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Reform Judaism


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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.) 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 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. Reform, however, did not, at first, become organized as a separate movement. A number of cultured laymen in various German cities tried their hand at creating a liturgy and form of service which they believed was more in keeping with Western ideas. 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 a 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 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 centred on 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 radical 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.

Essentially, Reform Judaism departs from Orthodox Judaism in its understanding of revelation. For Orthodoxy the Torah is the revealed will of God and the Jew is required to observe the commands of the Torah not because they enrich his spiritual life (though Orthodoxy believes that they do have this effect) but because this is God's will. Reform, with its doctrine of ‘progressive revelation’, believes that in successive generations God allows for different appreciations of the truth of the Torah. Critics of Reform have accused the movement of being too much influenced by the Zeitgeist in its departure from tradition. It is in the area of revelation that Conservative Judaism seeks to understand the concept in a way that acknowledges the human element in the Torah while recognizing, at the same time, that the practical observances, as laid down in the Halakhah, are the will of God, albeit given through Israel not, as in Orthodox Judaism, simply to Israel. The three basic ideas on which Judaism is based are God, the Torah, and Israel. There is much truth in the generalization that, of the three, Reform places the stress particularly on God, Orthodoxy on the Torah, Conservative Judaism on the peoplehood of Israel.

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Subjects: Judaism and Jewish Studies.


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