Reform Judaism (North America)
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|Beliefs and practices|
Together with Orthodox Judaism, Reform Judaism is the largest denomination of American Jews today. With an estimated 670,000 members, it also accounts for the largest number of Jews affiliated with Progressive Judaism worldwide. It was founded by Rabbi Isaac M. Wise in Cincinnati, Ohio in the mid-1800s.
- 1 Reform Jewish theology
- 2 Development of United States Reform Judaism
- 3 Organizations
- 4 Orthodox criticism
- 5 Status in Israel
- 6 Footnotes
- 7 Bibliography
- 8 External links
Reform Jewish theology
Rabbi W. Gunther Plaut writes "there is no such thing as a Jewish theological principle, policy, or doctrine." This is because Reform Judaism affirms "the fundamental principle of Liberalism: that the individual will approach this body of mitzvot and minhagim [“commandments" and “customary laws"] in the spirit of freedom and choice. Traditionally Israel started with harut, the commandment engraved upon the Tablets, which then became freedom. The Reform Jew starts with herut, the freedom to decide what will be harut - engraved upon the personal Tablets of his life."
Reform Judaism has always promoted monotheism. This belief is reaffirmed in its new statement of principles. In recent decades, however, a minority of Reform rabbis and laity have come to affirm various beliefs, including deism. At least one edition of the former official American Reform prayerbook, Gates of Prayer, The New Union Prayerbook, is predominantly theistic, but also includes a service that omits all references to God in English while retaining them in Hebrew (pp. 204–218).
The Reform movement has had a number of official platforms. The first was the 1885 Declaration of Principles, the Pittsburgh Platform. The next platform was written in 1937 by the Reform movement's Central Conference of American Rabbis (CCAR). The CCAR rewrote its principles in 1976 with its Centenary Perspective and rewrote them again in the 1999 A Statement of Principles for Reform Judaism. While original drafts of the 1999 statement called for Reform Jews to consider re-adopting some traditional practices on a voluntary basis, later drafts removed most of these suggestions. The final version is thus similar to the 1976 statement. According to the CCAR, personal autonomy still has precedence over these platforms.
Reform Judaism's position on Jewish law
The classical approach of Reform Judaism towards halakha was based on the views of Rabbi Samuel Holdheim (1806–1860), leader of Reform Judaism in Germany, and other reformers. Holdheim believed that Reform Judaism should be based solely upon monotheism and morality. Almost everything connected with Jewish ritual law and custom was of the ancient past, and thus no longer appropriate for Jews to follow in the modern era. This approach was the dominant form of Reform Judaism from its creation until the 1940s. Since the 1940s, the American Reform movement has continued to change, sometimes evolving in what appears to be a traditional direction. Many Reform congregations use more Hebrew in their religious services and are incorporating aspects of laws and customs, in a selective fashion, into their lives. This is a departure from the classical Reform position in favor of more traditional Judaism.
Even those in the traditionalist wing of Reform Judaism still accept that the primary principle of classical Reform is personal autonomy. Autonomy has precedence over Jewish tradition; halakha has no binding authority for Reform rabbis. The difference between the classical Reformers and the Reform traditionalists is that the traditionalists feel that the default position towards choosing to follow any particular practice should be one of acceptance, rather than rejection. While representing a minority, this group has influenced the new Reform statement of principles, which states that "We are committed to the ongoing study of the whole array of 'mitzvot' and to the fulfillment of those that address us as individuals and as a community."
Currently, some Reform rabbis promote following elements of halakha, and developed the concept of Progressive Halakhah. For instance, the American Rabbi Walter Jacob, the Israeli Rabbi Moshe Zemer and the British Liberal Rabbi John D. Rayner believe in many parts of traditional Jewish theology, but take present developments and valuations of ethics and law into consideration. Others actively discourage the adoption of more traditional practices or beliefs, because they believe that this is not in the ethos of the Reform movement. Both encouraging or discouraging practices stipulated by halakha are considered acceptable positions within Reform. (See also, the various positions within contemporary Judaism as regards Halakha.)
Jewish identity and inter-religious marriages
Despite a 1973 Central Conference of American Rabbis resolution opposing the performance of interfaith weddings by its members, the CCAR does not formally forbid its members from officiating at interreligious marriages. This appears consistent with Reform's belief in autonomy for members and clergy. Recent surveys by the Rabbinic Center for Research and Counseling show that 40% of CCAR Reform rabbis now perform some form of intermarriages, though 60% will not officiate at intermarriages at all. This is an important consideration for many Reform Jews, since a number of Reform Jews are intermarried. However, the great majority of Reform rabbis who perform intermarriages will only officiate at weddings where the non-Jewish spouse is undertaking conversion to Judaism, and where both parents agree to maintain a Jewish home and to raise their children with a Jewish identity.
Reform Judaism accepts the child of one Jewish parent (father or mother) as Jewish if the parents raise the child with a Jewish identity. In Reform's 1983 proclamation, "The Status of Children of Mixed Marriages", it states that allowing patrilineal Jewish descent is based on Biblical and Rabbinic Judaism, claiming that purely matrilineal Jewish descent was first taught during Talmudic times (Kiddushin 68b). In any event, children with one Jewish parent are considered to be Jewish only if they have been raised in that identity. Since the concept of inclusion is vital to the Reform movement, Reform rabbis encourage participation of Gentiles and actively support those pursuing the conversion process. Conversion of non-Jews to Reform Judaism is therefore higher than in other Jewish denominations, where the practice is either discouraged or essentially non-existent.
The Reform movement fully accepts gay and lesbian members. Some Reform clergy perform wedding or commitment ceremonies for Jewish gay and lesbian couples when allowed by law in that jurisdiction.
View of Zionism
In the 19th century and the first half of the 20th century, Reform Judaism rejected the Biblical idea that Jews would re-create a Jewish state in their ancestral homeland. They rejected the idea that there would be a messiah, and that the Temple in Jerusalem would be rebuilt, or that one day animal sacrifices would be re-established in a rebuilt Temple, in accord with a traditional, literal interpretation of the Hebrew Bible.
Reform Judaism rejected the biblical notion that the Jews were in exile (galut) from their God-given land. Instead, they suggested that dispersion of Jews among the nations was a necessary experience in the realization and execution of the people's duty. Instead, the people Israel was viewed as the Messianic people, appointed to spread by its fortitude and loyalty the monotheistic truth and morality over all the earth, to be an example of rectitude to all others. For Reform Jews, all forms of Jewish law and custom were seen as bound up with the national political conception of Israel's destiny, and thus they were dispensable.
Reform Judaism ceased to declare Jews to be in galut; the modern Jews in United States or Europe believe that they had no reason to feel that the countries in which they lived were "a strange land" (eretz nokhriyah, cf. Exodus 2:22). The Reformist ideology went so far as to say that prayers for the resumption of a Jewish homeland were incompatible with desiring to be a citizen of a nation (i.e., Germany (historically) or America (presently)). Thus, the Reformers implied that for a German, French, American, or Babylonian Jew to pray from the original siddur was tantamount to dual loyalty, if not outright treason. In the U.S., Reform intellectuals argued that their commitment to the principles of equal rights and the separation of religion and state precluded them from supporting the late nineteenth century Jewish nationalist concepts embodied in Zionism, but this did not affect their continuing support for the betterment of world Jewry in general.
Since the Holocaust and the establishment of the modern State of Israel, in 1948, Reform Judaism has repudiated anti-Zionism. Anti-Zionist Reform rabbis broke away during WWII to found the American Council for Judaism, which declined in activity following the Six Day War. Some Reform Jews have chosen to make aliyah (move to Israel), and consequently, some kibbutzim have affiliated themselves with the Israeli Reform movement. The Reform movement also sends thousands of youth and college-age students to Israel every year on summer and year-long programs, including Birthright Israel. All rabbinical and cantorial students and many education students at the Hebrew Union College, the American Reform seminary, must spend the first year of their studies in Israel. They are expected to absorb the language and culture and become familiar with biblical geography. The Reform movement in the United States works closely with the Israeli Reform movement.
Many Reform congregations hold Confirmation ceremonies as a way of marking the festival of Shavuot and the decision of young adults to embrace Jewish study in their lives and reaffirm their commitment to the Covenant. The confirmands represent "the first fruits of each year's harvest. They represent the hope and promise of tomorrow." Confirmation is typically held in tenth grade after a year of study, but some synagogues celebrate it in other years of high school. While Confirmation is a group experience, Reform Judaism celebrates an individual child's spiritual coming-of-age with becoming a Bar Mitzvah for boys or a Bat Mitzvah for girls at age 13, as is typical in almost all sects of Judaism. Many Confirmation ceremonies are held with family in attendance, with songs and speeches by all confirmees. Often, before the ceremony and actual Confirmation take place, a group trip will be taken. One example of this is the trip to Washington, D.C. that many Confirmation groups make with their Rabbis to attend the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism's annual conference, where hundreds of Reform Confirmees gather to lobby their respective politicians on issues deemed important to a modern Reform Jew.
Historical origin of confirmation in Reform Judaism
Confirmation in the context of Reform Judaism is mentioned officially for the first time in an ordinance issued by the Jewish consistory of the kingdom of Westphalia at Cassel in 1810. There it was made the duty of the rabbi "to prepare the young for confirmation, and personally to conduct the ceremony." At first only boys were confirmed, on the Shabbat ("Sabbath") that they celebrated becoming Bar Mitzvah; the ceremony was performed at the home or in the schoolroom. In Berlin, Jewish girls were confirmed for the first time in 1817, in Hamburg in 1818.
Confirmation was at first excluded from the synagogue, because, like every innovation, it met with stern opposition from more traditional Jewish rabbis. Gradually, however, it found more favor; Hebrew school classes were confirmed together, and confirmation gradually became a solemn and celebration at the synagogue. In 1822 the first class of boys and girls was confirmed at the Hamburg Temple, and in 1831 Rabbi Samuel Egers, a prominent traditional rabbi of his time, began to confirm boys and girls at the synagogue of Brunswick.
While in the beginning some Shabbat, frequently during Chanukah or Passover, was selected for confirmation, it became more and more customary, following the example of Egers, to perform the ceremony during the biblical festival of Shavuot ("Feast of Weeks"). It was felt that Shavuot was well suited for the rite, as it celebrated the occasion when the Israelites on Mount Sinai, of their own free will, declared their intention to accept the obligation of God's Law, so those of every new generation should follow the ancient example and declare their willingness to be faithful to the religion transmitted by their ancestors.
Confirmation was introduced in Denmark as early as 1817, in Hamburg 1818, and in Hessen and Saxony in 1835. The Prussian government, which showed itself hostile to the Reform movement, prohibited it as late as 1836, as did Bavaria as late as 1838. It soon made its way, however, into all progressive congregations of Germany. In 1841 it was introduced in France, first in Bordeaux and Marseilles, then in Strasburg and Paris, under the name "initiation religieuse." The first Israelitish synod in 1869 at Leipsic adopted a report by Dr. Herxheimer on religious education, the thirteenth section of which contains an elaborate opinion on confirmation, recommending the same to all Jewish congregations.
In America the annual confirmation of boys and girls was first resolved upon by the congregation of Temple Emanu-El of New York in 1847. The ceremony soon gained so firm a foothold in America that soon there was no progressive Jewish congregation in which it did not occur during Shavuot.
In objection to this, Orthodox Judaism criticized the Reform movement for introducing confirmation, as the ceremony had no roots in rabbinic Judaism. When Conservative Judaism began to develop as a distinct movement it too generally rejected confirmation as either unnecessary, or as a non-Jewish innovation.
Development of United States Reform Judaism
Beth Elohim, Charleston, South Carolina
While later influenced by German Jewish immigrants, the first rumblings of reform in the USA began on November 21, 1824 at Kahal Kodesh Beth Elohim in Charleston, South Carolina. Charleston was one of the four largest ports in the USA and home to the largest Jewish community in the nation. It was originally made up of Spanish and Portuguese Jews who had immigrated from England. Later 19th century immigrants from Germany and eastern Europe found an established community in the city. As Charleston maintained strong trade with England, Beth Elohim had close ties with the Bevis Marks Synagogue in London.
On November 21, 1824 forty-seven lay members of Beth Elohim signed a petition requesting a number of reforms, including repeating Hebrew prayers in English, and English-language sermons. The petitioners and their leader Isaac Harby were concerned about recent increases in Christian missionary activity towards Jews. They hoped these reforms would lead congregants to be more engaged with Judaism and less vulnerable to the missionaries. When their request was rebuffed, the signatories formed the Reformed Society of Israelites. They adopted a statement of principles based on Moses Maimonides's "Thirteen Articles of Faith", but with three major differences:
- belief in resurrection of the dead was replaced with "immortality of the soul";
- a more restricted assertion of revelation: the Ten Commandments, rather than the entire Torah was affirmed as revealed; and
- belief in the Jewish messiah was replaced with an assertion that God alone was the only true Redeemer of the world.
The Reformed Society of Israelites lasted about ten years before it dissolved; some members had moved away and others returned to Beth Elohim. Their pressures for reform did not cease and eventually gained the support of the cantor Gustavus Poznanski. In 1841, Beth Elohim became the first US synagogue to acquire a pipe organ for music, a major innovation. In response, the traditionalists broke away and formed congregation Shearith Israel.
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Between the years 1815 and 1881, German immigrants caused the US Jewish population to grow from 5,000 to 250,000 people. Some of these German immigrants happened to be pupils of Leopold Stein and Joseph Aub, who promoted reform changes in Europe. They formed some of the first Reform congregations in the US, including in New York (Temple Emanu-El), in Baltimore (Har Sinai Congregation, founded in 1842), and in Cincinnati (B'ne Yeshurun), that insisted on changes in the services. The coming of David Einhorn, who published his influential prayer book Olat Tamid for Har Sinai in 1858, Samuel Adler, and, later, the philosopher Samuel Hirsch, gave the Reform cause three influential leaders and additional impetus.
Men of more conservative temperament, such as Adolf Hübsch and Marcus Jastrow, still adopted most Reform principles, though in practice they continued along somewhat less radical lines. In addition, Isaac Mayer Wise and Max Lilienthal cast their influence in favor of Reform. Bernhard Felsenthal and Kaufmann Kohler, and American-bred rabbis Emil Hirsch, Samuel Sale, and David Philipson were among its proponents. In 1869 the Philadelphia Conference and the Pittsburgh Platform in 1885 in Pittsburgh promulgated the principles which are still basic to the practice and teachings of American Reform congregations.
Emerging divisions — split between Reform and Conservative Judaism
As in Europe, there were significant disagreements among the reformers over the role of tradition. In 1883 a banquet was planned to celebrate the first graduating class of rabbis from Hebrew Union College. The more radical element planned the banquet with a provocative menu containing shrimp, a food prohibited by traditional Jewish kosher dietary law. The menu highlighted the developing conflict over whether kosher law (and, by extension, rabbinical law in general) would be binding in Reform Judaism. The Trefa Banquet, (trefa means non-kosher) intensified the conflict between the radical and conservative reformers. The conflict further intensified in 1885 when a fierce debate broke out between Kaufmann Kohler, a liberal, and Alexander Kohut, a conservative, over the nature of what was open to reform and what was bound by established rabbinic law.
In response to the debate, Kohler called a conference of reform-minded rabbis in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania in 1885. Isaac Mayer Wise, the rabbinical head of the Reform seminary, Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati, Ohio, presided over the conference. The conference produced the Pittsburgh Platform, a highly controversial position on the mutability of rabbinic law, which triggered a contentious split between those more and less conservative. In 1889, the more liberal Reform rabbis organized under the banner of the Central Conference of American Rabbis, selecting Hebrew Union College as its flagship university and seminary.
About the same period in New York, 1886 saw the "Jewish Theological Seminary Association" established as a separate rabbinical school, which became the Jewish Theological Seminary in 1902. Its members included a group of the more traditional and less radically reformed rabbis, taking a path between Orthodox and Reform, who founded the Rabbinical Assembly as their clergy organization, with the Jewish Theological Seminary as its university. In 1913, the congregations led by these Conservative (as they were known by then) rabbis banded together as a distinct denomination under the banner of the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism.
Starting in 1869 in Philadelphia, US Reform rabbis have convened from time to time to reassess the principles of their faith. After the 1883 Trefa Banquet thrust Reform Judaism into chaos, radical reformer rabbis Kaufmann Kohler and Emil Hirsch convened the Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania conference of 1885 to refine and articulate the emerging principles of the movement, building on the similar conference in Philadelphia sixteen years earlier and the German Conference of 1841-1846 (supra)
At the Pittsburgh conference, the Reform rabbis convened under the leadership of Isaac Mayer Wise, the dean of Hebrew Union College, the Reform seminary, and adopted an eight-point platform articulating the principles of the Reform movement. While affirming their commitment to monotheism, the rabbis explicitly rejected Jewish dietary laws, "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," disavowed a hope or goal of returning to Zion, and declared their belief in following "only [the] moral laws, and...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." The principles expressed in the 1885 Pittsburgh Platform formed the core of what was to become known as "Classical Reform Judaism", a modernist, assimilationist philosophy that dominated the denomination until after the State of Israel was founded in 1948.
The Pittsburgh Platform was revised in 1937, then again in 1976 in Cincinnati, Ohio. The rejection of Zionism in the earlier platforms was increasingly viewed as out of step by most Jews, especially in light of the new State of Israel.
The most recent revision was in 1999, again in Pittsburgh. There was a counter-reformation developing among both clergy and laity that called for the return to some previously rejected rituals and traditions and a clarification of the role of God in Reform Judaism.
The 1999 statement that emerged from this conference is entitled A Statement of Principles for Reform Judaism. The Statement of Principles affirms the central tenets of Judaism - God, Torah and Israel - even as it acknowledges the diversity of Reform Jewish beliefs and practices. It also invites all Reform Jews to engage in a dialogue with the sources of tradition, responding out of knowledge, experience and faith. "Thus we hope to transform our lives through (kedushah), holiness."
Demographic trends in the 21st Century
As of 2013 the denomination had about 670,000 members in 860 congregations (in 2001: 750,000 members and about 900 congregations); membership is shrinking and demographic trends are troubling. Only half of those raised in the Reform movement continue their affiliation as adults. Their loss used to be made up by an influx of new members coming from the Conservative and Orthodox movements; however, that source is dwindling in North America. At the conference of the Union for Reform Judaism held in December, 2011 near Washington, D.C. these trends were discussed and an initiative announced by Rabbi Rick Jacobs, the denomination's leader, to reach out to unaffiliated Jews, many of whom share the values of Reform Judaism, even if they are not formally affiliated.
Timeline of Reform Judaism in the United States
1824 Playwright and journalist Isaac Harby leads forty-seven Jews in Charleston, South Carolina to petition for major changes in the Shabbat service at Congregation Beth Elohim, including that each Hebrew prayer in the service be immediately followed by an English translation, that new prayers reflecting contemporary American life be added, that the rabbi offer a weekly sermon in English to explain the Scriptures and apply them to everyday life, and that services be shortened.,
1857 - Wise writes the first American siddur, "Minhag America."
1873 - Wise founds the Union of American Hebrew Congregations.
1875 - Reform Judaism's Hebrew Union College is founded in Cincinnati by Isaac Mayer Wise.
1885 - A group of Reform rabbis adopts the Pittsburgh Platform.
1889 - The Central Conference of American Rabbis is established.
1922 - Reform Rabbi Stephen S. Wise establishes the Jewish Institute of Religion in New York. It merged with Hebrew Union College in 1950. A third center was opened in Los Angeles in 1954, and a fourth branch was established in Jerusalem in 1963.
1937 - The Central Conference of American Rabbis adopts "The Guiding Principles of Reform Judaism", known as the Columbus Platform.
1976 - On the occasion of the centennials of the Union of American Hebrew Congregations and the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, the Central Conference of American Rabbis adopts Reform Judaism: A Centenary Perspective.
1983 - The Central Conference of American Rabbis formally states that a Jewish identity can be passed down through either the mother or the father, if the child is raised with a Jewish identity, thereby making official what had been the state of affairs in many Reform communities since the early twentieth century. Despite its rejection by Conservative Judaism and Orthodox Judaism, as well as the religious establishment of the State of Israel (although immigrant children who have a Jewish father but a non-Jewish mother are recognized as Jewish by the Registry Office), descent through the mother or the father becomes the standard for American Reform Jews. (Canadian Reform congregations are divided on this issue).
1997 - On the occasion of the centenary of the first World Zionist Congress, the Central Conference of American Rabbis adopts the Miami Platform, dedicated to the relationship between Reform Judaism and Zionism.
2003 - The congregational arm of the Reform Movement in North America adopts the new name "Union for Reform Judaism" (URJ), replacing its previous name "Union of American Hebrew Congregations" (UAHC) at its Biennial Convention in Minneapolis, Minnesota.
The Union for Reform Judaism, the central body of the Reform Movement in North America, was founded in Cincinnati in 1873 by Rabbi Isaac Mayer Wise as the Union of American Hebrew Congregations. It is the largest Jewish movement in North America and represents an estimated 1.5 million Jews. The name change was approved at the Biennial Convention in Minneapolis, Minnesota in 2003.
As the congregational arm of the Reform Movement, the Union's primary mission is to create and sustain vibrant Jewish congregations wherever Reform Jews live. The Union provides leadership and vision to Reform Jews on spiritual, ethical, and political issues, as well as materials and consultation for programs in the congregation. The Union also provides opportunities for individual growth and identity that congregations and individuals cannot provide by themselves, including camps and Israel programs, study kallot, youth groups (See: NFTY), and North American and regional biennials. The Union also publishes the quarterly Reform Judaism magazine.
The political and legislative outreach arm of Reform Judaism in the United States is the Religious Action Center (RAC). The RAC is operated under the auspices of the Commission on Social Action of Reform Judaism, a joint instrumentality of the Central Conference of American Rabbis and the URJ.
PARDeS, the Progressive Association of Reform Day Schools, is the day school affiliate of the Union for Reform Judaism. As of 2014, it had 14 Jewish day school members with two in Canada, one in Israel and the rest in the United States.
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While Orthodox Judaism and Conservative Judaism regard Reform Jews who are matrilineally descended as Jews, they do not recognize people who are Jewish by Reform conversions nor Reform's acceptance of patrilineal descent of Jewish children. A growing number of Reform Jews are not Jewish according to traditional halakha.
Status in Israel
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- Silverstein, Alan. Alternatives to assimilation : the response of Reform Judaism to American culture, 1840-1930. Brandeis series in American Jewish history, culture, and life. Hanover, NH: Published for Brandeis University Press by University Press of New England, 1994. ISBN 0-87451-694-3.
- David Strassler, David. The changing definitions of the "Jewish people" concept in the religious-social thought of American Reform Judaism during the period of the mass immigration from East Europe, 1880-1914. Israel: 1980.
- Temkin, Sefton D. Creating American Reform Judaism : the life and times of Isaac Mayer Wise. Portland, Or.: Littman Library of Jewish Civilization, 1998. ISBN 1-874774-45-5.
- Union for Reform Judaism
- "Whatever happened to Reform Judaism? Changes in the last 50 years", Central Conference of American Rabbis - CCAR Journal, Winter 1997
- Official website of the Union for Reform Judaism (North America)
- Central Conference of American Rabbis
- Hebrew Union College Jewish Institute of Religion
- American Council for Judaism
- North American Federation of Temple Youth, NFTY
- Platforms of Reform Judaism
- RJ.org - News and Views of Reform Jews - The Reform Movement Blog
- Research and articles about Reform Judaism on the Berman Jewish Policy Archive @ NYU Wagner