rights as every other American. Yet Jews
suffered a major social and economic handicap as they attempted to assimilate into the
culture, for modern thought completely clashes with the ideals of traditional Judaism. Such
required a reformation of the tradition. Kaplan describes the situation as “The intellectual
challenge today is thus quite without precedent, and Judaism has no experience wherewith to
meet it” (Kaplan, 37). He lists overarching factors that have changed from medieval thinking
to modern thinking: the tendency to apply the scientific method to uncover truth and the
belief that human welfare is considered the most effective judgment of goodwill (Kaplan,
Van Valkenburg 2
36). Combining the scientific method with Judaism was an obstacle Reform Judaism was
forced to tackle as scientists try to debunk the Jewish belief in the Genesis. In fact,
modernists have disclosed that traditional accounts of Jewish history are “nothing but a
construct of the popular and uncritical imagination” (Kaplan, 42). The Columbus Platform
acknowledges that problem and states, “Modern discoveries of scientific research in domain
of nature and history are not antagonistic to the doctrines of Judaism, the Bible reflect[s] the
primitive ideas of its own age” (Columbus Platform). Therefore, Jews are to understand
scientific discoveries as separate entities from their religious doctrines. The Columbus
Platform also states “Reform Judaism recognizes the principle of progressive development in
religion and consciously applies this principle to spiritual as well as to cultural and social
life” (Columbus Platform). In regards to modernists’ view on human welfare as the deciding
factor of goodwill, the Columbus Platform states that in “Judaism religion and morality blend
into an indissoluble unity” (Columbus Platform). Jews should not reach out to others purely
to demonstrate goodwill, they should seek to love each other in order to more fully love God,
for it is the will of God.
Even though the modernist ideals attempt to pull apart Judaism, both Kaplan and the
reform platforms encourage cohesion within the Jewish population of America so that the
tradition continues amongst other religious practices. Kaplan is clear that the unanimity
occurs not due to a realization of other world salvation, as with traditional Judaism, but that
unity occurs because of a common entity of simply being Jewish, out of which a mutual
attachment is formed (Kaplan, 47). Only through this unity will Judaism be passed down
among generations. The Columbus Platform mirrors the sentiment, focusing on how Judaism
is “the historical religious experience of the Jewish people…its message is universal, aiming
Van Valkenburg 3
at the union of perfection of mankind under the sovereignty of God” (Columbus Platform).
Traditional Judaism is completely focused on the union of Jews under the umbrella idea that
they must bond based on their ultimate salvation in the after life. With the migration to
America, where Christianity abounds, Judaism experiences a shift to a concentration on
Judaism being the “highest conception of the Godidea as taught in Holy Scripture and
developed and spiritualized by the Jewish teachers, in accordance with the moral and
philosophical progress of their respective ages” (Pittsburgh Platform). No mention of
spiritual salvation is made, demonstrating a swing in attention to maintaining union between
Jews instead of a focus on the after life. In addition, the remembrance of the Godidea is what
unites Jews, not salvation (Pittsburgh Platform). To unite Jews, there is also a shift in the
communion. Most Jewish gatherings customarily occur in synagogues. With the transition to
America, Jews follow in the footsteps of other religious organizations in the development of
community centers. Kaplan explains the phenomena, stating, “before 1918, the very term
Jewish center was scarcely known in the vocabulary of Jewish life. Since then, Jewish
centers have been springing up in every Jewish community” (Kaplan, 51). A clear example is
the foundation of the Young Men’s Hebrew Association, an adaption of the Young Men’s
Christian Association. The goal of the center was to provide a safe place to establish a Jewish
culture, not study Torah. But through the establishment of such communities and
continuation of some Jewish practices, the culture was able to survive in the New World.
The most radical change to Judaism as the religion came to America was in the
appreciation of the Hebrew Bible. Kaplan explains that the Torah in the States is regarded as
“the product of a long historical process implying that its teachings cannot be more than a
reflection of the moral and spiritual attainments of its authors” (Kaplan, 44). In addition,
Van Valkenburg 4
many of the practices are considered outdated, such as women’s roles in society. As Jewish
families tried to assimilate to American culture, there were many obstacles in doing so due to
the set laws of the Torah. Also, according to Kaplan, “no provision is contained in the
traditional interpretation of the Torah for any abrogation by any power on earth” (Kaplan,
45). Such set laws intimidated the practicing Jews as they struggled to balance living a
Jewish life and working in an American culture. Both reform platforms saw this concern,
both agreeing that the Torah must be appreciated, but in continuous revelations of the
Hebrew Bible, not just set laws. The Pittsburgh Platform firmly supports the assimilation of
Jews into American culture in throwing away most practices, proclaiming, “Rabbinical laws
as regulate diet, priestly purity and dress originated under the influence of ideas [are] entirely
foreign to our present and mental state. Their observance in our days is apt rather to obstruct
than to further modern spiritual elevation” (Pittsburgh Platform). Even though tradition
emphasizes constant study of the Torah and strict adherence, in America such has become
antiquated. The Columbus Platform echoes this statement, with “Being products of historical
processes, certain of its laws have lost their binding force with the passing of the conditions
that called them forth” (Columbus Platform). In order to most effectively accept the
American culture while not totally losing the Jewish heritage, steps must be taken to modify
the ancient tradition to fit Industrial American culture, and “each age has the obligation to
adapt the teachings of the Torah to its basic needs in consonance with the genius of Judaism”
(Columbus Platform). Therefore, a reform of the traditions was necessary in order to most
effectively join society and maintain Jewish heritage. And through the acknowledgement that
the Torah is still the basis of Jewish culture, Jews are simply creating new traditions amidst a
new world and traditions.
Van Valkenburg 5
America is often marketed as the home to religious tolerance, and while that is true
politically, there were still many injustices to people of different cultures in the early 20th
century as many people came across the ocean to the States. The Jewish people specifically
had to undergo a radical transformation from being conservative studiers of the Torah to
modern Jewish Americans in the thick of the Industrial Revolution. But with the reformation
of Judaism, Jewish families were able to assimilate into American culture.