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Reform Judaism

Reform Judaism (also known as Progressive Judaism and in the U.K. Liberal Judaism) is a branch of Judaism characterized by:

Table of contents
1 Origin of Reform Judaism in the 1800s
2 Classic German Reform prayer services
3 Development of Reform in the United States
4 Early Reform Judaism's view of Zionism
5 Teachings on the Oral Law
6 Jewish identity

Origin of Reform Judaism in the 1800s

In response to The Enlightenment and the emancipation, elements within German Jewry sought to reform Jewish belief and practice. In light of modern scholarship, they denied divine authorship of the Torah, declared only those biblical laws concerning ethics to be binding, and stated that the rest of halakha (Jewish law) need no longer be viewed as normative. Circumcision was abandoned, rabbis wore vestments modeled after Protestant ministers, and instrumental accompaniment --- banned in Jewish Sabbath worship since the destruction of the Second Temple in 70 C.E. --- reappeared in Reform synagogues, most often in the form of a pipe organ. The traditional Hebrew prayer book (the Siddur) was replaced with a German text which truncated or altogether excised most parts of the traditional service. Reform Synagogues began to be called Temples, a term reserved in more traditional Judaism for the Temple in Jerusalem. The practice of Kashrut (keeping kosher) was abandoned as an impediment to spirituality. The early Reform movement renounced Zionism and declared Germany to be its new Zion. This anti-Zionist view is no longer held; see below.

One of the most important figures in the history of Reform Judaism is the radical reformer Samuel Holdheim.

Classic German Reform prayer services

The Reform movement in its earlier stages involved sweeping changes in public worship, in the direction of beautifying services and rendering them more like what could be found in services of Protestant Christians. With this in view, the length of the services was reduced by omitting certain parts of the prayer-book. In addition, the piyyutim (poetical compositions written by medieval poets or prose-writers) were curtailed.

The Reform movement gradually removed the majority of traditional prayers from the Jewish prayer book; instead of translating the prayers into modern German, they were usually deleted . In their place Reform liturgists created new liturgies that had only a few paragraphs in Hebrew, surrounded by German chorals, and occasional sermons in the vernacular. The rite of confirmation for teenagers also was introduced, first in the duchy of Brunswick, at the Jacobson Institute. These measures were aimed at the esthetic regeneration of the liturgy rather than at the principles of Jewish faith or modification of Jewish law.

The Reform movement later took on an altogether different aspect in consequence, on the one hand, of the rise of "Jewish science," the first-fruits of which were the investigations of Leopold Zunz, and the advent of young rabbis who, in addition to a thorough training in Talmudic and rabbinical literature, had received an academic education, coming thereby under the spell of German philosophic thought.

On the other hand the struggle for the political emancipation of the Jews (see Riesser, Gabriel) suggested a revision of the doctrinal enunciations concerning the Messianic nationalism of Judaism. Toward the end of the fourth and at the beginning of the fifth decade of the nineteenth century the yearnings, which up to that time had been rather undefined, for a readjustment of the teachings and practices of Judaism to the new mental and material conditions took on definiteness in the establishment of congregations and societies such as the Temple congregation at Hamburg and the Reform Union in Frankfort-on-the-Main, and in the convening of the rabbinical conferences at Brunswick (1844), Frankfort (1845), and Breslau (1846).

These in turn led to controversies, while the Jüdische Reform-genossenschaft in Berlin in its program easily outran the more conservative majority of the rabbinical conferences. The movement may be said to have come to a standstill in Germany with the Breslau conference (1846). The Breslau Seminary under Zecharias Frankel (1854) was instrumental in turning the tide into conservative or, as the party shibboleth phrased it, into "positive historical" channels, while the governments did their utmost to hinder a liberalization of Judaism.

Development of Reform in the United States

Arrested in Germany, the Reform movement was carried forward in the United States. The German immigrants from 1840 to 1850 happened to be to a certain extent composed of pupils of Leopold Stein and Joseph Aub. These were among the first in New York (Temple Emanu-El), in Baltimore (Har Sinai), and in Cincinnati (B'ne Yeshurun) to insist upon the modernization of the services. The coming of David Einhorn, Samuel Adler, and, later, Samuel Hirsch gave to the Reform cause additional impetus, while even men of more conservative temperament, like Hübsch, Jastrow, and Szold, adopted in the main Reform principles, though in practice they continued along somewhat less radical lines. Isaac M. Wise and Lilienthal, too, cast their influence in favor of Reform. Felsenthal and K. Kohler, and among American-bred rabbis Hirsch, Sale, Philipson, and Shulman may be mentioned among its exponents. The Philadelphia conference (1869) and that at Pittsburg (1885) promulgated the principles which to a certain extent are still basic to the practice and teachings of American Reform congregations.

Early Reform Judaism's view of Zionism

In the 1800s and very early 1900s, Reform Judaism rejected the idea that Jews would re-create a Jewish state in their ancestral homeland. They rejected the idea that there would ever be a personal messiah, and that the Temple in Jerusalem would ever be rebuilt, or that one day animal sacrifices would be re-established in a rebuilt Temple, in accord with the Hebrew Bible.

Reform Judaism rejected the classical rabbinic teaching that the Jews were in exile ("galut"). For reformers, dispersion of Jews among the nations was a necessary experience in the realization and execution of its Messianic duty. Instead, the people Israel was viewed as the Messianic people, appointed to spread by its fortitude and loyalty the monotheistic truth 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 are dispensable.

Reform Jews ceased to declare Jews to be in exile; for the modern Jew in America, England, France, Germany, or Italy has no cause to feel that the country in which he lives is for him a strange land. Many Reform Jews went so far as to agree that prayers for the resumption of a Jewish homeland were incompatible with desiring to be a citizen of a nation. Thus, the Reformers implied that for a German, Frenchman, or American Jew to pray from the original siddur was tantamount to dual loyalty, if not outright treason.

Since the Holocaust and the establishment of the modern State of Israel, Reform Judaism has totally repudiated anti-Zionism . All factions and official organs of Reform Judaism are now officially Zionist.

Teachings on the Oral Law

According to traditional Judaism, God revealed His Law on Mount Sinai to Moses in two forms, (1) the written law ("Torah shevi-ketav"), and (2) the oral law ("Torah shebeal peh"). According to some Reform Jews, human reason alone was competent to grasp and construe all religious truths.

This philosophy was inspired by the investigations into the historical development of Judaism. Historians were beginning to show that Judaism's oral law was the precipitate of historical processes, a development of and beyond Biblical Judaism. The idea of progress, historical growth, at the time that the young science of Judaism established the relative as distinguished from the absolute character of Talmudism and tradition, was central in German philosophy, more clearly in the system of Hegel. History was proclaimed as the self-unfolding, self-revelation of God. Revelation was a continuous process; and the history of Judaism displayed God in the continuous act of self-revelation. Judaism itself was under the law of growth, and an illustration thereof. The laws and customs of the Talmudic era were interpreted as appropriate for the Talmudic period alone; however Reform scholars held that these laws are not an inherent or necessary part of Judaism.

But was Biblical law, perhaps, the original, divinely established norm and form of Judaism, and, as such, binding upon all subsequent generations? If it was, then Reform Judaism, ignoring post-Biblical development and tradition, was identical with Karaism; and, furthermore, its omission of all reference to sacerdotal and sacrificial institutions, though these form an integral part of the Mosaic law and revelation, is in violation of the assumption that Judaism is Law, which Law divinely revealed is the Pentateuch.

This was the dilemma with which Reform theologians were confronted. This was an inconsistency which, as long as Judaism and Law were interchangeable and interdependent terms, was insurmountable. To meet it, a distinction was drawn between the moral and the ceremonial laws, though certainly the Torah nowhere indicates such distinction nor discloses or fixes the criteria by which the difference is to be established. God, the Law giver, clearly held the moral and the ceremonial to be of equal weight, making both equally obligatory. Analysis of the primitive scheme in connection with the possible violation of the precepts, tends to prove that infractions of certain ceremonial statutes were punished more severely than moral lapses.

National and Universal Elements

The principle was not carried out consistently. Reform Judaism retained the Sabbath and the other Biblical holy days, circumcision, and in certain circles the dietary laws. Were these not ceremonial? What imparted to these a higher obligatory character? In this artificial distinction between the moral and the ceremonial content of the divinely revealed law the influence of Kantian moralism is operative.

Holdhelm, to escape this inconsistency, urged as decisive the distinction between national and religious or universal elements. The content of revelation was two-fold: national and universal. The former was of temporary obligation, and with the disappearance of state and nation the obligatory character ceased; but the universal religious components are binding upon religious Israel. While this criterion avoided many of the difficulties involved in the distinction between ceremonial and moral, it was not effective in all instances. The sacrificial scheme was religious, as Einhorn remarked when criticizing Holdheim's thesis, and still Reform ignored its obligatory nature. Nor could Judaism be construed as a mere religion, a faith limited by creedal propositions.

(more to be added and edited.)


1875 Reform Judaism's Hebrew Union College is founded in Cincinnati. Its founder was Rabbi Isaac Mayer Wise, the architect of American Reform Judaism.

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.

1983 American Reform Jews formally accept patrilineal descent, creating a new definition of who is a Jew. Despite its rejection by most of non-American Reform, as well as all of Conservative Judaism and Orthodox Judaism, patrilineal descent becomes the de facto standard for North American Reform and unaffiliated Jews. This leads to the disintegration of the inter-denominational Synagogue Council of America; within one decade many American Jews find that marrying between denominations is difficult, as there are now incompatible definitions of Jewishness.

Reform Jewish theology today

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 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." [Bernard Martin, Ed., "Contemporary Reform Jewish Thought", Quadrangle Books 1968.]

Reform Judaism has always promoted theism. This belief is reaffirmed in its new statement of principles. However, it also holds that personal autonomy is absolute; in recent decades it has no longer asked that its adherents hold any particular beliefs. Reform rabbis and laypeople have come to affirm various beliefs including theism, deism, Reconstructionist naturalism, polydoxy, and non-theistic humanism. All of these positions are considered equally valid within Reform Judaism. The official American Reform prayerbook, "Gates of Prayer: The New Union Prayerbook", is predominantly theistic, but also includes a non-theistic, humanist service that omits all references to God (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). 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 CCAR, personal autonomy still has precedence over these platforms.

Reform's position on Halakha (Jewish law) today

The classical approach of Reform Judaism was based on the views of Rabbi Samuel Holdheim (1806-1860), leader of Reform Judaism in Germany. He believed that Reform Judaism should be based soley upon monotheism and morality. Almost everything connected with Jewish law and custom was of the ancient past, and was 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 slowly begun distancing itself from its previous stances. Reform Jews now go to Temples on Saturday, have more Hebrew in their religious services, and on a voluntary basis follow some of the various Jewish laws and customs. The return to tradition can be seen in the fact that some Reform Jews today even study Talmud and keep kosher.

Note that even those in the traditionalist wing of Reform Judaism still accept the primary principle of classical Reform: personal autonomy still has precedence over Jewish tradition; halakha no longer has authority. 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 only representing a minority of the movement, this group has 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, then, some Reform rabbis promote following elements of halakha, and belief in many parts of classical Jewish theology, while others actively discourage adopting most Jewish practices or beliefs, because they feel that this is not in the tradition of the Reform movement. Both encouraging or discouraging Jewish practices are considered acceptable positions within Reform.

Jewish identity

Despite a 1973 Central Conference of American Rabbis resolution recommending otherwise, CCAR allows its rabbis to officiate at intermarriages. Recent surveys by the Rabbinic Center for Research and Counseling show that 40% of CCAR Reform rabbis now perform some form of intermarriages. However, the great majority of Reform rabbis will only officiate at intermarriages where both the Jewish and the non-Jewish spouse agree to maintain a Jewish home, and to raise the children as Jewish.

American Reform Judaism accepts patrilineal descent if the parents raise the child as a Jew by Reform standards. Gentiles may serve on Temple committees, and may count as full members of the movement. "In many congregations...non-Jewish choristers and soloists have occupied positions which seemed to make them into shelichei tsibbur [cantors, leaders of prayer services]." Various Reform teshuvot (e.g. "Gentile Participation in Synagogue Ritual 5754.5") offer non-binding guidance limiting the role of gentiles in Reform prayer service, but local lay and rabbinic leadership have no obligation to accept this recommendation. Thus, 88 of Reform Temples allow gentiles to count as Reform Jews by being synagogue members if they are married to Jews; 87% of Reform Temples allow gentiles to serve on synagogue committees, 22% of Reform Temples allow gentiles to have an aliyah to the Torah. [Survey conducted by the Commission on Reform Jewish Outreach, see Wertheimer 1993].

In contrast, most Reform/Progressive Judaism outside the United States rejects patrilineal descent and intermarriage, and does not allow gentiles to lead prayers in Jewish prayer services, have an aliyah, or count as synagogue members.

External Links

Official website of Reform Judaism
Reform Judaism FAQ
Reform Judaism readinglist
Platforms of Reform Judaism