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Reform Judaism

05/20/2019 02:32:02 PM


Laurel Cates

Many people simplistically tend to think of Reform Judaism as just a watered down “less religious” form of Orthodox or Conservative Judaism.  This is hardly the case.    Reform Judaism, which was fathered by Moses Mendelsohn, has its origins in Germany in the early 1800s as a response to the German and French Enlightenment of the 1700s.  Jews had always lived in segregated communities throughout Europe, ineligible to join medieval guilds or own land.    During the period of enlightenment, when humans’ capacity for reason was exalted ,  Jews became emancipated, wishing to participate in the intellectual culture  while retaining their ethnic and religious identity.  Although they were officially emancipated, barriers were still in place preventing Jews from entering the professions.  Therefore, many Jews converted to Christianity in order to fully participate in the secular world of Germany. 

Abraham Geiger, an early reformer, noted that the practices of Judaism had changed periodically over the millennia in order to make it relevant to people living in different locations.   Reform Judaism emphasized the ethical precepts of the religion, requiring Jews to follow mitzvot involving how they treat one another and the pursuit of justice while allowing individuals to decide for themselves what rituals they wish to observe.    By freeing people from  restrictions imposed on Jews by ritualistic mitzvot, but still retaining a community to which Jews could belong  based on caring for one another, understanding Judaism’s history and living Judaism’s emphasis on action and ethical treatment of people, Geiger was able to make Judaism attractive to modern European Jews.  

Between 1810 and 1820, congregations in Berlin and Hamburg instituted changes such as mixed seating, single-day observance of festivals, prayer in the vernacular language German rather than Hebrew and elimination of practices for following kashrut.  By the 1840s there was a trained Reform Jewish leadership in Germany. 

In the middle of the 19th century, many German and other Central European Jews migrated to the United States.  They started congregations in often-small settlements throughout the United States led by lay leaders as there were no formally trained rabbis in this country. Isaac Meyer Wise, an immigrant from Bohemia, created an American brand of Judaism, suited to individual communities spread across  this vast country.      By 1875 there was a small movement with two organizations leading it: The Union of American Hebrew Congregations (UAHC)  (now called  The Union of Reform Judaism) composed of member congregations,  and Hebrew Union College, which trains rabbis. In 1885, a group of rabbis led by Wise and Kaufman Kohler met to create a document, known as the Pittsburgh Platform.

The Pittsburgh Platform outlined the principles of an American approach to practicing modern Judaism, which became known as Classical Reform.  It rejected Halakhah, the complex system of laws affecting all aspects of life as described in the Talmud, asserting that “We accept as binding only the moral laws and maintain 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”.  It explicitly called Judaism a religion within a nation, and rejected Zionism, identifying the U.S.  as a new Zion.  It called for Judaism’s commitment to social and economic justice, similar to  liberal Protestantism’s  pursuit of the social gospel.  It asserted the existence of God while labeling the Torah as divine-inspired rather than the word of God as dictated to Moses who wrote it down.  This was adopted by the Central Conference of American Rabbis, the body which supports excellence in leadership skills on social, cultural and human rights issues among American Reform rabbis.

In 1937, 1976 and 1999, additional platforms were written to meet the needs of the Jewish community in different eras. In light of anti-Semitic events taking place in Europe, the 1937 platform affirmed that Jews are a people as well as a religious group. Following the Holocaust, the Reform movement supported the creation of Israel. During the course of the late 20th century, Reform Jews, although not bound by halakhah, found it meaningful to incorporate more traditional ritual into Jewish life, praying more in Hebrew, wearing kipot during services and engaging in serious Torah study.  People felt that Classical Reform services were too dry and unemotional, and so began the introduction of more participatory services with lively spiritual singing as introduced by Debbie Friedman.   A main principle of Reform Judaism since its inception is that Judaism can remain relevant only if it innovates while preserving tradition and develops practices reflecting modern times.

Reform Jews today believe that all human beings are created in the image of God and that we must be partners of God in repairing the world (Tikkun Olam).   The Religious Action Center  (RAC) is the social-justice arm of Reform Judaism, working to influence national and state policymakers.  In the 1960s, our own Temple Israel was strongly involved in the civil-rights movement.  This year, the RAC in New York is supporting the granting of driver’s licenses to undocumented workers who meet driving requirements in New York State.  The RAC bases its positions on our religious texts. 

The Reform movement is inclusive, reaching out to Jews by Choice in our community and the rabbinate, welcoming full participation of gay and lesbian people, and accepting patrilineal descent. The United States is the only country in the world in which Reform Judaism allows for patrilineal descent.  Our congregations are committed to equality between the sexes.  Reform was the first Jewish denomination to grant ordination to female rabbis. Reform Jews believe that Judaism cannot continue to exist if it is merely based on remembrance of the Holocaust or nostalgia for European Jewry.  Today’s Reform Judaism continues to evolve to meet the needs of people in successive generations. 




Sun, December 3 2023 20 Kislev 5784