Article Commentary on the Principles for Reform Judaism

Commentary on the Principles for Reform Judaism

Oct. 27, 2004

On the three occasions. Each of the previous formulations of Reform principles was occasioned by a perceived crisis in American Judaism. Most of the 15 rabbis who met in Pittsburgh felt an overwhelming desire to make a clear distinction between themselves and the growing Conservative movement on one side, and the growth of Ethical Culture on the other. While Isaac Mayer Wise of Cincinnati had hoped to draw all American Jews together, writing a nearly traditional prayer book in Hebrew with English translation, Kaufmann Kohler and the other more radical Reformers on the East Coast preferred a prayer book primarily in English. The promulgation of the Pittsburgh Platform in 1885, which Wise called a “Declaration of Independence,” contributed to the separation of Reform and Conservatism. While the framers of the Columbus Platform and the Centenary Perspective intended their documents to supercede the 1885 Pittsburgh Platform, the 1885 condemnation of Torah laws which “regulate diet, priestly purity and dress” continued to convey to many Reform Jews throughout the twentieth century the belief that some observances were “off limits” to them.

The major elements of the 1885 Pittsburgh text which led to the need for a new document were its rejection of “a return to Palestine,” its celebration of “the modern era of universal culture of heart and intellect, ” its preference for the phrase “God-idea” in place of “God” and the absence of any positive mention of specific Jewish observances. By 1937, the immigration of more traditional Jews from Eastern Europe had overwhelmed the more acculturated German Jews, changing the face of Reform Jewish practice. With the rise of Nazism and with the political necessity of a Jewish homeland more and more apparent, the CCAR (which came into being six years after the Pittsburgh Platform), created in the 1937 Columbus Platform, written largely by Samuel S. Cohon, a document which addressed many of the lacunae in the 1885 Statement.

With the Second World War a memory but the effects of the Holocaust palpable to Jews around the world, the CCAR leadership felt a need to address the drastically changed conditions of the latter part of the 20th century. The relief over the outcome of the Six Day War of 1967 had been followed by the insecurity following the 1973 Yom Kippur War, fueling fears for world Jewry’s future, particularly considering the steeply rising rate of mixed marriage. The CCAR itself was wracked by a polarizing debate on whether to call on rabbis not to officiate at such ceremonies. After an abortive attempt to create a Platform based on papers written by a sampling of colleagues, Robert Kahn, President of the Conference, asked HUC-JIR Professor Eugene Borowitz to write a paper on the occasion of the 100th anniversary of the Union of American Hebrew Congregations (1875). Reflecting its time, the Centenary Perspective spoke of the need to secure the survival of the Jewish people, but confidently outlined what the Reform Movement had taught the Jewish world in its hundred years, and called on Reform Jews confront the differently perceived claims of Jewish tradition by “exercising their individual autonomy, choosing and creating on the basis of commitment and knowledge.” It led to the phrase “informed choice” which along with “autonomy” became the watchwords of Reform Judaism.

The onset of the 21st Century suggested to the leaders of the CCAR that a new statement of principles would be appropriate. The rise in mixed marriage and the embrace of Jews of patrilineal descent (children of one Jewish parent who were raised as Jews) had changed the demographics of the Reform Movement, contributing to a growing desire for increased learning, spiritual expression, and guidelines for Reform ideology. Women’s increased influence in the Movement (from three women ordained in 1976 the number had grown to over 250 by 1999) had changed much of the language and approach of Reform, and the Movement had pioneered in opening doors of Jewish life (including ordination) to gay and lesbian Jews. Despite all these changes, and the growing desire to build more study and observance into their lives, rejection of many observances by the 1885 Pittsburgh Platform continued to provoke tension between Reform Jews who agreed with that statement and those who wished to practice the rejected rites. The patrilineal decision had also increased tensions between Reform Jews and those in other movements, who felt that Reform had been callous to the practices of klal yisrael, the community of the Jewish people as a whole. Faced by all these factors, as well as a growing concern over the future of Reform Judaism in an Israel that seemed much more secure at century’s end than it did a generation earlier, the CCAR undertook a two-year process of discussion and consultation with its entire membership and with significant numbers of laypeople to create a new Statement of Principles. While earlier drafts focused the statement around Ten Principles, the draft finally adopted was organized around the themes of God, Torah and Israel, similar to Columbus and the Centenary Perspective. Pittsburgh was chosen as the site for the vote in the hopes that the name “Pittsburgh” would now be permanently associated with a document that showed how much the Movement had changed since 1885.

Dialogue. If “autonomy” was the key word of the Centenary Perspective, “dialogue” is the key word of the Pittsburgh Principles. While Pittsburgh 1885 relied on the language of Hegel (“the approaching of the realization of truth, justice and peace among all”) and Kant (exalting a “God-idea” and the binding nature only of the moral laws), the Pittsburgh Principles uses the language of dialogue (inspired by the early 20th century German Jewish philosopher Franz Rosenzweig): in the second paragraph of the Preamble (“innovation with tradition, diversity with commonality”, etc.), in the God section (“We encounter God’s presence, we respond to God daily”), the Torah section (“God’s ongoing revelation to our people and the record of our people’s ongoing relationship with God,” ” We are called to Torah, We are committed to the ongoing study of the whole array of mitzvot and to the fulfillment of those that address us”) and the Israel section (“We reach out to all Jews”). The preference for the language of dialogue over autonomy may also reflect the influence of the relational vocabulary typically preferred by women over the more “go-it-alone” language typically used by men.

Transform our lives. While Pittsburgh 1885, reflecting the optimism of its time, heralded “the modern era of universal culture of heart and intellect,” the Columbus Platform and Centenary Perspective took more critical views of contemporary society, based on the sobering experiences of the 20th century. Earlier drafts of the Pittsburgh Principles saw Judaism as “the scale by which we shall judge the modern world, ” and called on Reform Judaism to “transform through holiness the lives of individuals, the Jewish people and ultimately humanity.” While the framers of this document recognize the frequently corrosive aspects of a popular culture too often filled with violence and degrading language and imagery, they were also aware of elevating intellectual and artistic aspects of contemporary culture, as well as the importance of the freedom protected by North American political systems. Unable to celebrate Pittsburgh 1885’s “universal culture of art and intellect,” the CCAR in 1999 looked to Jewish learning and practice to elevate the lives of contemporary Jews to the plain of holiness.

K’dushah Holiness. The meaning of the Hebrew root Kof-dalet-shin is separateness, but in such classical citations as the Burning Bush (” The place on which you stand is holy ground”) and Isaiah’s vision (“Holy, Holy Holy is Adonai of Hosts”), the word takes on a sense of the unique presence of God, whose nature is separate, different, from human beings, yet who enables us to draw near. This document speaks of many ways in which we can draw near to God. Bringing the Godly into our lives can transform us from creatures defined by a secular, material, society into those who can fulfill our destiny as being shaped b’tzelem Elohim, in the image of God. (see below)


We affirm. Why affirm and not believe? A movement may affirm in that it teaches that something is right or true. Believe speaks of that which takes place within the individual. That a movement affirms a given statement or value does not mean that those who cannot or do not believe it are, ipso facto, outside the movement. Each resolution of the CCAR and each publication of a prayer book by the CCAR represents affirmation of values or truths. These principles follow those precedents as well as the precedents set by the earlier platforms.

The reality…of God. This contrasts especially with statements and affirmations regarding ideas of God or concepts of God. The 1999 affirmation of “the reality…of God” conveys the conviction that, beyond the word as symbol, in the current vernacular, “there is a there there.” Many find it easy to discuss God intelligently positing various attributes to God and making God the root of and reason for one value or another without necessarily believing that such a God exists. In that sense, the word “God” has a powerful emotive impact, and it may be used to add weight to a philosophical, ethical, political or social argument even if the speaker or writer does not feel the reality of God in his or her own life. This statement says that God’s existence is an ultimate source of “meaning and purpose” in the life of the Jew and the Jewish people.

Thus, while affirming “the reality…of God” might seem superfluous and obvious, it is not. Without “the reality…of God,” the sections on Torah and Israel rest solely on foundations of taste or majority vote or popular wisdom. “God’s ongoing revelation”, “our people’s ongoing relationship with God”, “God’s eternal love…” and [our being singled out] “to be witnesses to God’s presence” all are predicated on the reality of God. The clear implication of the Statement of Principles is that Torah and Israel take their significance from their source in God.

The emphasis on God’s reality in this document is another step away from a time when modern, educated, sophisticated Jews felt discomfort or embarrassment at taking God’s reality seriously. Likewise it grounds Jewish peoplehood, culture and teachings in the existence of God and God’s covenant with the Jewish people. The sacred texts of Judaism all point to the reality of God.

We affirm the…oneness of God. Judaism’s great emphasis on harmony and equilibrium (shalom) flows from the continuing affirmation of God’s oneness. Were there competing gods, competing sets of ultimate values all of which were authentic, multiple measures of right and wrong and good and evil, then the world would be, in its essence, a battleground. By insisting on the unity of God, the Jewish commitment to a universe and not a multiverse becomes possible and necessary. We understand that we may not always know the ultimate values or truths, but by rejecting the idea that there are ultimate values and truths of God that are in conflict, we create a model of unity and harmony. That model flows from the oneness of God.

One of the many possible meanings of “the…oneness of God” is uniqueness or singularity. We are taught that the Torah speaks in human language, which is the only language we know. Thus there are many precedents in Jewish teachings for noting that God’s love is not precisely love as we know it, God’s holiness not exactly holiness as we know it, and so on. Yet our tradition teaches that, in the words of Leviticus 19:2, “You shall be holy as I am holy.” God’s uniqueness does not imply that we cannot be “godly” in our deeds.

God’s oneness is affirmed also in the Shema, the central statement of Jewish belief. The Christian idea of a “God in three persons” has never fit the Jewish understanding of God’s unity, one of the fundamental reasons why “Jewish Christians” or “Messianic Jews” have never been considered believers in Judaism.

An eternal b’rit. Jewish tradition holds that at Mount Sinai God gave the Jewish people a covenant reaffirming the promise to Abraham (Genesis 15) of an eternal people and an eternal claim to the Land of Israel, to which was added the obligation to observe the mitzvot of the Torah. This b’rit is celebrated in many ways: on a boy’s eighth day with a b’rit milah, the covenant observed through the rite of circumcision, on a girl’s eighth day or other occasion with a b’rit bat (a covenant observed for a daughter; sometimes other terms are used), or around Shavuot at a young person’s Confirmation of the Jewish people’s vows at Sinai.

Creation, Revelation and Redemption. The Third Draft of the Principles used the following language: “Reform Judaism embraces the story of the Jewish people which tells of three great encounters with God: Creation, our redemption from Egypt and our standing together at Sinai. These encounters, re-enacted throughout the Jewish year, lead us to seek our own relationship with God, however different our beliefs, experiences and questions may be.” The prayers or blessings surrounding the Shema incorporate these three themes as aspects of God’s unifying presence in the world. Reform Jews interpret the phrase “standing together at Sinai” in different ways. For some, it is a metaphor expressing the belief that the Jewish people entered into a covenant with God together; for others it suggests the mystical experience of Jews receiving the Torah together. Some Reform Jews dislike the phrase entirely because it suggests a factual, geographic basis for an event which they see as primarily a spiritual reality. Despite these varied views, the Reform Movement created Confirmation as an opportunity for young Jews to receive Torah on Shavuot.

Even as we may differ in our understanding of the Divine presence. Reform Judaism does not command common belief. Judaism traditionally has permitted great latitude in conceiving of and speaking of God. This flows from the fact that one is not a Jew by virtue of accepting a particular belief as one is a Christian only if one affirms the divinity and messiahship of Jesus. Our tradition of midrash itself encourages the flow of imagination and exploration into the varying stories of God.

Reform Judaism recognizes that our “understanding of the Divine presence” is the result of the interaction of our texts, our informal tradition, our reason and our experience. Thus, because we have different experiences, because we exercise reason differently from one another, and because we understand texts differently, we may come to differing understandings of God.

There is room in Reform Judaism, then, for a variety of understandings of God’s reality, including individuals who are not sure whether they believe in God or think that they do not believe in God. Jews who are members of a movement that affirms God’s reality suggest by their membership that they are willing to continue to wrestle with that reality as befits their membership in the People Israel, from the Hebrew Yisrael which the Torah defines (Genesis 32:29) as “the one who wrestles with God and human beings and has prevailed.”

We affirm that every human being is created b’tzelem Elohim, in the image of God, and that therefore every human life is sacred. This is the foundation of the entire body of actions called mitzvot bein adam lachaveiro (sacred obligations to other human beings). The value of each individual does not have to be measured and judged. Because each individual reflects the image of God, that person has claims on us in terms of tzedek and tikkun olam.

The longstanding Reform Jewish commitment to social justice is based on this affirmation that every human being bears God’s image. Thus, while we may sometimes experience other human beings as distasteful or unworthy, the affirmation that each is a reflection of God’s image is the basis for their claim on our compassion, justice and generosity.

We owe them such qualities not because of their own merit, but because in dealing with them, it is as thought we were dealing with God.

We regard with reverence…

Most early American Reform prayerbooks retained the first paragraph of the Sh’ma (V’ahavta, “And thou shalt love…”) but removed the Second and most of the Third paragraphs. Some Reform congregations are now re-instituting these sections. The Second Paragraph (V’hayah im shamoa, “And if you listen to My mitzvot…”) states that there is a relationship between the faithfulness with which the Jewish people observes the mitzvot and the orderly conduct of nature. This statement in the Principles affirms our obligation to preserve and protect God’s creation, of which we are a part. Contemporary insights into the fragility of our environment underscore the traditional Jewish commitment to take care of God’s world.

We encounter God’s presence… God is experienced not only in the synagogue. This statement in the Principles urges us to become more sensitive to the many areas of life in which we may sense God’s presence. There are over a hundred blessings through which a Jew may celebrate God’s role in nature and human encounter. When we do mitzvot which help to bring justice to the world, the God who asked us to pursue justice is present; when we act with compassion (rachamim, in Hebrew) we encounter not only human beings but also HaRachaman, the Compassionate One who created us all.

We respond to God daily… While not all Reform Jews pray daily in a synagogue, most of us utter some prayer as we live our lives each day. Some Reform synagogues do offer regular daily prayers, but prayer need not be confined to the traditional times of Shacharit (morning), Minchah (afternoon), and Maariv (evening), times the rabbis believed were instituted by Abraham who arose early to do God’s will, Isaac, who prayed for love in the afternoon and Jacob, who encountered God in his evening dream.

Through study. We dialogue with God in daily life, but also in learning. Our ancestors’ encounters with God tumble out of our texts, and by studying them with a teacher, with family or friends, we can encounter God as well through our questioning, listening, arguing, searching – and finding. The importance of learning in pursuing the Godly life is suggested by the Talmudic comment (Shabbat 127a) that Torah study is equivalent to all the other mitzvot.

Mitzvot. The Hebrew root of this word is tzadei-vav-hei, usually translated “command.” Since its inception, the Reform Movement has wrestled with the classic notion of God commanding us – it seems so frontal, so authoritarian, so hierarchical. But if God is in dialogue with us, perhaps we hear God’s commands as though God were calling out to us, in words that a beloved human being in our lives might use, “It is very important to me that you do this” – awaiting our response. We may respond to many of these calls by taking on these sacred obligations, building them into our lives; to others we may respond, “We need to dialogue more.” To others we may respond, “I cannot do this act – in terms of my present moral or communal understanding it seems meaningless, or even wrong.” And perhaps God responds as our beloved might: “Let’s keep the conversation going.”

Bein Adam LaMakom. While early Reform Judaism divided the mitzvot into moral laws and ritual ones, the classic division is between mitzvot bein adam laMakom – mitzvot between human beings and God (literally, “The Place”) and mitzvot bein adam lachaveiro – between one human being and another. In the first category are such mitzvot as prayer, tallitt’fillinkashrut, many aspects of Shabbat and holidays, the avoidance of idolatry and blasphemy, the study of Torah. In the second category are such mitzvot as the obligation to give one’s employees rest on Shabbat, to do justice and kindness in the world, to treat workers fairly. But the Kabbalist Isaac Luria urged us to say before we begin to pray, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself,” and the mitzvah to remember that we were strangers in Egypt informs not only mitzvot to treat today’s strangers kindly, but also the mitzvah to remember that God freed us from Egypt. In adam lachaveiro, we see the tzelem Elohim, the image of God.

We strive for a faith that fortifies us through the vicissitudes of our lives… In life’s crises, some of us find the presence of God as a source of intensified comfort, strength and companionship. Others search for God’s presence in vain. Still others feel God as the very cause of their distress, and, in that distress, they may ask, “Why, God?” or they may accept what they understand as God’s will without complaint.

Thus, “we strive for a faith….” To contend that everyone finds that faith would be contrary to experience. To suggest that such a faith is beyond us or that we should not want it would be a denial of the experience of many. That “we strive for a faith that fortifies us” runs counter to a longtime undercurrent among some Reform Jews that such a faith was irrational, primitive, or pre-modern. This principle underscores and reinforces the much discussed and growing modern Jewish desire to make God part of life particularly in time of crisis. At the same time, we do not deny the experience of those who simply cannot find God in such times or who find God as the cause of crisis. This runs counter to the popular wisdom which says, “It is God’s will, and God has reasons, and we must accept it as such.” We are permitted and encouraged to “strive for a faith that fortifies us….”

Some may be fortified by accepting all things as God’s will, fulfilling a purpose that may take time to fathom, if we can ever fathom it. Some may be fortified by expressing anger at God rather than having to submit humbly to what pains them. Some may be fortified by a belief that God is limited in power, so that illness and death and loss do not come from God nor can God prevent them. Some may be fortified by a faith that God cares about them and suffers with them even when God, like a parent, cannot always make things better. The overwhelming thrust of the statement “We strive for a faith that fortifies us through the vicissitudes of our lives” is that we are permitted and encouraged to find faith that strengthens and comforts us rather than affirming that, as modern, sophisticated, educated Jews, we neither seek nor need faith.

While we search for God (or rail at God’s absence) during difficult times, we often neglect to recognize God’s presence in times of joy or healing. This Principle urges us to praise God for our blessings as well as praying to God when we – or the world – are in trouble.

Transgression and repentance. While Reform Judaism retained the Vidui (Confession of Sin) in the Yom Kippur liturgy and the prayer in the Weekday Amidah acknowledging our sins, we have sometimes been reticent to speak of sinfulness as part of our dialogue with God. But if we believe that God has given us mitzvot (sacred obligations), when we fail to meet the obligations to which we feel called (see the Torah section) we have committed a transgression, an aveirah in Hebrew. But if we can transgress (meaning, “cross the boundary”), we can also return to the boundary – to the path of Torah. That return is called t’shuvah in Hebrew, and it consists of changing our actions, confessing our wrong to God or to the person wronged, and making good any material loss which the person may have sustained. Our tradition believes that if we have done t’shuvah, God will respond by granting us kapparah or kippur, atonement. This is what this Principle means in stating that God does not abandon us in our transgression, and is with us in our repentance.

The unspeakable evils. Few Jews are unaware of the crimes perpetrated against us in the Twentieth Century and before – exile, expulsion, persecution, pogrom, the Holocaust; their memory evokes anguish and anger, and has caused many to doubt or deny the existence of God. Reform Judaism has always been keenly aware not only of Jewish suffering but of all of human suffering, and like all Jews, we have asked why. We have arrived at different answers, and we keep struggling to find the compelling one. But when we lift our sights, we realize that though too many individuals have perished, the Jewish people as an entity lives still, as God promised Abraham we would; the human race lives still, as God promised Noah it would. God created human beings, the rabbis argued, to be partners in perpetuating creation; though we often cannot clearly understand God’s purpose, Reform Judaism believes we need to persevere in our mission to help further God’s work on earth, so that the harmony proclaimed by the Shema will one day dawn for all people, as we proclaim in the Aleinu prayer: “On that day the Eternal will be One and God’s name will be One.”

We trust in our tradition’s promise that, although God created us as finite beings, the spirit within us is eternal. Immortality more than any other issue has involved a paradox. Each of the previous three platforms has affirmed the immortal spirit of the human being. In 1885, 1937, and 1976, the statements of Reform Judaism vary only in wording; that there is something of us that participates in God’s eternality is a constant refrain. At the same time, several generations of Reform Jews took as a matter of Reform Jewish faith the denial of any life after death beyond the naturalist concepts of living on in memory or in deeds. Clearly this was a function of the dominant philosophical and cultural climate in which Reform Jews lived and with which they identified. Some Reform Jews have tended to characterize certain areas of belief as either Christian or Orthodox Jewish. In either case, that rendered them outside the pale of Reform, though many longed for a comforting belief in a life that could transcend death.

As in the case of God’s role in time of crisis, the culture in which we live no longer presumes that immortality is unscientific, irrational or unbelievable. Reform Jews are now liberated from the constraints of a religion based solely on rationalism, or a limited understanding of science. But this principle says, “We trust in our tradition’s promise….” There is nothing new in the belief in the eternality of the spirit. “Our tradition” here is best understood both as the broad Jewish tradition and the stated if not always accepted Reform tradition. The Books of Ezekiel (37:1-14) and Daniel (12:2) suggest the possibility of a spiritual life beyond death, and the second prayer in the Amidah, the Gevurot, speaks of God’s “keeping faith with those who sleep in the dust,” echoing the passage from Daniel. An explicit belief in the soul’s immortality entered Judaism under the influence of the neo-Platonist Philo in the third century BCE. Regardless of what you may have heard, the promise of eternal life of the spirit is part and parcel of Reform Judaism. The reading or chanting at funerals of the El Malei Rachamim which is wholly about eternal life; the affirmation of chayei olam (eternal life) in the Torah blessings; the various meditations before the kaddish in all our movement’s prayer books – all of these are witness to Reform Judaism’s continuing affirmation of eternal life. In a movement where adapting and editing, not to mention deleting, “traditional” prayers is a given, the retention of such elements tells us that the idea of eternal life has “an eternal life” in our movement.

Further, “We trust in our tradition’s promise” is a statement of comfort and assurance. The Bible promises, “I shall not die but live” (Psalms 118:17), and the Reform prayer book tells us, “There is something of us that can never die.”

This principle, although in one sense a restatement of that which all three previous platforms affirmed, marks a great change because of the changed nature of the Reform Jewish community and its newly acknowledged needs. Most contemporary Reform Jews do not feel that their intellectual and scientific credentials are at issue. The religious issue is meaning in life and hope after life, not the need to make religion subservient to culture, science or some form of reason.


The foundation of Jewish life. What first set the Jewish people apart was the experience of receiving the Torah at Sinai, with mitzvot given only to us. Both the content of Torah and the experience of receiving it, celebrated at Shavuot (when the Reform ritual of Confirmation for young Jews occurs) are the basis for the uniqueness of the Jewish people, the festive days of our calendar, our moral laws and the conduct of our lives with God and each other. As Daniel Alexander wrote in the CCAR Journal (Winter 2000), this statement “undoes the privilege granted modernity by nineteenth-century Reformers.”

Truths. The plural suggests the Reform view that within Torah can be found a plethora of truths, but because Torah reflects God’s word mediated through human transcribers (Moses or anonymous scribes), not all of Torah may register as true in every age. The revelation of all that is true in Torah awaits the coming of the messianic age.

God’s ongoing revelation…our people’s ongoing relationship. The Centenary Perspective said that “Torah results from the relationship between God and the Jewish people.” The Pittsburgh Principles defined Torah as an ongoing dialogue between God’s continuing revelation and Israel’s continuing struggle to understand the ways of God, and to respond to God’s presence and God’s will. The Columbus Platform states that “revelation is a continuous process.” The Third Draft of the Principles states that “the Reform movement believes that changing times affect the way we understand the mitzvot” and “what may seem outdated in one age may be redemptive in another.” Using the word revelation reminds us that God has revealed truths to us; what we know, believe, and practice stem not only from our own thinking and experience, but insofar as they echo the truths of Torah, they also come from God.

Ahavat Olam. The prayer just before the Sh’ma, in the evening version, reads, “You loved us of the House of Israel an eternal love (ahavat olam); You taught us Torah and mitzvot, laws and judgments.” The rabbis taught that Torah was the ketubah, the marriage contract, between God and the Jewish people, laying out the details of our loving relationship with each other. While the early church, under Paul’s influence, tried to paint the Torah which Israel received as a harsh document full of restrictions , the Jewish people has understood it as a document of love. Thus, the tradition looks on Shabbat as an opportunity to spend a day experiencing the love of God who rested after creating our world.

Eternal love for the Jewish people. How can we believe, after exile and pogroms, after the Holocaust that God bears us eternal love? God promised Abraham and Sarah that the Jewish people would be as eternal as the stars in heaven, and despite these sufferings, we are still here– God is keeping that promise. Love is never a relationship, as the Union Prayer Book expressed it, of “happiness without alloy”– if individuals must suffer as a part of human existence, is not the same true for peoples? Abiding love can ease the pain, can encourage us that our suffering has some purpose, and makes all the sweeter the joy that comes when pain is past.

And for all humanity. How is Torah, given to Israel, a manifestation of God’s love for humanity? The rabbis believed that God really wanted to offer the Torah to the nations of the world, but they were not ready for it, and so they continued to be responsible only for the seven laws God gave to Adam and Eve and the descendants of Noah (prohibiting murder, idolatry, incest, stealing, cruelty to animals, blasphemy, and enjoining the creation of a legal system). But the prophets looked to the time when all nations would accept the Torah, and the early Reform Movement believed that we were dispersed around the world in order to teach Torah to the nations. When they accept it or incorporate its teachings into their own faiths, the universal applicability of the Torah’s teachings will become clear to all.

Studying Hebrew. Hebrew has long been called leshon hakodesh, “the holy language” or “the language of holiness.” Since Hebrew is the language of the Bible and other Jewish classical texts from Midrash and Talmud to the prayerbook, learning Hebrew helps us unlock the holiness present in those documents reflecting God’s relationship to the Jewish people.

We are called by Torah. Another example of the language of dialogue. The Torah scrolls in the ark, the Bible and sacred writings on our shelves call out to us, “read me, study me”– and when we hear the Torah read in the synagogue or study the volumes with a teacher or with friends, we respond to their call. It is not only children who need to learn– Torah was given to us all.

We are called to mitzvot. To study Torah– in its widest sense– is to encounter the mitzvot, the sacred obligations God asked our people to take on. In studying Exodus, for example, we come upon the mitzvah to observe Pesach, the Passover. How shall we respond to that call? Will we have/attend a Seder? Will we eat only matzah for that week? Will we re-enact what it meant to be a slave?

The means by which we make our lives holy. By taking on any of the sacred obligations, the mitzvot, we bring into our lives some of the k’dushah, the holiness which was present at Sinai when God asked us to do that mitzvah. Observing bar/bat mitzvah pictures or a wedding ring helps us experience the holiness of the event when the pictures were taken or the ring given. Observing one of the mitzvot given at Sinai, or reflecting on an event like the Exodus or the Creation, has a similar effect. The mitzvot also free us from limitations of calendar and clock time to let us celebrate our experience of all the millennia since the event of the mitzvah, and all the millennia of its celebrations yet to come.

The whole array of mitzvot. This paragraph reflects the most significant break from the Pittsburgh Platform. By committing ourselves to study “the whole array of mitzvot,” Reform Jews affirm that all the mitzvot of the Torah can call to us as they call to all Jews, though we may feel “addressed” by different ones at different times in our lives– – and by some perhaps not at all. When asked whether he put on tefillin Franz Rosenzweig is said to have responded, “Not yet,” implying that there is a difference between hearing the call of a mitzvah and being ready to respond to it in the affirmative.

As individuals and as a community. The experience of dialogue includes not only an individual’s response to a mitzvah but a community’s as well. For example, while only a few individuals in a synagogue may themselves keep kosher, they may vote for the synagogue kitchen to be kosher for a variety of reasons (that all Jews may feel comfortable eating there, to symbolize the members’ awareness that the mitzvot of kashrut appear in the Torah, to test out the experience of kashrut in a communal setting to see whether the mitzvot of dietary practice will call to them as individuals.).

Some of these mitzvot have long been observed by Reform Jews. We sometimes forget how many mitzvot have been followed by Reform Jews for two hundred years: faithfulness to the Hebrew calendar, some observance of Shabbat, festivals and minor holidays, Torah study, the obligation to pray according to the ancient outline of the service, most of the mitzvot involving ethical practices between human beings, and remedying the condition of the poor and otherwise disadvantaged.

Others, both ancient and modern, demand renewed attention. Where there used to be a number of Reform synagogues which forbade their worshipers to cover their heads or wear tallitot, more and more synagogues feel addressed “as a community” by these mitzvot, setting out kipot (head coverings) and tallitot for those who feel addressed “as individuals” to wear these garments, without requiring anyone to wear them. In a time when more and more people are using diet to express their beliefs, “our peoples’ ongoing relationship with God” makes an increasing number of Reform Jews look seriously at aspects of kashrut. The Third Draft of the Principles specifically mentioned kashrut, tallit, t’fillin, and mikveh (ritual immersion) to demonstrate the principle that there is no mitzvah barred to Reform Jews, even as the Reform movement does not compel the observance of any mitzvot. Implied in the word “modern,” is a desire to “introduce innovation while preserving tradition” (Preamble). An example of this might be extending dietary restrictions to animals raised under conditions violating tzar baalei chayim (inflicting pain on living creatures), or refraining from foods which demonstrate the oshek, oppression, of those who work the fields to harvest our foods. To study the mitzvah of shaatnez, calling us to examine garments for a forbidden linen and wool mixture, can lead us to examine labels for firms practicing oshek through sweatshop labor or payments of a sub-minimum wage. To study the mitzvah of mezuzah can call us to place mezuzot not only on our front doorpost but on the entrance to every room in our houses, dedicating each room to a holy purpose. Thus the livingroom mezuzah might contain texts on hachnasat orchim, welcoming travelers; the diningroom, texts on eating and blessing; the den, texts on learning; the bedroom, texts on love. In these ways modern Reform Jews can further integrate mitzvot bein adam laMakom and bein adam lachaveiro, blending spiritual concerns with increased learning and acts of social justice.

We bring Torah into the world. As God brought Torah to us through revelation, we continue the dialogue by bringing Torah into the world through our practice. Transforming our lives through k’dushah can begin when the week ends, culminating with Shabbat. As we contemplate Shabbat at the beginning of a new week, each day can encourage us to set aside thoughts, objects or actions that will bring out more of the holiness of the Seventh Day. Hence the Hebrew notion that Sunday is Yom Rishon (the first day toward Shabbat), Monday, Yom Sheni, the Second Day (toward Shabbat), etc. (See Gates of Shabbat, published by the CCAR, as well as Mishkan Moeid, discussing the High Holy Days and Festivals; and Navigating the Journey, life-cycle and other rituals.

We bring Torah into the world when we strive... We continue the dialogue of spreading Torah by working for tikkun olam (see below). To act publicly on Torah’s mandates for justice and compassion is to show the nations the kind of world that could be possible when human beings observe Torah. The phrase “the highest ethical mandates” echoes the Kantian language of the 1885 Pittsburgh Platform, reminding us that “the moral laws” have a universal dimension and are binding on the nations as well.

Tikun Olam, repairing the world. In the Aleinu prayer, dating from the Talmudic period, we ask God’s help I’taken olam b’malchut Shaddai, in repairing the word through the sovereignty of the Almighty, reflecting a God who established divine rule in the world through the mitzvot. The phrase also has kabbalistic overtones, echoing Isaac Luria’s belief that shortly after God created light, the vessels of the universe proved unable to contain it and shattered (shevirat hakelim, the breaking of the vessels), scattering the light through the physical world. To effect a repair of the world (tikun olam), he believed human beings need to fulfill the mitzvot which bring us into contact with that part of the natural world connected to the mitzvah (e.g., Shabbat candles or wine, a Pesach table, a suffering human being). Fulfilling that mitzvah liberates the spark (nitzotz) of light contained in the broken vessel (klipah) and the light returns to its source. In the latter part of the 20th Century, the Reform Movement appropriated this phrase to refer to acts of social justice which could help repair our broken world.

Messianic age. The 1885 Pittsburgh Platform rejected the traditional Jewish hope for an heir of King David to arise when the world was ready to acknowledge that heir as the one anointed (the original meaning of mashiach, anglicized into “messiah”). This firgure would rule in God’s name over all people and ultimately usher in a time of justice, truth and peace. In the Avot, the first prayer of the Amidah, Reformers changed the prayerbook’s hope for a go-el, a redeemer, to g’ulah, redemption. Originally this idea reflected the views of George Friedrich Hegel and the French positivist philosophers that society was growing ever more enlightened. The cataclysmic events of the first half of the 20th Century smashed that belief, and most Reform Jews saw the messianic age as a time that would probably be far off. Still, we renew our hope for it when we express the belief that Shabbat is mei-ein olam haba, a sampler of the world to come, when we sing about Elijah, herald of the messiah, when Havdalah brings Shabbat to a close, when we open the door for Elijah late in the Pesach Seder, and when we express the hope in the first paragraph of the Kaddish that God’s sovereignty will be established in our days.

People of other faiths. Both Pittsburgh 1885 and Columbus looked toward cooperation with people from other religions to accomplish our messianic aims. The Principles urges “joint action” as an intentional program of reaching out to others and accepting their outreach to us for cooperative activity to effectuate our dreams for human and environmental betterment.

Narrow the gap. There follows a specific list of actions urged upon Reform Jews and all other people to translate messianic hopes into specific deeds. The Reform Movement has historically been in the forefront of the struggle for social justice, in keeping with the call of the Biblical prophets to right society’s wrongs and “let justice roll down like waters and righteousness as a mighty stream” (Amos 5:24). As the prophets called for specific acts to bring this about, so has the Reform Movement since its inception. Economic justice and environmental repair are not just political causes, but ways to “bring Torah”– which translates the striving for righteousness into specific mitzvot–“into the world.”

Tzedakah. Literally translated as “justice,” the word tzedakah reflects the Biblical belief that giving to the poor is a way to right the imbalance between the affluent and the poor. It suggests that tzedakah is not a favor to the poor but their due, since it is not human beings but God who owns all things, and human beings are God’s agents in ensuring an equitable distribution of God’s property to all people. “There shall be no poor among you,” Deuteronomy (15:4) states, ruefully recognizing shortly thereafter (15:11) that because of a lack of human generosity, “the poor shall not cease from your midst.” Can we do better?


We are Israel. “Israel” is used in this document to refer to the People Israel, the Land of Israel and the State of Israel. The context usually indicates clearly which usage is intended. “Israel”, Yisrael in Hebrew, is defined in the story (Genesis 32:29) of Jacob wrestling with a divine being as the person who has “striven with God and with humans and prevailed.” Using “Israel” in the phrase “The Land of Israel” reminds us of the Bible’s teaching that the Land was promised to the descendants of Jacob by God, as a result of which the nation (the “First Commonwealth”) under David and Solomon was called Israel. When the Northern tribes split from the South after Solomon’s death, they retained the name Israel, leaving the South to name itself Judea, from which the name “Jew” emerged.. The Northern Kingdom of Israel was destroyed and its inhabitants scattered in exile; only the Southern Kingdom of Judea managed to return in 516 BCE (the “Second Commonwealth”, which was destroyed by the Romans in 70 CE.). When the Jewish State came into being in 1948 (the Third Jewish Commonwealth), its leaders decided to call it Israel, reclaiming the original tie between the people, the promise, and the land.

A people aspiring to holiness. Why not “a holy people”? In Leviticus 19:1, we are told, “k’doshim tihyu,” “You shall become holy,” for only God “is holy”. Our task is to acquire more and more holiness by the performance of mitzvot.

Singled out through our ancient covenant and our unique history among the nations to be witnesses to God’s presence. At Sinai God called us a segulah mikol ha-amim (Exodus 19:5) , a treasure from among all the peoples, and when we are called to the Torah or say Kiddush we praise God asher bachar banu mi-kol ha-amim, “who has chosen us from all people.” The Reform Movement has historically ascribed to the belief that Israel is a chosen people–not in the sense of being better than other peoples, but in the sense indicated here–chosen for a specific mission, to be a witness to the reality and oneness of God. The Book of Isaiah proclaims, “You are my witnesses, and My servant whom I have chosen, that you may know and believe Me” (Isaiah 43:10). This is the reason, the rabbis believed, that the two letters in the Hebrew word for witness (eyd) are enlarged when they appear in the Shema as written in the Torah (the letter ayin at the end of Shema and the letter dalet at the end of Echad). The Reform Movement has long believed that our dispersion throughout the world was a way to pursue “the mission of Israel” more effectively by modeling the truth of our calling to the nations among whom we lived. But “chosenness” need not imply exclusivity: to say that the People Israel has been chosen to bear witness to the reality and teachings of God does not deny that God may well have chosen other peoples for other sorts of missions in the world.

The mitzvah of ahavat Yisrael, love for the Jewish people. What Rabbi Akiba claimed was the most important mitzvah, “v’ahavta l’re-acha kamocha, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself,” (Leviticus 19:18) he understand “neighbor” to refer to “other Jews.” While Reform (and many other) Jews see “neighbor” in a wider perspective, such love must at least begin with love for our own people. Does this mean that we must love every Jew, no matter what s/he does? It suggests that because we are members of the same people, aware of our shared history and commitments, we possess an empathy with every Jew that pushes us to try to understand the motivations for that person’s actions before we judge them. It may also lead us to evaluate a Jew’s actions more strictly because of the covenant we share. This is a departure from the view of earlier Reform documents which implied no difference in our treatment of any human beings, and carries further the tension described in the 1976 Centenary Perspective: “A universal concern for humanity unaccompanied by a devotion to our particular people is self-destructive; a passion for our people without involvement in humankind contradicts what the prophets have meant to us. Judaism calls us simultaneously to universal and particular obligations.”

And to k’lal Yisrael, the entirety of the community of Israel. An affirmation of ahavat Yisrael leads to the realization that the Reform Movement is a part of the entire Jewish people, and that our actions and decisions affect the rest of world Jewry, as theirs affect us. Reform Judaism does not exist in a vacuum–our children go to school with Jewish children from other movements, their children will marry ours, they may decide to live in Israel or move from Israel to the Diaspora. When the Reform Movement affirmed patrilineal descent, it had a major impact on the rest of the Jewish world which did not recognize the child of only a Jewish father as Jewish. This sentence calls on us to take into account the effect that stands taken by the Reform Movement will have on the rest of the Jewish world–and on our own members as they interact with the rest of the Jewish world. This does not mean that we should avoid taking principled stands that are at odds with the rest of world Jewry–it does mean that we should make every effort to help other Jews understand the reasons for our decisions so they may better empathize with us, even as we need to empathize with the reasons for their opposition. But k’lal Yisrael is a two-sided commitment. Because all Jews have common problems, a commitment to k’lal Yisrael may also commit us to be more assertive in urging Jews in other movements to deal with our common problems through solutions that they may find more compatible than ours–but to deal with them, and not hide from them by merely attacking our solutions.

We reach out to all Jews across ideological and geographical boundaries. The last years of the 20th Century found Jews in different movements attacking each other on many different grounds. With the dawn of a new century there seemed to be a new desire to remind ourselves of the implications of ahavat Yisrael and of the belief that what happens to one group of Jews will affect them all–the view that “all Jews are responsible for one another” (literally, “all Jews are surety for one another”). Reform Jews since our inception have been concerned for the welfare of Jews in other countries, and have acted to improve their lot, to rescue those in peril, and to provide religious and educational resources for them. Similarly, we need to take the initiative to establish dialogue with Jews with whom we disagree. Waiting for our opponents to reach out to us denies us the opportunity to work for realization of the kind of intra-Jewish community we envision. Isolation from each other only increases suspicion, and so the more contact we have with each other, the more we will understand each other, and demonstrate what we as Reform Jews really stand for, rather than what those who do not know us imagine we stand for. The discussions that led to the passage of this Statement of Principles opened the eyes of many Jews in other movements as to the nature of Reform Jewish commitments. If we want those commitments to impact the rest of the Jewish world, we need to continue those conversations, and to seek opportunities to work, study and pray together.

The complete equality of women and men in Jewish life. Here is an area where increased dialogue with other movements can help to achieve this equality across the Jewish world. From Isaac Mayer Wise’s insistence that women be full members of congregations to the ordination and investiture of women as rabbis and cantors, the Reform Movement has been in the forefront of providing equal opportunities for women and men. While there is still much to be done to make sure that those opportunities are real and not only theoretical, we have much to be proud of. Reform–and all of Judaism–have gained immeasurably from the accomplishments and insights of the women who have come to occupy leadership roles in our Movement..

We are an inclusive community. Reform Judaism has always been committed to providing a home for all who seek Jewish experience, and as the variety of those seekers increases, Reform has tried to respond in ways appropriate to each community. This short catalogue of those to whom we wish to open doors is far from exhaustive–for example, it does not specifically mention Jews with disabilities, though many Reform synagogues have worked to make their facilities and their programs accessible. In voting in March of 2000 to support rabbis who officiated at same gender unions and those who did not, the CCAR took another step to extend to gay and lesbian Jews the same religious benefits available to other Jews. This movement has been enriched by those who have converted to Judaism, a number of whom have gone on to become active laypeople, rabbis, cantors and educators, and the UAHC’s Outreach program has gained wide approbation for its encouragement of mixed families who wish to establish Jewish homes and raise their children as Jews.

To actively encourage those who are seeking a spiritual home to find it in Judaism. A few years before he retired as President of the UAHC, Rabbi Alexander Schindler, called for Jews to bring information about Judaism to Gentiles who had not found religious satisfaction in the faith of their own upbringing. The New Testament notes that the rabbis at the beginning of the Common Era were very assertive in encouraging Gentiles to adopt Judaism, a practice that the Church itself brought to an end by making proselytism by Jews a capital offense. Freed from those shackles, we should be able to share the truth and beauty we have found in Judaism with those who are seeking religious fulfillment–so long as we do not emulate the tactics of the proselytizers who have so hounded us over the years. Respect for a person’s upbringing, a pluralistic understanding that truth may be approached in many different ways, a restrained approach that does not use guilt or fear, should be the hallmarks of any attempt to interest non-Jews in an exploration of Jewish belief, learning and practice.

The creation of homes rich in Jewish learning and observance. The inspiration for this call to “support individuals and families” to create such homes came from a discussion with Reform Jewish college students who spoke movingly of their struggle to find Jewish mates in the midst of communities both preponderantly non-Jewish and overwhelmingly opposed to erecting any barriers to marriage. Reform needs to assist these young people in finding the Jewish mates they seek, even as we encourage non-Jewish partners to convert or, if they are not ready, to work with their Jewish partners to establish a Jewish home.

Making the synagogue central. The Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion and the UAHC, alone and in cooperation with Synagogue 2000, have developed a number of programs to make the synagogue a vibrant place of learning, worship and service. This work is crucial if the synagogue is to become the instrument to “transform our lives through kedushah, holiness,” which will entitle it to become the central address of the Jewish community.

We are committed to  Medinat Yisrael, the State of Israel. In May 1997, the CCAR passed a Platform on Reform Zionism which extensively described the involvement of the Reform Movement in the life and destiny of the State of Israel. Most of the passages in this section of the Statement of Principles are drawn from that document.

And encourage aliyah, immigration to Israel. This is the language of the Platform on Reform Zionism. It aroused controversy at the time of the passing of the Statement of Principles because some rabbis and laypeople felt it might compromise Reform’s historic commitment to living a full Jewish life in the Diaspora as well. But “encourage” can mean nothing more than giving emotional and financial support to those who wish to make aliyah. In that sense, it is merely a synonym for “support,” which some people preferred. Certainly if we are committed to establishing a strong Reform Jewish presence in the State of Israel, we need to encourage others who share this commitment to make it a reality by living there. A later paragraph in this section makes it clear that Reform sees Israel and the Diaspora as equally strong, vital, interdependent communities.

A vision of the State of Israel. Our commitment to the State also implies a commitment to helping it realize values which we as liberal Jews hold dear–peace with her neighbors and full civil, human and religious rights for all citizens, Jews, Muslims, Christians and others. Whether or not we or those dear to us are living there, our “commitment” to the State should impel us to work with those in and outside the Land to achieve the vision of a society in which Reform Jewish values and practices can help create a better life for all. Peace, of course, does not merely mean the signing of peace treaties, as much as we have longed for that, but for the establishment of political, economic and cultural relations with Israel’s neighbors which can create a peace which will enhance the lives of all the citizens of the region.

Strengthening Progressive Judaism in Israel. Progressive Judaism is not only a vision; it needs the reality of rabbis, cantors, educators, and knowledgeable lay leaders, appropriate synagogues and other facilities, well-supported programs of education and outreach. Through these Principles, the CCAR hopes to encourage Reform and Progressive Jews throughout the world to commit themselves personally and financially to help the growing Progressive Movement, with all its talented professionals and lay members, to continue to attract Israelis seeking a meaningful way to transform their own secular lives–and the life of the State itself–through kedushah.

Hebrew as a living language. In the Torah section of the Principles, learning Hebrew was stressed as a way to “draw closer to our people’s sacred texts.” But Reform Jews also need to learn the Hebrew language of modern Israel as a way to draw closer to our people who live there and to the land they are building. By spending significant time in Israel, learning to converse with Israelis and read their newspapers and their literature, we enable Israel to infuse more Jewish awareness in our lives and those of our children, and help us play a more informed role in the development of the State and its religious future.

Israeli Jews have much to learn from the religious life of Diaspora Jewish communities. The interdependence of Israel and the Diaspora is clearly shown in the religious sphere. While the religious life of Diaspora Jews has been deepened without measure by religious and cultural developments in Israel, the influence has been a two-way street. The experience of the most vibrant Reform synagogues in North America, of our liturgy and educational systems, has contributed much to the development of Progressive Judaism in Israel, which in turn is starting to transform the religious life of the Jewish State. Equality between women and men, inclusiveness of gays and lesbians, accessibility for those with physical, emotional or developmental disabilities–all these are lessons that Israelis can learn from us.

Furthering Progressive Judaism throughout the World. As Jews throughout Europe continue to repopulate countries which have for so long been hostile to us, the Reform Movement has a growing role to play in the establishment of creative Jewish communities built on the ruins of the Holocaust and the Communist empire. In South Africa, Australia and Western Europe, interest is also growing in the approaches of Progressive Judaism. To meet this challenge, we must encourage more serious young Jews, and older Jews who wish to move into more fulfilling professions to consider the rabbinate, cantorate and Jewish education so that Jewish communities around the world may find the leadership they need to serve God in the way they believe is right. The early Reformers saw our dispersion among the nations as an opportunity to fulfill a worldwide mission of Israel; now that mission calls us to bring to Jews around the world the truths of God’s reality, of the mitzvot and other teachings of Torah, and the nurturing community of the People Israel.


May our words find expression in holy actions. It is appropriate that a religious document, which looks to the infusion of kedushah, holiness, in our lives, should conclude with a prayer that we be successful in accomplishing that difficult goal.. Though the composition and passing of the Pittsburgh Principles was itself a major accomplishment, it will ultimately be for naught if it does not become a spur for Reform Jews to examine our beliefs and practices, to dedicate ourselves to ongoing, serious Jewish learning, and to a lifelong dialogue with God, with the Torah, and with the People Israel. This commentary is intended to encourage all Reform Jews to enter into dialogue with the statements of the Pittsburgh Principles, and to resolve to use them to enhance the kedushah of their lives wherever they may dwell. Ken yehi ratzon–May it be God’s will that we succeed.