Rev. Mendes Sensed the Threat Posed by the Pittsburgh Platform

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I received the following email from our good friend Eugene Normand after the publication of my article in the Va'ad newsletter (the previous post) Reprinted with Eugene's permission:

Rabbi Meyers

I just read your Dvar Torah on the Vaad page, “A Rededication is in Order” and want to complement you on it. I like the way you wove in some of the underlying ideas of the Pittsburgh Platform of the Reform Jewish movement in the US with parshat Hukat. I am familiar with the Pittsburgh Platform of 1885, but didn’t know about the amended version of it that came out more than 110 years later.

At SBH I have made it a practice on the jahrzeit of one of my parents to give a biographical sketch of a prominent Jewish personality, one who most people may not know too much about. My father’s meldado is two days after Shavuot and this year, just a few weeks ago, I spoke on Rev. Henry Pereira Mendes, minister of Shearith Israel in New York from about 1878-1918.

Rev. Mendes was very much aware of the Pittsburgh Platform and the challenge it represented, which was one of the reasons that led him to found two important Jewish institutions, the Jewish Theological Seminary (JTS) and the Union of Orthodox Jewish Congregations (OU). The JTS was established in 1888, and it opened up as an institution for training Orthodox rabbis, its first graduate was Rabbi Joseph Hertz. However, within ten years it veered off (especially after Solomon Schechter arrived) and so Rev. Mendes dropped his support of it. You might say the Yeshiva Universality was a more successful follow-on institution to JTS that got it right and kept to its original principles.

In about 1898 Rev. Mendes, along with his cousin, Rev. de Sola, the rabbi in Montreal, was instrumental in founding the OU and Rev. Mendes was the President of the OU for its first 10-15 years. Although born in the UK, he viewed the Pittsburgh Platform as a great threat to the continuity of Orthodox Judaism in the US, and so he sought ways of strengthening traditional Judaism through new but necessary institutions.

What this shows is that at least one rabbi of a Sephardic synagogue in the US, living through the era of the Pittsburgh Platform, recognized its dangers and did something about it. You use the philosophical side of the Platform to show how to avoid its rejection of traditional values and at the same time strengthen those traditional values.

Eugene Normand

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Guest Tuesday, 20 February 2018