The Origins of Reform Judaism
Reform Judaism was born at the time of the French Revolution,
a time when European Jews were recognized for the first time as
citizens of the countries in which they lived. Ghettos were being
abolished, special badges were no more, people could settle where
they pleased, dress as they liked and follow the occupations that
Many Jews settled outside of Jewish districts, and began to live
like their neighbors and speak the language of the land. They
went to public schools and universities, began to neglect Jewish
studies and to disregard the Shulchan Aruch.
In 1815, after Napoleon's defeat, Jews lost the rights of citizenship
in several countries. Many Jews became Christian to retain those
rights. Thoughtful Jews were concerned about this. They realized
that many of these changes took place not because of a dislike
of Judaism, but to obtain better treatment. Many rabbis believed
the way to address this was to force Jews to keep away from Christians
and give up public schools and universities. This didn't work.
Leopold Zunz proposed something else. He suggested that Jews study
their history and learn of the great achievements of the past.
While Zunz was implementing his ideas, a movement began to make
religious services better understood, by incorporating music and
the local language. Local Rabbis, however, persuaded the government
to close the test synagogue.
Shortly after the closing, Rabbi Abraham Geiger suggested that
observance might also be changed to appeal to modern people. Geiger,
a skilled scholar in both Tanach and German studies, investigated
Jewish history. He discovered that Jewish life had continually
changed. Every now and then, old practices were changed and new
ones introduced, resulting in a Jewish life that was quite different
from that lived 4,000 or even 2,000 years before. He noticed these
changes often made it easier for Jews to live in accordance with
Judaism. Geiger concluded that this process of change needed to
continue to make Judaism attractive to all Jews.
Between 1810 and 1820, congregations in Seesen, Hamburg and Berlin
instituted fundamental changes in traditional Jewish practices
and beliefs, such as mixed seating, singleday observance
of festivals and the use of a cantor/choir. Many leaders of the
Reform movement took a very "rejectionist" view of Jewish
practice and discarded traditions and rituals. For example:
- Circumcision was not practiced, and was decried as barbaric.
- The Hebrew language was removed from the liturgy and replaced
- The hope for a restoration of the Jews in Israel was officially
renounced, and it was officially stated that Germany was to be
the new Zion.
- The ceremony in which a child celebrated becoming Bar Mitzvah
was replaced with a "confirmation" ceremony.
- The laws of Kashrut and family purity were officially declared
"repugnant" to modern thinking people, and were not
- Shabbat was observed on Sunday.
- Traditional restrictions on Shabbat behavior were not followed.
Reform Comes to America
American Reform Judaism began as these German "reformers"
immigrated to American in the mid1800s. The first "Reform"
group was formed by a number of individuals that split from Congregation
Beth Elohim in Charleston, South Carolina. Reform rapidly became
the dominant belief system of American Jews of the time. It was
a national phenomenon.
Reform Judaism in American benefitted from the lack of a central
religious authority. It also was molded by Rabbi Isaac Mayer Wise.
Rabbi Wise came to the United States in 1846 from Bohemia, spent
eight years in Albany, NY, and then moved to Cincinnati on the
edge of the frontier. He then proceeded to:
1. Write the first siddur edited for American worshipers, Minhag
2. Found the Union of American Hebrew Congregations in 1873.
3. Found Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati in 1875.
4. Found the Central Conference of American Rabbis (CCAR) in 1889.
Reform Jews also pioneered a number of organizations, such as
the Educational Alliance on the Lower East Side of New York, the
Young Men's Hebrew Association, the American Jewish Committee
and the Anti-Defamation League of B'nai Brith.
By 1880, more than 90 percent of American synagogues were Reform.
This was the time of the major Eastern European immigration, which
was heavily Orthodox and nonGerman, as contrasted with the
strongly German Reform movement. Many Reform congregations of
this time were difficult to distinguish from neighboring Protestant
churches, with preachers in robes, pews with mixed seating, choirs,
organs and hymnals. Like their counterparts in Germany, American
Reform rabbis, such as David Einhorn, Samuel Holdheim, Bernard
Felsenthal and Kaufmann Kohler, adopted a radical approach to
Although early American Reform rabbis dropped quite a bit of traditional
prayers and rituals, there was still a "bottom line."
In 1909, the CCAR formally declared its opposition to intermarriage.
And, although decried as "archaic" and "barbarian,"
the practice of circumcision remained a central rite.
This early radicalism was mentioned in the 1885 Pittsburgh Platform,
which dismisses "such Mosaic and rabbinical laws as regulate
diet, priestly purity and dress" as anachronisms that only
obstruct spirituality in the modern age. The platform stressed
that Reform Jews must only be accepting of laws that they feel
"elevate and sanctify our lives" and must reject those
customs and laws that are "not adapted to the views and habits
of modern civilization."
Early Reform Judaism was also antiZionist, believing the
Diaspora was necessary for Jews to be "light unto the nations."
Nevertheless, a number of Reform rabbis were pioneers in establishing
Zionism in America, including Gustav and Richard Gottheil, Rabbi
Steven S. Wise (founder of the American Jewish Congress) and Justice
Louis Brandeis. Following the Balfour Declaration, the Reform
movement began to support Jewish settlements in Palestine, as
well as institutions such as Hadassah Hospital and the Hebrew
As the years passed, a reevaluation took place in which many members
of the Reform movement began to question the "reforms"
that were made. By 1935, the movement had begun to return to a
more traditional approach to Judaism-distinctly Jewish and distinctly
American, but also distinctively nonChristian. Starting
with the Columbus Platform in 1937, many of the discarded practices
were reincorporated into the Reform canon, and constitute what
is now called "Modern" Reform Judaism, or more succinctly,
Reform Judaism. The platform also formally shifted the movement's
position on Zionism by affirming "the obligation of all Jewry
to aid in building a Jewish homeland...."
Source: Adapted from Shamash: http://shamash.org/trb/judaism.html