Dana Evan Kaplan & Evan Moffic. Worldmark Encyclopedia of Religious Practices. Editor: Thomas Riggs. Volume 1: Religions and Denominations. Detroit: Gale, 2006.
Reform Judaism is a movement that believes in modifying traditional Jewish law and practice to make it consistent with contemporary social and cultural conditions. The movement began in the early nineteenth century, when Jewish reformers, responding to political and other changes in western and central Europe, began altering the Jewish worship service. Over time rabbis and laypeople sympathetic to these changes coalesced as a distinct group, and by the middle of the century, they had developed a set of ideological principles distinct from traditional Jewish doctrine. This Reform movement spread throughout most of western Europe, and by the end of the nineteenth century it had become a prominent feature of American Judaism.
Reform Jews are a minority of the Jewish population in most countries around the world, but they are a growing presence in Israel and the former Soviet Union, and they form the largest Jewish denomination in the United States. About a third of American Jews affiliated with a synagogue belong to a Reform synagogue.
Influenced by the ideals of the Enlightenment and by promises of political and social freedom, the first reformers were German Jews seeking to live as both Jews and members of the larger society. They aimed to introduce modern aesthetics and strict decorum into the traditionally informal and jumbled Jewish worship service.
By the early 1840s a trained Reform rabbinic leadership emerged in central Europe. Reform conferences in Brunswick in 1844, Frankfurt in 1845, and Breslau in 1846 gave rabbis an opportunity to clarify their beliefs and discuss ways to derive innovative practices from those beliefs. Despite the shadow of anti-Semitism and the threat of forced conversion to Christianity, the movement continued to grow in Germany and much of central Europe throughout the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.
The Reform movement in the United States developed in a much freer and more pluralistic atmosphere. From its beginnings in Charleston, South Carolina, in 1824, American Reform Judaism grew rapidly, especially after the large migration of German Jews to the United States in the late 1840s. During the 1870s and 1880s German immigrant Rabbi Isaac Mayer Wise founded the central institutions that formed the organizational basis of American Reform Judaism.
Distinguishing Reform from other branches of Judaism is the belief that Jewish practices have evolved over time and should continue to do so. Most Reform Jews agree that God did not reveal the Torah (the written Jewish law) to Moses at one definitive moment. Rather the Torah and the vast corpus of Jewish literature developed gradually, reflecting changes in the social and cultural life of the Jewish people.
Reform Judaism and Conservative Judaism have common roots—the reaction of Jews to social and political forces in nineteenth-century Europe. The Reform branch, however, does not believe that Jewish law (including, for example, its dietary restrictions) is binding. Reform Jews have also emphasized the ethical component of Judaism over ritual practices, and Reform institutions have given lay Jews more authority in determining the legitimacy of various religious practices and principles.
Moral Code of Conduct
Reform Jews have emphasized the central role that ethics should play in a religious system. The prophets of the Bible, such as Micah, Isaiah, and Hosea, placed emphasis on social responsibility, and Reform Jews see the prophets as a model for their religious duty to teach the world an ethical vision for society.
By the late twentieth century the Reform movement had embraced many liberal notions of what is moral and ethical. In the United States the Reform branch differs most prominently from Conservative Judaism in its acceptance of intermarriage (between Jews and non-Jews), gay and lesbian marriage, and the ordination of gay rabbis. The Reform movement has also developed an ethical code on other issues, such as sexuality, proper business practices, and civic responsibility.
The Reform movement has emphasized the importance of the Hebrew Bible (including the Torah) over the Talmud (comprising rabbinic discussions of Jewish law and practice). Early reformers felt the Talmud was overemphasized in traditional Jewish education, and Reform Jews have seen the Bible as having a more universal significance than the Talmud. The Reform movement has produced numerous prayer books for use in the home and the synagogue.
Reform Jews have maintained traditional Jewish symbols, such as the menorah, but have sometimes interpreted them in a dramatically different way. They may see the Torah, the most sacred Jewish symbol, as an emblem of human freedom, whereas an Orthodox Jew may see it as representing the eternal commitment to Jewish law. Because the Reform movement stresses the autonomy of the individual, Reform Jews may interpret religious symbols in their own way.
Early and Modern Leaders
Israel Jacobson, one of the earliest figures of the Reform movement, established the first Reform prayer chapel in 1801 in the German state of Westphalia. He made changes in Jewish worship and education, setting the pattern for lay-led innovations. Rabbi Isaac Mayer Wise emigrated from Bohemia to the United States in 1846 and built the American Reform movement. A populist who whole-heartedly embraced the use of English (rather than the more usual German) in Reform congregations, Wise founded the central institutions of American Reform Judaism, wrote a popular prayer book, and established a Jewish newspaper.
Rabbi Alexander M. Schindler, president of the Union of American Hebrew Congregations (UAHC) from 1973 to 1996, is known for his assertive support of civil rights, world peace, nuclear disarmament, a “Marshall Plan” for the poor, a ban on the death penalty, feminism, gay rights, and outreach to intermarried couples. Rabbi Eric Yoffie, who became president of the UAHC in 1996, is known for his advocacy of a “Reform revolution” that would involve more intensive Jewish education, greater liturgical innovation, and a reinvigoration of worship.
Major Theologians and Authors
Among early Reform theologians, Rabbi Abraham Geiger and Rabbi David Einhorn stand out. Geiger was a leading pulpit rabbi and scholar in mid-nineteenth-century Germany. He believed that a critical understanding of Jewish history and an appreciation of the moral genius in Judaism should serve as the basis of a new Judaism shorn of archaic practices. Einhorn, who emigrated from Germany to the United States in 1854, was considered the leader of the radical wing of American Reform Judaism. His writings, which argued for a universal moral sensibility and a theologically unswerving attitude, conflicted with the more pragmatic program of his contemporary, Rabbi Isaac Wise, who emphasized responding effectively to changing social trends. Over time Wise’s views have proved the more popular.
Rabbi Eugene Borowitz, a leading Reform Jewish theologian in the United States, has emphasized the responsibility of the individual Jew to engage with Jewish tradition in an open, critical manner.
The World Union for Progressive Judaism is an organizational body serving Reform and other congregations in more than 40 countries. The three central institutions of American Reform Judaism are the Union for Reform Judaism (representing more than 900 Reform congregations), the Central Conference of American Rabbis, and the Hebrew Union College–Jewish Institute of Religion (the largest Reform rabbinical school in the world, with campuses in Cincinnati, New York City, Los Angeles, and Jerusalem). The Leo Baeck College in London also trains Reform rabbis.
Houses of Worship and Holy Places
Originally Jews named their houses of worship synagogues to distinguish them from the original Temple in Jerusalem, destroyed by the Romans in the year 70 C.E. Reform Jews, however, traditionally called their houses of worship temples, indicating that these structures replaced the original Temple as their center for prayer and that they did not aspire to rebuild the Jerusalem Temple or to return to live in Israel even in a future messianic time. The contemporary Reform movement sees the local temple as a place for worship, study, and fellowship and uses “temple” and “synagogue” synonymously.
What is Sacred?
While the Torah and other religious articles have a degree of holiness, Reform Judaism discourages overly emphasizing symbols or places. The most sacred act is the study of the Torah, but all actions that do not violate human dignity are considered sacred and significant.
Holidays and Festivals
Reform Jews observe all the major Jewish holidays, but shorten the length of Rosh Hashanah and Passover by a day. They also omit the festive seder meal on the second night of Passover. Reform Jews are not required to follow many of the traditional restrictions on behavior during Jewish holidays, such as not driving in cars and not writing.
Mode of Dress
Reform Jews dress like non-Jews as part of the movement’s commitment to integrating into the host society (maintaining a distinctive religion, but not at the expense of social segregation).
Reform Jews do not generally observe kashruth, the strict Jewish dietary laws. Some abstain from certain types of foods that are regarded as particularly nonkosher, such as pork and sometimes shellfish. Most Reform synagogues prohibit the serving of such foods at temple-sponsored events and may also require the traditional separation of milk and meat so that everyone can eat freely regardless of their level of observance.
The Reform synagogue has services on Friday nights, and sometimes on Saturday mornings, in celebration of the Sabbath. The largest services are on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. The style of ritual in Reform congregations has changed over the past 50 years from formal to participatory. Many contemporary Reform Jews have reembraced ritual practice, but because they are looking for spiritual meaning rather than a faithfulness to God’s command, they do so selectively.
Rites of Passage
Reform Jews commemorate all the traditional Jewish rites of passage, but the Reform movement’s flexibility allows members to individually design their rites to meet their spiritual needs. Reformers have also developed new rituals, believing that if a new ceremony is meaningful, there is no reason not to introduce it into practice. One nontraditional ritual is the passing of the Torah at many Reform bar mitzvahs (Jewish coming-of-age ceremonies). The grandparents hold the Torah and then hand it to the parents, who pass it to the 13-year-old, symbolizing the desire to pass Jewish family traditions from generation to generation.
The Reform movement has adopted an active outreach program to families in which at least one of the parents is Jewish. Reform Jews also welcome non-Jewish religious seekers. Reform congregations in the United States have become increasingly multicultural, with significant numbers of African-American, Hispanic, and Asian members. Although historically membership in a synagogue required conversion to Judaism, people have increasingly become active in Reform congregations without formally converting. Still, most Reform rabbis encourage conversion for the sake of strengthening Jewish life and families.
Reform Judaism is a very tolerant denomination and has been a leader in interfaith dialogue. As in other branches of Judaism, Reform Jews believe righteous individuals of all faiths can go to heaven. Therefore, it is not necessary to convert to Judaism in order to obtain salvation.
For Reform Jews practice is more important than belief, and ethics are more important than ritual. The early reformers believed deeply in working with their Christian neighbors to make the world more livable, peaceful, and just; this belief was central to their religious worldview. Reform Judaism has often been called “Prophetic Judaism” because of the movement’s strong identification with the ethical and moral vision of the biblical prophets, who emphasized social responsibility. The Reform movement maintains a politicalaction office in Washington, D.C., and provides a variety of resources to synagogues that want to engage in social-action projects.
Most Reform Jews would agree that an ideal family consists of two loving partners—in a monogamous, religiously sanctified union—and their children. While sanctioning the traditional Jewish view that having and raising children is a sacred obligation, the Reform movement has opposed the “familycentered” agenda of the religious right.
Women were regarded as equal to men from the beginning of the Reform movement. Religious roles remained traditionally gender based for much of the twentieth century, but since the 1970s women have read prayers, served on synagogue boards, and become rabbis and cantors.
The American Reform movement is unequivocally committed to supporting full social and legal equality for gays and lesbians, and it has appointed a considerable number as rabbis and cantors. Many Reform rabbis officiate at same-sex commitment ceremonies.
Reform Judaism has consistently upheld the right of women to choose to have an abortion and the duty of parents and schools to teach children about safe sex and birth control. The movement opposes the death penalty, favors protecting the environment, and supports gun-control legislation.
The Reform movement has had a significant impact on the cultural life of many countries, especially the United States. This influence is reflected by its representation in literature, which commonly includes Reform Jews, synagogues, and rabbis, and in films and television shows, often featuring Reform synagogues or weddings ceremonies involving Reform rabbis.