It's an old joke that if you ask four different rabbis the same question, you'll get five different answers.
Still, the 18 distinguished rabbis who gathered in Pittsburgh for four days in 1885 agreed upon eight basic principles and signed a document called the Pittsburgh Platform, which summarized the universal principles of Reform Judaism.
Yesterday, a blue-and-gold historical marker that celebrates this meeting of remarkable, reform-minded rabbis was unveiled on the North Side on Stockton Avenue. The marker is adjacent to a public city pool and just east of the intersection of East and South Commons streets.
Rodef Shalom Congregation in Oakland hosted that historic meeting of rabbis and the first public reading of the document. Yesterday, Rabbi Aaron Bisno, senior rabbi at Rodef Shalom, and Mike Coleman, president of the Allegheny City Society, unveiled the marker.
The Pittsburgh Platform, Rabbi Bisno said, was "Reform Judaism's declaration of independence" and reflected a high level of optimism among American Jews.
For the first time, he said, the one-page agreement identified Judaism as a religion, not as a nation, and also encouraged ecumenical dialogue among Jews, Christians and Muslims. The document's eighth principle broke new ground because it urged Jews to effect social justice by helping the poor. The Pittsburgh Platform emphasized the progressive nature of Reform Judaism, a movement brought to the U.S. by German-speaking Jews who were eager to assimilate.
Liturgical changes began sweeping American Jewish congregations during the last half of the 19th century. In the 1860s, Rabbi Isaac Meyer Wise, an influential scholar, advocated reforms in Jewish liturgy and visited numerous congregations, including those in Pittsburgh. By 1864, Rodef Shalom Congregation in Pittsburgh, founded as an Orthodox synagogue, adopted his recommendations.
As a result, women no longer sat in a separate gallery; instead, families sat together. Men removed their hats. An organ was introduced into the service on the Sabbath. The reader turned from the ark, which holds the Torah scrolls that contain the five books of Moses, to face the congregation and read rather than chanted prayers.
In 1870, Rabbi Lippman Mayer, a passionate proponent of service to humanity, was called to lead Rodef Shalom. His charitable activities included organizing a Young Men's Hebrew Association and starting a manual training school with English instruction for Russian immigrant boys. He also promoted ecumenism by speaking at liberal Protestant churches.
In the 21st century, Reform Judaism has continued to evolve. This year, the Central Conference of American Rabbis is publishing a new prayer book for Reform Jews that encompasses traditional Hebrew, transliteration of that ancient language and commentary upon the text by various scholars. With more than 1.5 million members, Reform Jews comprise the largest Jewish religious group in North America.
But participating in services is just one aspect of Reform Judaism.
"For a tremendous number of Reform Jews, a commitment to social justice and social action is their religion," Rabbi Bisno said, adding that that's why many members of his congregation tutor, volunteer, make sandwiches or fight for causes like the ongoing conflict in Darfur, a region of Africa's Sudan.
Reform Jews, Rabbi Bisno said, believe fervently in "tikkun olam," a phrase that means "repair the world."
"That's become all but synonymous with their religious identity," he said.
Marylynne Pitz can be reached at email@example.com or 412-263-1648.