Reform Judaism: History, Beliefs, Practices

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Reform Judaism is one of the three main movements of Judaism and began before the other two — Orthodox and Conservative Judaism. The term Reform Judaism is generally used to refer to the less traditional branch of Judaism. The movement originated in early nineteenth-century Germany and adapted the rituals and liturgy of Judaism to accommodate modern social, political, and cultural developments. It is very strong in the U.S. and is sometimes called Liberal Judaism (in the U.K. Liberal Judaism is regarded as a different movement).

Reform Judaism is the most relaxed of the three main branches, at least theologically. The Reform movements of Judaism recognizes that people make decisions with a personal sense of autonomy. It accepts Jewish norms and practices by asserts that no one is a central enforcer and the interpretation of Jewish law is constantly changing. Reformed Jews believe the relationship with God is an evolving dialogue and they no longer accept the Torah as divinely revealed.

The Reform movements embraced ideas of The Enlightenment and liberalized and fought to free Jews form the constraints of Orthodoxy. Historical research was embraced as a way to refute orthodoxy. Orthodoxy was strengthened by the movement as it stood up to the challenges the reform movement threw at it.

Websites and Resources: Virtual Jewish Library ; Judaism101 ; ; Chabad,org ; BBC - Religion: Judaism ; Encyclopædia Britannica,;Yivo Institute of Jewish Research

Reform and Liberal Judaism in the U.S., the U.K. and Israel

Reform Judaism is the largest Jewish movement in the U.S. Approximately 42 percent of American Jews identify as Reform. Its teaching headquarters is at the Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati. Followers in other parts of the Jewish world are loosely organized in the World Union of Progressive Synagogues.. "Liberal Judaism" is the term used in Great Britain for the Reform position, though there are in Great Britain both Liberal and Reform congregations, with the Liberals more to the left. [Source: Louis Jacobs, Encyclopaedia Judaica, 1990s,]

There are very few Reform or Conservative congregations in the State of Israel. Orthodoxy is the official religious position in Israel, with the majority of the rabbis belonging to the old school of talmudic jurists. Here and there in recent years a number of small groups have emerged with the aim of seeking a religiously orientated outlook, but one not necessarily Orthodox. And, Jews that no longer observe Orthodox traditions make up the majority of Jews in Israel.

Liberal Judaism is a term mainly used in the United Kingdom. In terms of beliefs and practices it is more or less the same as American Reform Judaism but is more progressive than UK Reform Judaism. According to the BBC: “Liberal Judaism, as the name suggests, is a progressive form of Judaism that aims to bring Judaism and modernity together. To use the movement's own words: Liberal Judaism is the growing edge of Judaism. It reverences Jewish tradition, and seeks to preserve all that is good in the Judaism of the past. But it lives in the present. . . It is the Judaism of the past in process of becoming the Judaism of the future. [Source: BBC, July 24, 2009 |::|]

Development of Reform, Orthodox and Conservative Judaism,

Professor Joshua Shanes wrote: Competing Jewish denominations emerged, each one attempting to negotiate the relationship between Jewishness and modernity in its own way. Each group claimed that they followed the best or most authentic traditions of Judaism. The first modern denomination to organize was Reform — first in Germany in the early 19th century, but soon in America as well. Reform Judaism is based on the idea that both the Bible and the laws of the oral Torah are divinely inspired, but humanly constructed, meaning they should be adapted based on contemporary moral ideals. Reform congregations tend to emphasize prophetic themes such as social justice more than Talmudic law, though in recent years many have reclaimed some rituals, such as Hebrew liturgy and stricter observance of Shabbat. [Source: Joshua Shanes, Associate Professor of Jewish Studies, College of Charleston, The Conversation, June 15, 2023]

Orthodox Judaism soon organized in reaction to Reform, rallying to defend the strict observance of Jewish customs and law. Orthodox leaders often blurred the distinction between these categories and put particular emphasis on the 16th-century legal code called the Shulchan Aruch. Orthodoxy insists that both the written and oral Torah have divine origins. Contrary views in pre-modern sources are often censored.

Conservative Judaism, which did not arrive in the U.S. until the mid-1900s, shares many of Reform Judaism’s views, such as equal religious roles for men and women. However, Conservative Jews argue that the Reform movement pulled too far away from Jewish tradition. They insist that Jewish law remains obligatory, but that the Orthodox interpretation is too rigid. In practice, most Conservative Jews tend not to be strict about even major rituals, like observing Sabbath restrictions or kosher food practices.

History of Reform Judaism

The Reform movement was founded in Germany in the early 19th century as a response to the rigidity of Orthodox Judaism. Reforms, inspired by German church services, included giving services in the local languages instead of Hebrew, shortening services, introducing the organ to synagogues, allowing people to not cover their heads. An effort was made to treat males and females equally and provide equal opportunities to boys and girls. Reformed Jews tend to view many parts of the Torah as metaphorical and symbolic, while Orthodox take them literally. Reform Judaism found followers in other European countries, such as England, Holland, and Hungary, and spread to the United States, where it was enthusiastically embraced and assumed its most progressive form. High among the changes was conducting synagogue services in English.

Moses Mendelssohn (1729–86) is credited with being the pioneer in bringing the Jewish people into the modern world.Paul Mendes-Flohr wrote in the Worldmark Encyclopedia of Religious Practices: But as the social and cultural reality changed for an ever increasing number of Jews, Mendelssohn's reconciliation of traditional Judaism and philosophy no longer proved tenable. By sheer dint of their participation in modern culture, Jews found themselves occupying a new social and political space that led them, in varying degrees, to abandon the duties of traditional Judaism. In response to the new cultural reality, scholars and religious philosophers in the early nineteenth century, primarily in Germany, sought to develop a theology that would authenticate new conceptions of traditional obligations. Gathering under the banner of what came to be called Reform, or Liberal, Judaism, they wrote learned essays and monographs arguing that the essence of Judaism was to be found in its universal ethical teachings as opposed to time-bound ceremonial laws. Among the leading representatives of this school were Solomon Ludwig Steinheim (1790–1866), Samuel Holdheim (1806–60), and Abraham Geiger (1810–74). [Source: Paul Mendes-Flohr Worldmark Encyclopedia of Religious Practices, 2000s,]

According to the BBC: “The Reform movement began in Germany in 1819, but emerged independently in Britain in 1842 with the establishment of the West London Synagogue. The various Reform congregations eventually joined together and the Reform Synagogues of Great Britain is now a national movement with 42 Congregations. One in six of all Jews in the country now belong to the Reform Synagogues of Great Britain. Like the emergence of Protestantism, Reform Judaism developed partly out of a need for internal religious changes and partly because of wider factors operating in society at large. The issue of change is one that constantly challenges all faiths: how much can be altered to accommodate new lifestyles and attitudes? Who decides what is and is not permissible, and by what authority? It also begs the question of which parts of the faith are core values and immutable, and which are social custom and time-bound. |::|[Source: Rabbi Dr Jonathan Romain, BBC, August 13, 2009 |::|]

Pittsburgh Platform

J.M Oesterreicher wrote in the New Catholic Encyclopedia: Classical Reform in America. In the middle of the 19th century, Reform (Liberal or Progressive) Judaismwas brought to the U.S. by German-born rabbis. Before it reached the proportions of the 20th century, it had to struggle, though by no means as hard as in the land of its birth. In 1885, 19 rabbis assembled in Pittsburgh, where they formulated their ideological stance, known as the Pittsburgh Platform, which, interestingly enough, the Central Conference of American Rabbis, the Reform rabbinical organization, never made its own, though the Platform reflected the thinking of its founders. [Source: J.M Oesterreicher, New Catholic Encyclopedia, 1960s,]

These were its principles. (1) Every religion is an attempt to grasp the infinite. Judaism presents the highest conception of the God idea. (2) The Bible is the record of the consecration of the Jewish people as priests of the one God and a potent instrument of religious and moral instruction. Though it reflects primitive ideas, modern discoveries are not antagonistic to the doctrines of Judaism. (3) The Mosaic legislation was a necessary system of training for the Jewish people during its national life in Palestine. In the modern world only its moral laws are binding. No ceremonies are to be retained except those of a sanctifying character. Everything not adaptable to modern civilization is to be rejected. (4) The Mosaic and rabbinical laws regarding diet or ritual purity are foreign to modern mental and spiritual outlooks.

(5) The modern era of universal culture is a sign that Israel's great messianic hope is about to be realized. Hence, neither a return to Palestine nor a restoration of the ancient sacrificial system is desirable. (6) Judaism is a progressive religion, ever striving to be in accord with the postulates of reason. Christianity has a providential mission in the spreading of monotheistic and moral truths. (7) The soul of man is immortal but belief in bodily resurrection, hell, and paradise is to be rejected as not rooted in Judaism. (8) In the spirit of the Mosaic Law, which strives to regulate the relation between rich and poor, Jews are duty-bound to help solve the modern problems of social justice. (See Davis, 226–227).

Orthodox and Reform Differences in Regard to Jewish Law (Halakhah)

Louis Jacobs wrote in the Encyclopaedia Judaica: The great divide between Orthodoxy and Reform was on the question of Jewish law (halakhah). According to the Orthodox position, the traditional doctrine of Torah min ha-Shamayim ("the Torah is from Heaven") means that both the Written and the Oral Laws were communicated by God to Moses and that, therefore, all the Pentateuchal laws, in their interpretation as found in the rabbinic literature, are binding upon Jews by divine fiat. The Sabbath, for instance, is to be kept in the manner set forth in detail in the Talmud; the dietary laws are to be observed in all their minutiae. [Source: Louis Jacobs, Encyclopaedia Judaica, 1990s,]

On this view nothing in the law is trivial or unworthy or out-of-date, since every law is a direct command of God for all time. Reform Judaism rejects the idea of a permanently binding religious law. In the Reform view, the moral law alone is eternally valid, together with those religious ceremonies which are still capable of inspiring contemporary Jews to appreciate the beauty, dignity, and supreme worth of a God-orientated life. A middle of the road position was advocated by the followers of the historical school in Germany and later by the Conservative movement in the United States. In this view, Reform is in error in rejecting the halakhah, but Orthodoxy is also mistaken in wedding adherence to halakhah to a fundamentalism which recognizes no change or development in Jewish law.

Reforms Undertaken by Reform Judaism

According to the BBC: “In Judaism the decision-making body had historically been the Sanhedrin, the Jewish parliament of 71 rabbis. It was established at the turn of the first millennium and had the task of adapting the faith to ever-changing conditions. Their debates are recorded in the Mishnah and Talmud. They reformed Judaism to such an extent that what emerged was no longer recognisable as Biblical Judaism and became known as Rabbinic Judaism. |::|

“It was they who effectively abolished the death penalty even though it is frequently commanded in the Bible. Similarly they declared that the verse in Exodus 21.24 "an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth" should be divested of any sense of physical retribution but interpreted to mean financial compensation instead. |::|

“However the demise of the Sanhedrin in the fifth century robbed Judaism of its dynamic reforming process and a central authority to implement major changes. Leading scholars did effect some modifications but there was a general reticence to reverse rulings made by rabbis of previous centuries, who were considered to be more pious than modern ones. The result was an increasing stultification within the faith, and the gulf between Jewish Law and everyday reality widened. Conformity became the hallmark of religious authenticity. |::|

“This did not stop Jewish life from continuing. For centuries Jews were forcibly separated from wider society by discriminatory legislation and this had the effect of keeping them cocooned in their own world and unaffected by changing trends. The problem only became a crisis in the nineteenth century when the social and legal barriers around them came down, and Jews were catapulted into modern society. |::|

“For some, the sudden transition was too overwhelming, and it led to them abandoning Judaism. Others reacted by retreating back into their faith and deliberately shunning any contact with life outside. Another group sought to inhabit both worlds, loyal to their tradition but also part of modernity. That was the creation of Reform Judaism.” |::|

Reform Judaism Beliefs

Reform Jews, unlike Orthodox Jews, do not accept that God gave the Torah to Moses. They believe that the source of the Torah was several different authors and that the Torah is a compilation of these texts. They do not adhere to the 613 mitzvoth, but they retain many of the values, ethics, practices, and culture of Judaism. Many Jews consider Reform Judaism to be the movement most open or accepting of change. [Source:]

Reform Judasim rejects ritual, especially the restricting observances, and retains only ceremonies with obvious symbolic meanings. According to the International Encyclopedia of the Social Sciences: As to doctrine, Reform Judaism emphasizes the ethical aspects of religion and advocates an enlightened but absolute monotheism, stressing in this way its difference from Christianity. Relinquishing tradition in principle, the Reform trend did not substitute any other source of authority for guidance in religious theory or practice. For this reason there is no unanimity among Reform Jews on just how much of the tradition is to be retained. The Reform rabbi is not expected to lay down the law for the community but rather to serve as preacher whose task is to officiate at ceremonies and guide the congregation to religious contemplation and elevation.

Most of the changes made by Reformed Jews were superficial. The main themes of Judaism: monotheism, righteousness, and community remained alive. As Reformed Judaism developed and Orthodoxy challenged it a number of gradients developed between the two.

Practices of Reform Judaism

In Reform Judaism liturgy was purged of elements deemed archaic and nationalistic such as the prayer for the institution of sacrifices and the ultimate return of the Jews to their homeland. Messianism was interpreted as a belief in human progress. Of the prayers retained, some were translated into the vernacular, and services were adapted to modern taste. [Source: Jacob Kat. International Encyclopedia of the Social Sciences,]

Reform Judaism synagogue in Cincinnati

According to the BBC: “Services were no longer conducted solely in Hebrew, but in a mixture of Hebrew and English, recognising the fact that for most Jews the vernacular was the main language of communication.Sections of the liturgy were omitted if they no longer corresponded to what Jews believed. Out went prayers for the restoration of animal sacrifices, perhaps appropriate for Biblical times but not desired by modern Jews. [Source: Rabbi Dr Jonathan Romain, BBC, August 13, 2009 |::|]

“Most dramatic of all has been the complete equality accorded to women. In Orthodox synagogues women are seated separately from men and do not lead any part of the service when men are present. In Reform synagogues they sit together with men, participate actively in public worship and can now also be rabbis. Revelation vs interpretation |::|

“Whilst these changes are some of the obvious outward signs of Reform Judaism, the key to them all is the question of what happened at Mount Sinai. For the Orthodox, it was the revelation of God given once and for all time. Aspects might be interpreted through oral traditions, but it cannot be altered or negated.

Positions on Science, Modernity and Morality in Reform Judaism

According to the BBC: Reform adheres to the notion of Progressive Revelation: that the will of God is constantly unfolding and each generation has to hear God's voice in its own time. Mount Sinai was the start, but what held true four thousand years ago for a nomadic group living in the wilderness does not necessarily apply today. Scientific knowledge and modern insights are part of God's revelation too. |::|

“One current example might be homosexuality. Described in the Bible as an abomination and regarded as a perversion, we now know that for some people it is their natural orientation. It was not their choice, but God created them that way. Heterosexuals may feel uncomfortable with them, but have to recognise their right to be as they are. The Bible may be an authoritative text, but it does not have final authority. In the classic formulation of the relationship between past and present, 'tradition has a vote, but not a veto'. |::|

“Reform has also given prominence to the moral commands over the ritual observances. This is not to devalue or abandon rituals, but to emphasise that by themselves they are insufficient unless they are accompanied by ethical conduct. Thus keeping the dietary laws and lighting candles are worthless unless one is also scrupulously honest in business or cares for the downtrodden. Moreover, it is held that the purpose of rituals is to enhance one's religious life and so those that impede it have been jettisoned - such as the ban on driving to synagogue on the Sabbath even if one lives too far away. |::|

“Another characteristic of Reform is its attitude to modern life. Instead of seeing it as full of dangers and to be resisted, it is seen as a place of opportunities and to be welcomed. Although it contains unpleasant aspects, they should not prevent one from benefiting from the good it has to offer. |::|

Different Practices in Orthodox, Reform and Conservative Judaism

J.M Oesterreicher wrote in the New Catholic Encyclopedia The traditional service is, except for a few Aramaic interludes, in Hebrew. However, in the typical Reform Temple (the term temple was originally chosen as a substitute for synagogue to disavow hope for the rebuilding of the shrine that was once the pride of Jews) most of the prayers are in the vernacular. Since every congregation is independent, the proportional use of Hebrew and English in Reform and Conservative congregations varies. Traditional Jews will not pray, study Torah, or perform any act of worship unless their heads are covered. If they did otherwise, they would consider it irreverent, to stand slipshod in the presence of the Lord. [Source: J.M Oesterreicher, New Catholic Encyclopedia, 1960s,]

The Orthodox Jews who follow custom rigidly have their heads constantly covered; at services they like to wear hats, whereas Conservatives use "yarmulkes" (Yiddish word for skullcaps), at times of varied colors and beautifully embroidered. Reform Jews wear no head covering, following in this the conventions of Western civilization, where the bared head is a sign of respect.

In Orthodox synagogues men and women are separated. In most Conservative synagogues and all Reform temples they are seated together. In a traditional service Scripture readings and prayers are chanted; in a modernized one, they are recited in a formal manner. In all Orthodox and many Conservative synagogues, priestly descendants (their shoes removed, as was done in the Temple of Jerusalem) chant the Aaronic blessing (Nm6.22–27) over the people. The cantillation, at times amateurish, may jar a modern musically trained ear. In a reformed service, therefore, the rabbi imparts that blessing. There, as elsewhere, a prevailing criterion is decorum.

Reform Judaism and the Future

According to the BBC: “The danger for any new movement is that it too ossifies and becomes another orthodoxy. However, Reform Judaism has tried to remain true to its reforming principles by being open to new developments. It considers same-faith marriages preferable, but has striven to make mixed-faith couples still feel welcome. Jewish status is still determined by the matrilineal line, but new procedures have been introduced recently to accept children of Jewish fathers and non-Jewish mothers. [Source: Rabbi Dr Jonathan Romain, BBC, August 13, 2009 |::|]

“Reform Judaism is also currently revising its prayer book so as to adopt inclusive language and eradicate exclusively male imagery. For instance, instead of "all men shall praise you our King, O God of our fathers", it will say "all people shall praise you our Ruler, O God of our ancestors". |::|

“It is a measure of the success of Reform Judaism that some of its innovations have been adopted by Orthodox synagogues, such as a special coming-of-age ceremony for girls or holding a communal Passover meal for those without family. Equally influential has been its development of the synagogue as a community centre rather than just a house of prayer. Few today are complete without a friendship club, keep-fit group and bridge circle. |::|

“It also provided a model for the Church of England. The first woman rabbi predated the entry of women into the priesthood by seventeen years and after a similar struggle for recognition. The general acceptance of women rabbis once they had become a fact of life showed that threats of mass defection did not materialise even though there was on-going discontent in some quarters. Similarly, the acceptance of gay rabbis - although small in number - indicates that the majority of congregants judge a person by their integrity rather than their sexuality. Prominent Reform rabbis |::|

“Some Reform rabbis have had a great impact on national life in recent times. Lionel Blue became a household name through his contributions to Thought for the Day and other BBC programmes. The late Rabbi Hugo Gryn, stalwart of Radio 4's Moral Maze, also belonged to the Reform, and through his mixture of tradition and common-sense he epitomised what the movement as a whole stood for. |::|

“Despite their different approaches, Reform and Orthodoxy still have more in common than that which separates them. Other smaller Jewish groups exist too - Liberals and Masorti - mixing tradition and change in varying ways. Reform sees itself as neither superior nor inferior to them, but as an equally authentic expression of Judaism today, with a particular appeal to those deeply committed both to their Jewish heritage and modern life. |::|

Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons

Text Sources: Internet Jewish History Sourcebook “World Religions” edited by Geoffrey Parrinder (Facts on File Publications, New York); “ Encyclopedia of the World’s Religions” edited by R.C. Zaehner (Barnes & Noble Books, 1959); “Old Testament Life and Literature” by Gerald A. Larue, New International Version (NIV) of The Bible,; Wikipedia, National Geographic, BBC, New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Smithsonian magazine, Times of London, The New Yorker, Reuters, AP, AFP, Lonely Planet Guides, and various books and other publications.

Last updated March 2024

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