Jewish Denominations: Emergence and Growth

Modernization and its discontents.

Print this page Print this page

Early Reform in Germany was not a negative movement. On the contrary, it had the positive aim of stemming the tide of apostasy, declaring that Judaism still had the power of truth to hold its adherents, if only some of the Jewish institutions were recast and the religion reformed so as to make less marked the difference between the Jew and his Gentile neighbor.

At first, the reformers introduced comparatively minor changes in the liturgy. They removed some of the less inspiring prayers from the prayerbook; introduced some new hymns in German; brought in an organ accompaniment to the prayers; and inculcated a greater sense of decorum in the Western style. Sermons were also introduced. The most far-reaching of the early reforms was the abolition of prayers for the restoration of the sacrificial system and for the return of the Jews to their ancient homeland, thus involving a complete reinterpretation of Messianic hope. The supernatural elements in messianism were disregarded as were the more pronounced particularistic elements in the traditional faith.

The messianic vision, to which they were faithful, meant for the Reformers the emergence of a better world in which liberal ideas would triumph. The prophetic theme that Israel would become a light to the nations was understood by Reformers not to refer to a Jewish people in the Holy Land, spreading from there the truth about God and His relationship to peace, justice and freedom. The Reformers understood Judaism as “ethical monotheism,” with its institutions not as divine laws  but as human means of furthering this ideal until it became the religion of all mankind. From this view point there followed the idea that the dietary laws, for example, had played an important role in assuring Jewish survival in the past but could now be a hindrance in that they frustrated social relationships between Jews and Gentiles.

A Break with Tradition

The polemics between the Orthodox, as the traditionalists came to be called, and the Reformers were fierce. The Orthodox treated Reform as rank heresy, as no more than a religion of convenience, which, if followed, would lead Jews altogether out of Judaism. The Reformers retorted that, on the contrary, the danger to Jewish survival was occasioned by the Orthodox who, through their obscurantism, failed to see that the new challenge facing Judaism had to be faced consciously in the present as Judaism had faced, albeit unconsciously, similar changes in the past.

Did you like this article?  MyJewishLearning is a not-for-profit organization.

Please consider making a donation today.

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.