Reform Judaism

An examination of the origins and early development of Reform Judaism in Germany and the United States.

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Reprinted with permission from The Jewish Religion: A Companion, published by Oxford University Press.

Reform Judaism is 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 Judaismís 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.)

Emancipation and the Impulse to Reform Judaism

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 the 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.

A bust of Isaac Mayer Wise, American Reform leader

Reform, however, did not, at first, become organized as a separated movement. A number of cultured laymen in various German cities tried their hand at creating liturgy and format which they believed was more keeping with Western ideals. 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 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 Prayer Book of the Hamburg Temple omitted most of the references in the traditional Prayer Book to the return to Zion and the restoration of the Temple service. Prayers and sermons in the German language were introduced and an organ was played to accompany the prayers.

The Reform Movement Emerges in Germany and Spreads Throughout Europe

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.

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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.