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Reform Judaism

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

  • The belief that an individual's personal autonomy overrides traditional Jewish law and custom. The individual decides which Jewish practices, if any, to adopt as binding
  • A positive attitude toward modern culture
  • The belief that both traditional rabbinic modes of study, and more modern critical textual analysis, are valid ways to learn about and from the Hebrew Bible and rabbinic literature.
  • A non-fundamentalist method of understanding the Jewish principles of faith. In Reform Judaism, it is the individual who decides which beliefs, if any, to adopt.

Origin of Reform Judaism in the 1800s

In response to Haskalah 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 morals and ethics to be binding, and stated that the rest of Halakhah (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 some 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 Wissenschaft des Judentums, or "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 umbrella 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, the philosopher 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 Emil G. Hirsch, Sale, Philipson, and Shulman may be mentioned among its exponents.

Dr. Kaufman Kohler convened the Pittsburgh conference of Reform rabbi in November 1885, which had the goal of establishing an official statement of beliefs for Reform Judaism. Kohler, echoing the position of many German classic Reformers, wrote:

We consider [the Holy Scriptures] composition, their arrangements and their entire contents as the work of men, betraying in their conceptions the shortcomings of their age.
(Walter Jacob, p. 104, 1985)

Kohler announced to the Reform assembly of rabbis:

I do not for a moment hesitate to say it right here and in the face of the entire Jewish world that... circumcision is a barbarous cruelty which disfigures and disgraces our ancestral heirloom and our holy mission as priests among mankind. The rite is a remnant of African life... ...I can no longer accept the fanciful and twisted syllogisms of Talmudic law as binding for us... I think, if anywhere, we ought to have the courage to emancipate ourselves from the thralldom of Rabbinical legality(16).
(Walter Jacob, p.101, 1985)

The Philadelphia conference of 1869 and the later Pittsburgh conference of 1885 promulgated the principles which became the basic practice and teachings of American Reform congregations until the 1960s. After the 1960s many Reform Temples began a slow and gradual change away from classical German Reform, and began adopting some elements of traditional Judaism.

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.


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

1885 A group of Reform rabbis adopts the Pittsburgh Platform .

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 .

1983 The Central Conference of American Rabbis formally states that a Jewish identity can be passed down through either the mother and the father, 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, descent through the mother or the father becomes the standard for North American Reform and unaffiliated Jews. This leads to the disintegration of the inter-denominational Synagogue Council of America.

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.

1999 The Central Conference of American Rabbis adopts "A Statement of Principles for Reform Judaism" in Pittsburgh.

2003 The congregational arm of the Reform Movement in North America adopts the new name "Union for Reform Judaism", replacing its previous name "Union of American Hebrew Congregations" at its Biennial Convention in Minneapolis, MN

Reform Jewish theology today

Official statements on principles of faith

Reform Judaism teaches that one's personal autonomy is absolute; it denies that there are any principles of Jewish faith that a Reform Jew must believe.

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, 1968)

CCAR President Rabbi Simeon J. Maslin wrote "if anyone were to attempt to answer these two questions authoritatively for all Reform Jews, that person's answers would have to be false. Why? Because one of the guiding principles of Reform Judaism is the autonomy of the individual. A Reform Jew has the right to decide whether to subscribe to this particular belief or to that particular practice."

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 the 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 turned out to be very similar to the 1976 statement. According to CCAR, personal autonomy still has precedence over teachings in these platforms.


Reform Judaism has always promoted monotheism. This belief has been reaffirmed in all four versions of its official statement of beliefs, and is widely taught within its rabbinical seminaries and Hebrew schools.

However, a survey commissioned in 1972 by the Central Conference of American Rabbis, the Lenn Report, concluded that only ten percent of Reform rabbis believe in God in any traditional sense. The remaining ninety percent described themselves as Agnostic, Atheist, Polyoxist, Religious Existentialist, and Humanist. Since then many Reform rabbis have described their beliefs as theistic, deistic, adherents of Mordecia Kaplan's religious naturalism, and as adherents of polydoxy. In recent years a small but growing percent of Reform rabbis have begun to accept a Kabbalistic view of God as preferable, and adherents of Kaplan's naturalism have shrunk to some degree.

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).

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 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 slowly begun distancing itself from its previous stances. Many Reform Jews now go to Temples on Saturday, many have more Hebrew in their religious services, and many are incorporating more aspects laws and customs, in a selective fashion, into their lives.

Even those in the traditionalist wing of Reform Judaism still accept the primary principle of classical Reform: personal autonomy 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 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 Orthodox practices or beliefs, because they feel that this is not in the tradition 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.)

Teachings on the oral law

According to traditional Judaism, God revealed the Torah on Mount Sinai to Moses in two forms, (1) the written law ("Torah shebichtav"), and (2) the oral law ("Torah shebe'al peh"). According to many Reform Jews, human reason alone was competent to grasp 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 based on the written and oral law.

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. In both the Bible and in classical rabbinic literature, God clearly held the moral laws and the ceremonial laws to be of equal weight, making both equally obligatory. Analysis of the 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. (See also, the various positions within contemporary Judaism as regards the Talmud.)

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.

Jewish identity

Despite a 1973 Central Conference of American Rabbis resolution recommending otherwise, CCAR allows its rabbis to officiate at interreligious marriages. Recent surveys by the Rabbinic Center for Research and Counseling show that 40% of CCAR Reform rabbis now perform some form of intermarriages. This is an important consideration for many Reform Jews, since according to a recent survey, 53% of Reform Jews intermarry. [Gordon and Horowitz] 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. It is not clear what the direct impact was of the 1973 decision, since years before the decision some Reform rabbis had already been officiating at intermarriages. It is in fact more likely that the 1973 decision was more a result of pressure from the greater reform laity than an actual philosophical evolution in reform doctrine.

A recent comprehensive survey of the American Jewish population [Gordon and Horowitz] reveals the overwhelming trend towards assimilation in Reform Jewry. The study demonstrates that out of a sample of 100 Reform Jews in America, within two generations this sample population dwindles to 51 Jews, within three generations to 26 Jews, and within four generations to 13 Jewish decendents. Comparing this with statistics from various branches of Orthodox Judaism, where within four generations 100 Jews lead to between 346 to 2588 Jewish descendents. This has given rise to both internal and external criticism of Reform Judaism as a movement whose demographic future is questionable.

American Reform Judaism accepts the child of one Jewish parent (father or mother) as Jewish 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 be 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.

A recent trend is an increase in the number of Reform congregations that are accepting of openly gay and lesbian members and clergy.


  • Walter Jacob, ed., The Pittsburgh Platform in Retrospect: The Changing World of Reform Judaism, (Pittsburgh: Rodef Shalom Congregation Press, 1985) p 104.)
  • Theodore I. Lenn and Associates, Rabbis and Synagogue in Reform Judaism, (West Hartford: Central Conference of American Rabbis, 1972) pp 98-99.
  • Bernard Martin, Ed., Contemporary Reform Jewish Thought, Quadrangle Books 1968
  • Simeon J. Maslin, "What We Believe...What We Do...", Central Conference of American Rabbis
  • Michael A. Meyer, Response To Modernity: A History of the Reform Movement in Judaism (New York: Oxford University Press, 1988)
  • Chaim Stern , ed., Central Conference of American Rabbis. Gates of Prayer - for Shabbat and Weekdays. A Gender-Sensitive Prayerbook 1994 ISBN 0-88123-063-4 LoC: BM674.34.C46 DDC: 296.4-dc20
  • Central Conference of American Rabbis, New York, and Union of Liberal and Progressive Synagogues, London. Gates of Prayer - The New Union Prayerbook for Shabbat, Weekdays and Festivals. Services and Prayers for Synagogue and Home. 1975 ISBN 0-916694-01-1 LC: 75-13752

External Links

Official website of Reform Judaism
Reform Judaism FAQ
Reform Judaism readinglist
Platforms of Reform Judaism
Official website of Reform Judaism in the UK (Part of UK Progressive Judaism)
Official website of Liberal Judaism in the UK (Part of UK Progressive Judaism)
Why be Reform? - essay critical of Reform Judaism from a demographic perspective
Last updated: 10-16-2005 10:11:46
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