Reform Judaism

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For the publication of the same name, see Reform Judaism (magazine).
Interior of Congregation Emanu-El of New York, the largest Reform synagogue in the world.

Reform Judaism, also known as Liberal or Progressive Judaism, is a major confessional division within Judaism, which emphasizes the evolving nature of the religion, the superiority of its ethical aspects compared to the ceremonial ones, and a belief in a progressive revelation not centered on the theophany on Mount Sinai. The origins of Reform Judaism lay in 19th-century Germany, where its early principals were formulated by Rabbi Abraham Geiger and his associates.

"Reform Judaism" as a proper term specifically refers to two denominations, the American Union for Reform Judaism and the British Movement for Reform Judaism. Along with other movements sharing the same basic convictions, such as Liberal Judaism, they are members of the World Union for Progressive Judaism, founded in 1926; Reconstructionist Judaism, espousing an unrelated doctrine, entered the Union in 1990.


While its diversity and inherent pluralism impede any simplistic definition of Reform Judaism, the basic tenet of its theology is a belief in a progressive revelation,[1] occurring continuously and not limited to the theophany at Sinai, the defining event of revelation in traditional interpretation. According to this view, all holy scripture of Judaism including the Pentateuch were authored by human beings, who while under direct divine influence also inserted their understanding and reflected the spirit of their consecutive ages. Concurrently, all Jews are a further link in the chain of revelation, capable of reaching new insights. Religious practice and belief can be renewed and reinvigorated.[2]

The chief promulgator of this concept was Rabbi Abraham Geiger, generally considered founder of the movement. After critical research led him to regard scripture as a human creation, bearing the marks of historical circumstances, he abandoned the belief in an unbroken line of interpretation derived from Sinai and gradually replaced it with the idea of progressive revelation. While also subject to change and new understanding, the basic premise endures as a tenet of Reform Judaism. In its early days, this theology imitated the philosophy of German idealism, from which its founders drew much inspiration: belief in humanity marching toward a full understanding of itself and the divine, manifested in moral progress towards perfection. Similar views were espoused by other key Reform thinkers, such as Kaufmann Kohler and Claude Montefiore. Around World War II, this rationalistic theology was replaced mainly by the Jewish existentialism of Martin Buber and Franz Rosenzweig, centered on a complex, personal relationship with the creator, and a more sober and cautious outlook.[3]

The various strands of the denomination regard Judaism throughout the ages as derived from such a process of constant evolution. They warrant and obligate further modification, and reject any fixed, permanent set of beliefs, laws or practices. Another key aspect of this doctrine is the personal autonomy of each adherent, who may formulate his own understanding and expression of his religiosity. Reform is unique in placing the individual, albeit with consideration toward tradition and community, as the authorized interpreter of Judaism.[4] The movement emphasizes the ethical facets of the faith as its central attribute, superseding the ritual ones. Reform thinkers often cited the Prophets' condemnations of ceremonial acts, lacking true intention and performed by the morally corrupt, as testimony that rites have no inherent quality. Geiger centered his philosophy on the prophets' teachings, regarding morality and ethics as the stable core of a religion in which ritual observance transformed radically throughout time. However, practices were seen as a means to elation and a link to the heritage of the past, and Reform generally argued that rituals should be maintained, discarded or modified based on whether they served these higher purposes.

Reform Judaism never entirely abandoned halachic (traditional jurisprudence) argumentation, both due to the need for precedent to counter external accusations and the continuity of heritage, but had largely made ethical considerations or the spirit of the age the decisive factor in determining its course. Reform rabbis in 19th-Century-Germany had to accommodate conservative elements in their communities, while at the height of "Classical Reform" in the United States halachic considerations could be virtually discarded. Later on, Rabbi Solomon Freehof and his successors reintroduced such elements, but they too regarded halacha as too rigid a system. Instead, they recommended that selected features will be readopted and new observances established in a piecemeal fashion, as minhag (customs). The advocates of this approach also stress that their responsa are of non-binding nature, and their recipients may adapt them as they see fit.[5]

In the theological sphere, the movement fully accepted the findings of modern, critical scholarship and strove to adapt Judaism to modern notions of rationalism. In conformity with that, its founders rejected several central traditional precepts: the future Resurrection of the dead and Reward and Punishment in the World to Come were denied, with only belief in the Immortality of the Soul enduring. The awaiting for a personal Messiah who will restore the sacrificial cult in the Temple at Jerusalem, was substituted with working toward a Messianic Age of perfect harmony, and the Election of Israel was reinterpreted in universal terms, as a mission to spread morality and monotheism among the people of the world. Angels and Heavenly Hosts were also rejected. All these concepts were omitted, wholly or partially, from Reform liturgy and their lack is its defining feature.[6]

Generally, especially from the 1970s, the denomination ceased stressing principals and core beliefs and focuses more on the personal spiritual experience. This shift was not accompanied by a distinct new theology or by the abandonment of the former, but rather with ideological ambiguity, as the leadership allowed and encouraged a wide variety of positions, from selective adoption of halachic observance to elements approaching religious humanism. The declining importance of the theoretical foundation in favour of pluralism and equivocalness, with a stress on an all-welcoming "Big Tent Judaism", is also known as the transformation from "Classical" to "New Reform Judaism".[7] This was expressed in encompassing a very wide spectrum: while the denomination remained explicitly theistic, one prayer rite from 1975 was cautiously drafted to accommodate Religious Humanists, not altering the reference to God in the Hebrew original but translating it as "the eternal power" in the English. On the other extreme, the 2007 standard-issue prayer book contained the traditional formula about Resurrection, though it was clarified that the denomination did not literally believe in it, but rather included it as a matter of heritage.

Its philosophy made Reform Judaism, in all its variations, more prone to change than other denominations. In the late 19th Century and early 20th, "Classical Reform" congregations in America held prayers without blowing the Ram's Horn, phylacteries, mantles or head covering. The laws concerning dietary and personal purity, the priestly prerogatives, marital ordinances and so forth were dispensed with. The "New Reform" lays a greater emphasis of practical observance: numerous rituals – circumcision or Letting of Blood for converts (officially declared unnecessary by the Reform Central Conference of American Rabbis in 1890), ablution, some dietary laws – were readopted by the movement's establishment, though as a matter of personal choice for the congregants.

The denomination was also the first major Jewish movement to embrace liberal innovations such as gender equality in religious life, tolerance for LGBT and ordination of female or LGBT rabbis. While opposed to interfaith marriage in principle, CCAR officials estimated that about half of their rabbis partake in such ceremonies. The need to cope with this phenomenon led to the recognition of patrilineal descent: every child born to a couple in which a single member was Jewish, whether mother or father, was accepted as a Jew on condition that he received corresponding education and committed himself as such. Conversely, an offspring of a Jewish mother only will not be accepted if he did not demonstrate affinity to the faith. This decision was taken by the by British Liberal Judaism already in the 1950s, the North American Union for Reform Judaism (URJ) accepted it in 1983, and The British Movement for Reform Judaism affirmed it in 2015. The other, smaller branches of the World Union for Progressive Judaism mostly did not.

Worldwide, the movement is mainly centered in North America, with roughly 1.5 million congregants in the URJ in some 900 communities. As of 2013, the Pew Research Center survey classified it as the largest denomination in U.S. Jewry, representing about 35% of it. The next in size, by a wide margin, are the two British movements. In 2010 the MRJ and Liberal Judaism respectively had 16,125 and 7,197 member households in 45 and 39 communities (or 19.4% and 8.7% of British Jews registered at a synagogue). Other WUPJ member organizations are based in forty countries around the world. The total number of affiliates (including 65,000 Reconstructionists) is estimated at 1.8 million.



A segment of the 1818 Hamburg prayer book. Stating "accept the uttering of our lips instead of our obligatory sacrifices" and omitting the traditional "O gather our dispersions... Conduct us unto Zion" passage.

With the advent of Jewish emancipation and acculturation in Central Europe during the late 18th Century, and the breakdown of traditional patterns, the response Judaism must give to the changed circumstances became a heated question. The radical, second-generation Berlin maskilim (Enlightened) came with extreme solutions: Lazarus Bendavid suggested reducing it into a little more than Deism, and David Friedländer saw no utility in preserving the Jews' separate existence at all. Their ideas were limited to their little circle, and had no real impact.

A more palatable course was the reform of worship in synagogues. The first considered to have done so was the Ashkenazi congregation "Adath Jessurun" in Amsterdam. Emulating the local Sephardim's custom, it omitted the "Father of Mercy" prayer, beseeching God to take revenge upon the gentiles, in 1795. Adath Jessurun used fully traditional argumentation to enact this, and was short-lived, but is generally considered a harbinger by historians.

A relatively thoroughgoing program was adopted by Israel Jacobson, a philanthropist from the Kingdom of Westphalia. Jacobson had no systematic approach and was mainly interested in aesthetic modification, believing that the lack of decorum in services was a major defect. On 17 July 1810, he opened a synagogue in the city of Seesen which employed an organ and a choir during prayer and introduced some German liturgy. This day is celebrated by Reform Judaism worldwide as its foundation date. The Seesen temple closed in 1813, and Jacobson moved to Berlin and established a similar one, which became a hub for other individuals who pondered how to reform worship. Traditional dogma was criticized and eroded for decades by radical maskilim and other Jewish modernizers, but Jacobson himself did not bother with principled issues, though the prayerbook used in Berlin did introduce several deviations from the prevalent text. In 1818, Jacobson's acquaintance Edward Kley and several associates founded a reformed synagogue in Hamburg. On this occasion, the changes in the rite were not eclectic anymore: prayers for the restoration of the sacrifices and return to Zion were quite systematically omitted. The Hamburg edition is considered the first comprehensive Reform liturgy. The term "Temple", already used by Jacobson – borrowed from the French as a designation for a prayerhouse without any specific intention; numerous traditional synagogues in Germany applied it to themselves during the French period and before – would become, via association with the elimination of prayers for the Jerusalem Temple, somewhat misleadingly (and not exclusively) identified with Reform institutions.[8]

While Orthodox protests to Jacobson's initiatives were scant, dozens of rabbis throughout Europe united to ban the Hamburg reforms. Its leaders mobilized several responsa in their defence and attempted to justify themselves based on canonical sources, being still basically attached to old modes of thought. The massive reaction halted the advance of the new trend: it remained limited to the city for over twenty years. Numerous synagogues recognized the need for certain modification, but they were careful to craft them on halachic basis in order not to antagonize conservative elements.

An isolated, yet far more radical, step in the same direction was taken across the ocean. The younger congregants in the Charleston Sephardi synagogue "Beth Elohim" were disgruntled by prevalent forms. Led by Isaac Harby and other associates, they formed their own prayer group, "The Reformed Society of Israelites", and unequivocally excised pleas for restoration of Jerusalem, stating their country was their only Zion. The Society was short-lived, and they merged back into Beth Elohim in 1833. As in Hamburg, the reformers were laymen, this time with no rabbinic support whatsoever.

Consolidation in German lands[edit]

Rabbi Abraham Geiger, circa 1840.
Rabbi Samuel Holdheim, 1850?

In the 1820s and 1830s, the rise of Judaic Studies (Wissenschaft des Judentums) soon became the focus of controversy. Those who delved into the new science vacillated whether and how it should be applied against the contemporary plight of Judaism. Opinions ranged from the strictly Orthodox Azriel Hildesheimer, who subjected science to the predetermined sanctity of the texts, to the more moderate Solomon Judah Loeb Rapoport and Samuel David Luzzatto, via the Positive-Historical Zecharias Frankel (who opposed critical study of the Pentateuch) up to Abraham Geiger, who refused any limitations on objective research. He is widely considered the founding father of Reform Judaism.[9]

Geiger wrote that at seventeen already, he discerned that the late Tannaim and the Amoraim imposed a subjective and forced interpretation on the Oral Torah attempting to diffuse its revolutionary potential by linking it to the Biblical text. Believing that Judaism became stale and had to be radically transformed if it were to survive modernity, he found little use in the legal procedures of halacha, arguing that hard-line rabbis often demonstrated they will not accept major innovations anyway. His venture into higher criticism led him to regard the Pentateuch as reflecting power struggles between the Pharisees and the Saducees, who had their own, pre-Mishnaic halacha. Having concluded the belief in unbroken tradition back to Sinai or a divinely dictated Torah could not be maintained, he began to formulate a theology of progressive revelation, presenting the Pharisees as reformers who revolutionized the Saducee-dominated religion. His other model were the prophets, whose morals and ethics were the only true, permanent core of Judaism. Ritual was a cask that should be renewed or discarded without resolving to complex mechanisms of traditional argumentation. While these views gradually coalesced throughout his life, from a very early stage he intended to formulate the very tenets of Judaism anew.

In 1837, Geiger hosted a conference of like-minded young rabbis in Wiesbaden. He told the assembled that the "Talmud must go." In 1841, the Hamburg Temple issued a second edition of its prayerbook, the first Reform liturgy since its predecessor of 1818. Orthodox response was weak and quickly defeated. Most rabbinic posts in Germany were now manned by university graduates susceptible to rationalistic and critical ideas, which also permeated liberal Protestantism led by such figures as Leberecht Uhlich. They formed the backbone of the nascent Reform rabbinate. Geiger intervened in the dispute not just to defend the Hamburg congregation, but to criticize it severely, stating the time of mainly aesthetic and unsystematic reforms has passed. While the new rite also eliminated several references to the Resurrection of the Dead, Geiger protested that all prayers referring to beliefs that few clung to anymore must be completely removed. In 1842, the power of the progressive rabbinate was revealed again: Geiger was employed as a preacher and assistant in Breslau since 1838, to the discontent of his superior Rabbi Solomon Tiktin. The latter bickered with community institutions for years, eventually sending a circular to other rabbis in Central Europe with the question if a person who held such unorthodox views could serve in this post. 15 of 17 responded positively. Geiger himself differentiated between his principled stance and quotidian conduct: while deeply committed to his ideas in theory, he believed they could be implemented only gradually and carefully. As part of his approach, he remained personally observant.

Between 1844 and 1846, he and his associates convened three rabbinical assemblies, in Braunschweig, Frankfurt am Main and Breslau respectively. Those were intended to implement Aaron Chorin's proposal for a new Sanhedrin, made already in 1826, that could assess and eliminate various ancient decrees and prohibitions. While making few concrete far-reaching steps, they generally stated that the old mechanisms of religious interpretation were obsolete. They managed to antagonize more moderate progressive: Zecharias Frankel, who severely criticized the Braunschweig assembly, was convinced to attend Frankfurt after many pleas but walked out of the after it passed a resolution to include more German in the liturgy, making a final and utter break with the Reform movement.

Second only to Geiger in the ranks of Reform leadership, Rabbi Samuel Holdheim distinguished himself as a radical proponent of change. While the former stressed continuity with the past and described Judaism as an entity which gradually adopted and discarded elements along time, Holdheim accorded present conditions the highest status, sharply dividing the universal core from all other aspects that could be unremittingly disposed of. Declaring that old laws lost their hold on Jews anyhow and the rabbi could only act as a guide for voluntary observance. His principal was that the concept of "the Law of the Land is the Law" was total. He declared mixed marriage permissible – almost the only Reform rabbi to do so in history; his contemporaries and later generations opposed this – for the Talmudic ban on conducting them on Sabbath, unlike offering sacrifice and other acts, was to him sufficient demonstration that they belonged not to the category of sanctified obligations but to the civil ones, where the Law of the Land applied. Another measure he offered, rejected almost unanimously in Breslau, was the institution of a "Second Sabbath" on Sunday, modeled on Second Passover, for he argued that most people violated it – at the same time, the Orthodox Azriel Hildesheimer was also forced to have an additional Torah reading and Musaf prayer on Saturday afternoon, since many schoolchildren did not attend synagogue at morning, though he did not attempt to legitimize it –[10] and having another one in the official day of rest was imperative. When called to the small, semi-independent Reform congregation of Berlin in 1845, he instituted a drastically abridged prayerbook in German and tolerated the abolition of most ritual aspects.

Geiger and most of the conferences' participants were far more moderate in character. While Holdheim administered in a homogeneous group, they had to serve in congregations which remained unified and included many conservative members. Though practice was modified and reformed liturgies issued, the German variant of the movement was decidedly restrained. Except Berlin, where the term "Reform" was first used as an adjective, the rest referred to themselves as "Liberal". Two further conferences much later, in 1869 and 1871 at Leipzig and Augsburg respectively, were marked with a cautious tone. Their only practical outcome was the bypassing of the Loosening of the Shoe ceremony via a signed prenuptial agreement and the establishment of the Hochschule für die Wissenschaft des Judentums in Berlin, though officially non-denominational, as a rabbinical seminary.

In 1840, a group consisting members of the Sephardi Mocatta family and the Ashkenazi Goldsmid family seceded from their respective congregations in London, founding the West London Synagogue of British Jews. Their motivations were rather practical, with little principled stance on matters of religion, though the endeavor did not utterly lack a theological tone. In an Anglican society which regarded the Bible alone as holy, many Jews were uneasy with the Talmud. Reverend David Woolf Marks, who headed the synagogue, sometimes applied the term "Reform" but was often described as neo-Karaite. He excised blessings instituted by rabbinical authorities and refused to regard himself a rabbi. Jakob Josef Petuchowski noted that while continental Reform sought to stress the evolving nature of Judaism and admired the Beatified Sages as innovative progressives, Marks' "Reform" (sic) intended to return it backwards. Prayers for the Temple and other details contested in Germany were not even considered for revision. Two other houses of prayer, the Manchester Congregation of British Jews and Bradford Jewish Association, withdrew from the authority of Chief Rabbi Nathan Marcus Adler in 1856 and 1872, respectively. They were dominated by German Jewish immigrants who, albeit inconsistently, emulated the practice of their continental brethren. Marks' own unique approach died with him, and West London would later draw closer to the other two breakaway synagogues. However, they were loose, unorganized and had little distinct religious persuasion.[11]

America and Classical Reform[edit]

At Charleston, The former members of the Reformed Society gained influence over the affairs of Beth Elohim. In 1836, Gustav Posnansky was invited to serve as preacher and minister. A native of Hamburg, he knew the rite of its Temple. Posnansky was at first traditional, but around 1841 he excised the Resurrection of the Dead and abolished the Second Festival Day in the Diaspora, five years before the same was done at the Breslau conference.

In addition to Posnansky himself, the American Reform movement was chiefly a direct German import, brought along with the many Jewish immigrants from that country. In 1842, Har Sinai Congregation was founded by such in Baltimore. Administered from its inception according to the Hamburg rite, it was the first synagogue to be established as Reformed on the continent. In the new land, there were neither old state-mandated communal structures of the European variety, nor strong conservative elements among the newcomers, who were mostly thoroughly modernized individuals. Reform Judaism quickly became dominant even before the Civil War. While fueled by the condition of immigrant communities granted full civic equality and little concerned with traditional law, in matters of doctrine, wrote Michael Meyer, "However much American Reform Judaism was a response to its particular social context, the basic principles it has espoused since the mid-19th Century are those put forth by Abraham Geiger and the other German Reformers – the idea of progressive revelation, the historical critical approach to Jewish tradition, the centrality of the Prophetic literature."[12]

The American Reform rabbinate was led by two individuals: the radical Rabbi David Einhorn, who participated in the 1844-6 conferences and was very much influenced by Holdheim (though utterly rejecting mixed marriage), and the moderate pragmatist Isaac Meyer Wise, who while sharing deeply heterodox views was more an organizer than a thinker; quite haphazardly, he instituted a major innovation when introducing family pews in 1851 (after his Albany congregation purchased a local church building and retained sitting arrangements), a feature unknown in synagogue design until then. While it was gradually adopted even by many Orthodox in America and remained so well into the 20th Century, the same was not applied in Germany until after World War II. Wise's attempts to reach compromise and consensus with the traditionalist leader Rabbi Isaac Leeser, often harshly condemned by Einhorn, failed conclusively in the 1855 "Cleveland Synod". On 3 November 1869 Wise, Einhorn and mainly followers of the latter met in Philadelphia for a conference which lasted until the 6th. Described by Meyer as American Reform's "declaration of independence", they stated their commitment to the principles already formulated in Germany: priestly privileges and the belief in Resurrection and a personal Messiah were denied. A practical, far-reaching measure, not instituted in Germany until 1910, was acceptance of civil marriage and divorce. A Get was no longer required. In 1873 Wise founded the Union of American Hebrew Congregations (since 2003, Union for Reform Judaism), the denominational body. In 1875 he established the movement's rabbinical seminary, Hebrew Union College, at Cincinnati, Ohio. He and Einhorn also quarreled in the matter of liturgy, each issuing his own prayerbook, Minhag America (American Rite) and Olat Tamid (Regular Burnt Offering) respectively, which he hoped to make standard issue.

In 1885, Reform Judaism in America was confronted by challenges on its both flanks. To the left, Felix Adler and his Ethical movement rejected the need for the Jews to exist as a differentiated group. On the right, the recently arrived Rabbi Alexander Kohut lambasted it for having abandoned traditional Judaism. Einhorn's son-in-law and the Chair of Theology at HUC, Rabbi Kaufmann Kohler, invited leading rabbis to formulate a response. The eight clauses of the Pittsburgh Platform were proclaimed on 19 November. It added virtually nothing new to the tenets of Reform, but rather presented them in a lucid and concise manner, declaring unambiguously that "to-day we accept as binding only the moral laws, and maintain only such ceremonies as elevate and sanctify our lives." The platform was never officially ratified by either the UAHC or HUC, and many of their members even attempted to disassociate from it, fearing that its radical tone would deter potential allies. It indeed motivated a group of conservatives to cease any cooperation with the movement, and they joined Kohut, Sabato Morais and their followers in establishing the Jewish Theological Seminary of America. It united all non-Reform currents in the country and would gradually develop into the locus of Conservative Judaism. While having little official status, the Pittsburgh Platform is considered a defining document of "Classical Reform", the sanitized and rationalistic form of belief and practice that characterized the denomination from roughly after the Civil War until the second quarter of the 20th century. At its height, some forty congregations adopted the Sunday Sabbath and UAHC communities had services without most traditional elements in a manner seen in Europe only at the Berlin congregation. In 1889, Wise founded the Central Conference of American Rabbis (CCAR), the denominational rabbinic council.

However, change loomed on the horizon even before Pittsburgh. From 1881 and onwards, a massive immigration from the Pale of Settlement and Galicia drastically altered American Jewry. Two million arrived before 1914, increasing its number by almost tenfold. Reform congregations numbered some 40,000 at the turn of the century, a considerable number before 1881 but now a minority. The Eastern Europeans came from backward regions, and had a pronounced ethnic tinge and a self-consciousness of a national minority, while the natives were assimilated and long accustomed to civil equality. While even the few fervently Orthodox among the Central and Western European-descended local Jews were thoroughly modernized, secular education not limited to Talmud Torahs was only beginning to make inroads in the East at the time, and also the lax immigrants retained deeply traditional sentiments. They were alienated by the decorum and somberness of all American synagogues, a fortiori the Reform ones, and were often rejected by most, reinforcing the chasm between them and the native Jews. However, as they integrated, growing numbers did begin to enter Reform prayer houses. The CCAR soon readopted elements long discarded in order to appeal to the new congregants: in the 1910's, inexperienced rabbis in the East Coast were given Ram Horns fitted with a trumpet mouthpiece, seventy years after Berlin Reformgemeinde first held High Holiday prayers without blowing the instrument. The five-day workweek soon made the Sunday Sabbath redundant. Temples in the South and the Midwest, where the new crowd was scant, remained basically Classical.

Europe and the World Union[edit]

In Germany, Liberal communities stagnated since mid-century. Full and complete Jewish emancipation granted to all in the German Empire in 1871 largely diffused interest in harmonizing religion with zeitgeist; the 1876 Act of Secession, which no longer forced Jews to be registered at a congregation and made membership voluntary, reinforced the former sentiment while handing the Orthodox a powerful weapon to threaten with. Immigration from Eastern Europe also strengthened traditional elements. In 1898, seeking to counter these trends, Rabbi Heinemann Vogelstein established the Union of Liberal Rabbis (Vereinigung der liberalen Rabbiner). It numbered 37 members at first and grew to include 72 by 1914, about half of Germany's rabbis, a proportion maintained until 1933. In 1908, Vogelstein and his close associate Rabbi Cäsar Seligmann also founded a congregational arm, the Union for Liberal Judaism in Germany (Vereinigung für das Liberale Judentum in Deutschland), finally institutionalizing the current which until then was active as a loose tendency within German Jewry. The Union had some 10,000 registered members in the 1920s. In 1912, Seligmann drafted a declaration of principles, "Guiding Lines towards a Program for Liberal Judaism" (Richtlinien zu einem Programm für das liberale Judentum). It stressed the importance of individual consciousness and the supremacy of ethical values to ritual practice, declared a belief in a messianic age and was adopted as "a recommendation", rather than a binding decision.

In 1902, Claude Montefiore and several friends, including Lily Montagu and Israel Abrahams, founded the Jewish Religious Union (JRU) in London. It served as the cornerstone of Liberal Judaism in Britain. Montefiore was an outspoken activist for religious change since delivering his Hibbert lecture, "The Origin and Growth of Religion as Illustrated by the Religion of the Ancient Hebrews", in 1892. He studied at the Hochschule für die Wissenschaft des Judentums, where he was greatly influenced by the ideas of early German Reformers, stating that he regarded Holdheim as a mentor. He and his associates were mainly driven by the example and challenge of Unitarianism, which offered upper-class Jews a universal, enlightened belief. Meyer noted that while he had several original strains, Montefiore was, by his own admission, largely dependent on Geiger and his concepts of progressive revelation, instrumentality of ritual, universal mission and so forth: "Montefiore's was largely a response to British development, but it turned for an answer to the ideology of the German movement". His Liberal Judaism was radical and puristic, matching and sometimes exceeding the Berlin and American variants of Reform. They conducted most of their prayers in English, sharply abridged their liturgy and largely discarded traditional practice. Montefiore's influence swayed the three breakaway synagogues of West London, Manchester and Bradford toward a more systematic reform of ritual.[13]

In 1907, the former Consistorial rabbi Louis-Germain Lévy, who shared a similar worldview, formed the Union Libérale Israélite de France, a small congregation which numbered barely a hundred families. It eventually evolved into the Liberal Jewish Movement of France.

It was Cäsar Seligmann who first suggested the creation of an international umbrella organization for all those who shared his basic premise. He corresponded with Kohler, met Emil G. Hirsch and respected Montefiore. An assembly scheduled to have taken place at Elberfeld during 1914 was canceled due to the outbreak of World War I. It was only on 10 July 1926 that representatives from around the world gathered in London. Rabbi Jacob K. Shankman wrote of them: "The leaders who gathered in London were animated by the same convictions which characterized the spirit of Reform Judaism: they emphasized the teachings of the Prophets as the cardinal and central element in our religion, they believed in progressive revelation, and they were unanimous in their willingness to adapt the ancient forms of Judaism to their contemporary needs."[14] The conference was attended by representatives of the Union for Liberal Judaism in Germany, the British JRU, the American UAHC and CCAR, and Lévy from France. Others present were Leah Jhirad, chair of the Bene Israel Mumbay branch of Montefiore's JRU, and Heinrich Wolff of Stockholm, in which the Hochschule-trained chief rabbi Gottlieb Klein introduced German-style Liberal Judaism from 1883. The representatives, after weighing their options, chose "Progressive" rather than either "Liberal" or "Reform" as the umbrella term for their movement, a name which Wise first coined in 1871.

The organization began to disseminate its religious worldview shortly after, eventually establishing in numerous countries. The first new chapter was founded in the Netherlands, where two new synagogues have broken with the Orthodox and formed the Nederlands Verbond voor Progressief Jodendom.

Already in 1930, the West London Synagogue affiliated with WUPJ. In the coming decade, waves of refugees from Nazi Germany arrived in Britain, becoming dominant in the three breakaway communities and starting new ones on their own, bringing with them both the moderation of German Liberal Judaism (few mingled with the JRU, from which they were estranged both by language and its radicalism) and a cadre of trained rabbis, men such as Dr. Werner van der Zyl. Only then did the three original congregations began to form a distinctive movement. In 1942 those and three new ones joined to establish the Associated British Synagogues, which affiliated with the WUPJ as a whole in 1945. Preserving the relative traditionalism of Germany, they later adopted the name "Reform Synagogues of Great Britain" (since 2005, Movement for Reform Judaism), distinct from the smaller "Union of Liberal and Progressive Synagogues" which succeeded the JRU.[11][15] Tens of thousands of refugees from Germany brought their Liberal Judaism to other lands as well.

The WUPJ spread. In 1930, the first Liberal congregation, Temple Beth Israel Melbourne, was founded in Australia. In 1936, it hired as permanent rabbi the Hochschule graduate Herman Sanger. In June 1931, the South African Jewish Religious Union for Liberal Judaism was organised, soon employing HUC-ordained Moses Cyrus Weiler. The Congregação Israelita Paulista of São Paulo, first in South America, was established.

The New Reform Judaism[edit]

Contemporary Reform service, with many congregants wearing head coverings and prayer shawls.

Rabbi Kaufmann Kohler died in 1923. In his stead, the post of Hebrew Union College chair of theology was granted to Rabbi Samuel S. Cohon, who held it until 1956. Cohon, a native of Lohi, Minsk Governorate, was emblematic of the new generation of East European-descended clergy rising within the American Reform movement. While not diverging from progressive revelation and the other tenets formulated by his predecessors, Cohon was deeply influenced by the Ahad Ha'am and his cultural nationalism, both directly and via his American disciple Mordecai Kaplan. Viewing Judaism as a Civilization rather than a religion (though he and other Reform sympathizers of Kaplan fully maintained the notions of Election and revelation, which the latter denied), Cohon valued Jewish particularism over universalist leanings. Owing to that, he encouraged the reincorporation of traditional elements long discarded, not as part of a comprehensive legalistic framework but as means to rekindle ethnic cohesion. Among others, he supported more Hebrew in the liturgy.[16]

His approach echoed popular sentiment in the East Coast. Another prominent leader who shared Cohon's convictions was Rabbi Solomon Freehof, son to immigrants from Chernihiv, who advocated a selective rapprochement with Halakha, which was to offer "guidance, not governance"; Freehof advocated replacing the sterile style of community life, allowing isolated practices to emerge spontaneously and reincorporating old ones. He redrafted the Union Prayer Book in 1940 to include more old formulae and authored many responsa, though he always stressed compliance was voluntary.[17]

Cohon and Freehof rose against the background of the Great Depression, when many congregations teetered on the threshold of collapse. Growing Antisemitism in Europe led German Liberals on similar paths. Rabbi Max Dienemann and Seligmann himself turned to stressing Jewish peoplehood and the importance of tradition and solidarity during the interwar period. The Nazis' rise in 1933 effected a religious revival communities long plagued by apathy and assimilation. The great changes in the United States, the need to appeal to new audiences coinciding with economic hardship and a sense of world crisis for Jews, convinced the CCAR that a new definition of Reform principles was imperative.

On 25 May 1937, the Conference met in Columbus, Ohio. On the 29th, they adopted a new "Declaration of Principles" (eschewing the more formal, binding "platform"), authored by Cohon. It promoted a greater degree of ritual observance, supported Zionism – considered by the Classicists in the past as, at best, a remedy for the unemancipated Jewish masses, while they did not regard the Jews as a nation in the modern sense, but a religious community – and used a language stressing peoplehood: unlike Pittsburgh, it opened not with concepts of God and revelation, but by the statement "Judaism is the historical religious experience of the Jewish people." The Columbus Platform is generally considered a crucial stage in the transformation from "Classical" to the "New Reform Judaism", characterized by a lesser focus on abstract concepts of theology and rationalism, and a more positive attitude to defined practice and traditional elements.[18]

The Holocaust and the establishment of the State of Israel reinforced the tendency manifested in the Columbus Platform. The Americanization and move to the suburbs in the 1950s facilitated a double effect: the secular Jewish ideologies of the immigrants' generation, like Labour Zionism or Bundism, became anachronistic. Military service during the war years exposed recruits who were raised, in a pattern resembling that of Eastern European Jewry, at often non- or-anti-religious households in neighbourhoods where synagogues were old-style Orthodox, to the family-oriented piety of middle-class America. Many sought a religious affiliation in the early years of the Cold War. The "Return to Tradition", as it was termed, smoothed the path for many such new congregants who flocked to the UAHC. It grew from 290 communities with 50,000 affiliated households in 1937 to 560 with 255,000 in 1956. A similar tendency was expressed overseas. Even the purist Liberals in Britain introduced minor customs which bore sentimental value to their many new Eastern European-descended constituents, such as Bar Mitzvah instead of confirmation.[19][20]

Rabbi John D. Rayner - echoing the sentiment of Reform rabbis in America towards related phenomena in their temples - scorned this attitude: "It is disconcerting to find that Bar Mitzah is coming back... Why?... In nearly every case, because of pseudo-Orthodox grandparents who often have no knowledge of Judaism, but who have a sentimental obsession to hear chanting in ill-understood Hebrew to a congregation who would barely understand the difference if he chanted in Chinese." In 1972, the Classical bastion Congregation Emanu-El of New York renewed the ceremony, 124 years after it abolished it in 1848. In 1981, the Liberal Jewish Synagogue in London was apparently the last in Britain to succumb as well.

World War II shattered many of the assumptions about human progress and benevolence held by liberal denominations, Reform included. In the following years, a new generation of theologians attempted to formulate a response. Thinkers such as Eugene Borowitz and J.J. Petuchowski turned mainly to the existentialism of Martin Buber, Franz Rosenzweig and the like, which portrayed humans in a more fragile state, in a complex relationship with the divine. While religious humanism was an ever present philosophy within the movement, it remained confined to a small group of thinkers, and official positions retained a theistic approach. But the main focus in American Reform lay elsewhere: in 1946, Rabbi Maurice Eisendrath was appointed President of the UAHC. He turned the notion of Tikkun Olam, "repairing of the world", into the practical expression of affiliation, leading involvement in the Civil Rights Movement, Vietnam War opposition and other progressive causes.

The 1960's and 70's saw the rise of multiculturalism and the weakening of organized religion in favour of personal spiritual expressions. The pressure to conform to mainstream society diminished, replaced by a growing "return to ethnicity" in the younger generation, which was keen to exhibit its own long-forgotten background. Items and practices such as prayer shawls, head coverings and ablution, long discarded if not expressly banned as primitive relics in Reform circles, became fashionable. Already in 1963, HUC-graduate Sherwin Wine seceded from the denomination and formed an openly atheistic community, Birmingham Temple, declaring that for him Judaism was a cultural-historical tradition, not a faith. Knowing that many in their audience held quite overlapping ideas, the pressure on the CCAR to move toward nontheistic humanism grew, deriving also from Richard L. Rubenstein Death of God theology.[21]

In 1975, the diversity and lack of consensus surfaced with the formulation of a new standard prayer book, "Gates of Prayer." To accommodate all constituents, no less than ten differing liturgies for morning service and six for evening were offered for each congregation to choose from. One traditional-leaning rite included long-omitted texts, such as the blessings for donning phylacteries and half-Kaddish in Aramaic; the other extreme was marked in the sixth Sabbath evening prayer, which retained the traditional Hebrew text for God but translated it as "eternal power", a measure condemned by many Reform rabbis who viewed it as de facto humanistic. "Gates of Prayer" symbolized the movement's decision to favor what would be termed a "Big Tent Judaism", welcoming all, over theological clarity. In the following year, an attempt to draft a new platform for the CCAR in San Francisco ended with poor results. The board, headed by Borowitz, abandoned any notion of issuing guidelines but rather authored a "Centenary Perspective" with few coherent statements, though it maintained belief in God, revelation and the like.[22] The "Big Tent", while taking its toll on the theoreticians, did substantially bolster constituency. The UAHC slowly caught up with Conservative Judaism on the path toward becoming the largest American denomination.[23] While becoming rather elastic in matters of theology, Reform did not erase boundaries. It rejected outright those who held syncretic beliefs like Jewbu and "Messianic Judaism", and also Secular Humanism. Congregation Beth Adam was denied UAHC membership by a landslide vote of 113:15 in 1994.[21]

In 1972, the first Reform female rabbi, Sally Priesand, was ordained at Hebrew Union College. In 1977, the CCAR declared that the biblical ban on male same-sex intercourse referred only to the pagan customs prevalent at the time it was composed, and gradually accepted openly LGBT constituents and clergy. The first LGBT rabbi, Stacy Offner, was instated in 1988, and full equality was declared in 1990. Same-sex marriage were accepted guidelines for them published in 1997. In 1978, CCAR President Alexander Schindler admitted that measures aimed at curbing intermarriage rates by various sanctions, whether on the concerned parties or on rabbis assisting or acknowledging them (ordinances penalizing such involvement were passed in 1909, 1947 and 1962), were no longer effective. He called for a policy of outreach and acceptance, rejecting "intermarriage, but not the intermarried" hoping to convince gentile spouses to convert. In 1983, the CCAR accepted patrilineal decent, a step taken by British Liberals already in the 1950's. The 1978 turnabout engendered a rapid growth: HUAC membership grew by 23% in the 1975-1985 decade, reaching 1.3 million affiliates. Schindler estimated that 10,000 intermarried couples were joining annually.[23][24]

On 26 May 1999, after a prolonged debate and six widely different drafts rejected, the Conference, convened at Pittsburgh, adopted a "Statement of Principals for Reform Judaism". It affirmed the "reality and oneness of God", the Torah as "God's ongoing revelation to our people" and committed to the "ongoing study of the whole array of Commandments and to the fulfillment of those that address us as individuals and as a community. Some of these sacred obligations have long been observed by Reform Jews; others, both ancient and modern, demand renewed attention." While the wording was carefully crafted in order not to alienate the estimated 20%-25% of membership which retained Classicist persuasions, it did raise condemnation from many of them.[25]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Dana Evan Kaplan, Contemporary Debates in American Reform Judaism, Routledge, 2013. p. 239. ;‏ Elliot N. Dorff, Conservative Judaism: Our Ancestors to Our Descendants, United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism, 1979. pp. 104-105.; Eugene B. Borowitz, Reform Judaism Today, Behrman House, 1993. pp. 147-148.
  2. ^ ^ Jakob Josef Petuchowski, The Concept of Revelation in Reform Judaism, inside: Studies in Modern Theology and Prayer, Jewish Publication Society, 1998. pp. 101-112.
  3. ^ Robert G. Goldy, The Emergence of Jewish Theology in America, Indiana University Press, 1990. pp. 24-25.
  4. ^ Dorff, p. 132; Dana Evan Kaplan, American Reform Judaism: An Introduction, Rutgers University Press, 2009. pp. 41-42; Jonathan Sacks, Crisis and Covenant: Jewish Thought After the Holocaust, Manchester Uni. Press, 1992. p. 158.
  5. ^ Walter Jacob, Liberal Judaism and Halakhah, Rodef Shalom Press, 1988. pp. 90-94.; Michael A. Meyer, Changing Attitudes of Liberal Judaism toward Halakhah and Minhag, Proceedings of the World Congress of Jewish Studies, 1993.
  6. ^ Walter Homolka, Liturgie als Theologie: das Gebet als Zentrum im jüdischen Denken, Frank & Timme GmbH, 2005. pp. 63-98; and especially: J. J. Petuchowski, Prayerbook Reform in Europe: the Liturgy of European Liberal and Reform Judaism, World Union for Progressive Judaism, 1968.
  7. ^ Kaplan, Contemporary Debates, pp. 136-142.
  8. ^ Meyer, p. 42.
  9. ^ Michael A. Meyer, Response to Modernity: A History of the Reform Movement in Judaism, Wayne State University Press, 1995. pp. 89-99.
  10. ^ David Ellenson, Rabbi Esriel Hildesheimer and the Creation of a Modern Jewish Orthodoxy, University of Alabama Press, 1990. p. 65.
  11. ^ a b Daniel R. Langton, A Question of Backbone: Contrasting Christian Influences upon the Origins of Reform and Liberal Judaism in England, published in: Melilah; Manchester Journal for Jewish Studies 3(2004), pp. 1-47.
  12. ^ Michael A. Meyer, Judaism Within Modernity: Essays on Jewish History and Religion, Wayne State University Press, 2001. p. 108.
  13. ^ Meyer, Response to Modernity, p. 214-215; Michael A. Meyer, Judaism Within Modernity, pp. 309-324.
  14. ^ Jacob K. Shankman, Essays in honor of Solomon B. Freehof, Rodef Shalom, 1964. p. 129.
  15. ^ Geoffrey Alderman, Modern British Jewry, Oxford University Press, 1998. p. 354.
  16. ^ Arnold M. Eisen, The Chosen People in America: A Study in Jewish Religious Ideology, Indiana University Press (1983), ISBN 9780253114129. pp. 59-65.
  17. ^ Joan S. Friedman, "Guidance, Not Governance": Rabbi Solomon B. Freehof and Reform Responsa, Hebrew Union College Press (2013). ISBN 9780878204670. pp. 68-80.
  18. ^ Dana Evan Kaplan, The Cambridge Companion to American Judaism, Cambridge University Press, 2005. ISBN 9780521529518. pp. 119-123.
  19. ^ Dana Evan Kaplan The New Reform Judaism: Challenges and Reflections, University of Nebraska Press (2013). ISBN 9780827611337. pp. 260-263.
  20. ^ J. J. Petuchowski, Refom Judaism: Undone by Revival, First Things, January 1992.
  21. ^ a b Kaplan, Contemporary Debates, pp. 136-142, 242-270.
  22. ^ Dana Evan Kaplan, Contemporary American Judaism: Transformation and Renewal, Columbia University Press, 2013, pp. 119-121.
  23. ^ a b Jonathan Sarna, Contemporary Reform Judaism: A Historical Perspective, in: Avinoam Rosenak (editor), היהדות הרפורמית : הגות, תרבות וחברה, Van Leer Institute Press (2014). ISBN 9789650207120. p. 499-509.
  24. ^ Joseph Berger ,Rise of 23% Noted in Reform Judaism, New York Times, 1 November 1985.
  25. ^ Kaplan, An Introduction, pp. 236-238.

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