Reform Judaism

An examination of the origins and early development of Reform Judaism in Germany and the United States.

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Reprinted with permission from The Jewish Religion: A Companion, published by Oxford University Press.

Reform Judaism is the religious movement which arose in early nineteenth century Germany with the aim of reinterpreting (or reforming) Judaism in the light of Western thought, values and culture where such a reinterpretation does not come into conflict with Judaism’s basic principles. (Orthodox Judaism maintains that the very principle of Reform is in conflict with the basic principle of faith that the Torah is immutable.)

Emancipation and the Impulse to Reform Judaism

After the Emancipation and the emergence of the Jew into Western society, the need for a degree of adaptation of the traditional faith to the new conditions of life was keenly felt. The Haskalah movement of Enlightenment, of which Moses Mendelssohn was the leading figure, grappled with this very problem but tended to leave the traditional norms more or less intact. It was left to Reform to introduce various innovations in the synagogue service and in other areas of Jewish religious life.

A bust of Isaac Mayer Wise, American Reform leader

Reform, however, did not, at first, become organized as a separated movement. A number of cultured laymen in various German cities tried their hand at creating liturgy and format which they believed was more keeping with Western ideals. The first Reform congregation was established in Hamburg in 1818, in the Hamburg Temple.

Reform generally came to prefer the term Temple rather than synagogue for its house of prayer in the belief that the Messianic doctrine could no longer be interpreted in terms of personal messiah who would rebuild the Temple. The new opportunities presented in the West for greater social and educational advancement and for the spirit of freedom to flourish were themselves seen as the realization of the Messianic dream and it was felt that the synagogue, standing in place of the Temple, should be known as such. The Prayer Book of the Hamburg Temple omitted most of the references in the traditional Prayer Book to the return to Zion and the restoration of the Temple service. Prayers and sermons in the German language were introduced and an organ was played to accompany the prayers.

The Reform Movement Emerges in Germany and Spreads Throughout Europe

The Hamburg rabbis enlisted a number of prominent Orthodox Rabbis to publish a stern prohibition against these reforms. Not very long afterwards, a number of Rabbis educated in German universities met in conferences in the years 1844-6; Reform ideas were put forward and a fully-fledged Reform movement became established. The leaders of Reform in Germany, Abraham Geiger and Samuel Holdheim, tried to develop a Reform theology in which Jewish particularism, while never entirely rejected, yielded to a far greater degree of universalism than was envisaged at any time in the Jewish past.

The European Reform movement was centered in Germany, but Reform congregations were also established in Vienna, Hungary, Holland and Denmark. In England, the Reform Congregation, the West London Synagogue of British Jews, was established as early as 1840. At the beginning of the twentieth century a more typical type of Reform was established in England under the influence of Claude Montefiore. This took the name Liberal Judaism. In Germany itself, however, the movement known as Liberal Judaism was more to the right than German Reform.

Reform Judaism in America

Reform spread to America where, at first, the guiding lights were German-born and German-speaking rabbis, prominent among whom was the real organizer of Reform in America, Isaac Mayer Wise (1819-1900). In 1875, thanks to Wise’s efforts, the Hebrew Union College was established in Cincinnati for the training of Reform rabbis. At the banquet held to celebrate the ordination of the Hebrew Union College’s first graduates, shellfish, forbidden by the dietary laws, was served. This “treyfah [non-kosher] banquet:” as it came to be dubbed, at the ordination of rabbis, no less, caused traditional rabbis and laymen to recoil in horror and led indirectly to the development of Conservative Judaism [in the United States] and the establishment of the Jewish Theological Seminary [in New York] for the training of Conservative rabbis.

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Rabbi Louis Jacobs

Rabbi Dr. Louis Jacobs (1920-2006) was a Masorti rabbi, the first leader of Masorti Judaism (also known as Conservative Judaism) in the United Kingdom, and a leading writer and thinker on Judaism.