What is Reform Judaism?

For an overview of all of the major Jewish denominations, see our resource on the Jewish denominations.

Reform Liberal Progressive Judaism

There are several different groups known as Reform, including

The Central Conference of American Rabbis and URJ (Union of Reform Judaism) – North America
Liberal Judaism (Union of Liberal and Progressive Synagogues) – United Kingdom
Movement for Reform Judaism (Reform Synagogues of Great Britain) – United Kingdom
Israel Movement for Reform and Progressive Judaism (IMPJ;  התנועה הרפורמית – יהדות מתקדמת בישראל‎)
World Union for Progressive Judaism (in which all of these different groups work together.)

Reform is characterized by:

  • A non-fundamentalist teaching of Jewish principles of faith:  how Torah and Tanakh was revealed by God is a subject of philosophical discussion.
  • Ancient Israelites believe that God made a covenant with the Israelites and their descendents.
  • belief that the Torah must be understood within a particular cultural context – what historians call an oral tradition.
  • The Mishnah, Midrash and Talmuds are studied significantly less than in other denominations; they are not considered normative or authoritative.
  • Nonetheless, reading the Torah through the lens of the oral law is one of the primary ways Reform Jews distinguish Judaism from other faiths.
  • Acceptance of historical scholarship/critical text study for Jewish religious texts.
  • Jewish law is no longer normative.
  • Complete autonomy of the individual as to deciding which observances to follow – if any.
  • Complete autonomy of the individual as to deciding what Jewish principles of faith to maintain, if any – other than monotheism.
  • A positive attitude toward modern culture, including the classical western tradition, and Enlightenment values.
  • Embracing modern culture in customs. Gender equality in religious study, ritual, and observance.

What does it mean when traditional Jews say that halakhah is normative, or binding?

It means that the laws and ethics of rabbinic Judaism have been, and still are, religiously binding upon us. The mitzvot (commandments) and their explanation in the later codes (which do vary,  of course!) of law are what Jews actually ought to do.

This doesn’t mean that traditional Jews believe that  these laws are enforced. There is no halakhah police forcing Jewish people to follow our laws, but we nonetheless believe that we should follow our way of life as part of our faith in God, and our commitment to each other, through the generations, as a people. Once could say that traditional Jews view the Mishnah, Talmud, and codes of law as legitimate legislation.

What does it mean when Reform Jews say that halakhah is no longer normative or binding?

Since the Enlightenment Jews should have a new way of looking at not only the later codes of law, but also the Mishnah – and even Torah itself.  Many Reform leaders taught that these laws are remnants of an earlier, more primitive time, and no longer binding.

Instead, Jews are only bound by the ethical laws of the Biblical prophets. As such, many founders of Reform dismissed the laws of the Torah and Talmud altogether. Observance of kashrut, tallit and tefillin, and many other ritual laws were openly dispenses with.

Abraham Geiger (1810-1874) is one of the most important people in the founding of Reform Judaism. In 1837 the first Reform rabbinical conference was held in Wiesbaden, Germany. There he stated, “The Talmud must go, the Bible, that collection of mostly so beautiful and exalted human books, as a divine work must also go.” To this day, on an official level, this view has never been renounced by the Reform movement.
– Michael A. Meyer, Response to Modernity: A History of the Reform Movement in Judaism, Oxford University Press, 1988, p.91.

However, another view has existed within Reform. On an individual basis many Reform Jews have hewn closer to a halakhic way of life; some have authored volumes of responsa. Today it is not uncommon to find Reform Jews praying from a siddur using mostly Hebrew, wearing a kipa and tallit, and many Reform congregations increasingly have kitchens compatible with some level of kashrut observance.

Most of Reform Judaism is against the observance of Jewish law, viewing it as “backward-looking.” Reform Rabbi Mark Washofsky, Professor of Jewish Law and Practice at HUC-JIR Cincinnati, writes about his colleagues:

“To our left stand those Jews who dismiss traditional Jewish law as at best irrelevant and at worst positively injurious to our most deeply cherished liberal values. Jewish law, they claim, supports doctrines and teachings that inevitably contradict our intellectual and ethical commitments on issues such as human freedom and autonomy, social justice, gender equality, and the relations between Jews and the non-Jewish world. No approach to Jewish law, however ‘liberal’ it might be, can successfully alter its parochial and backward-looking nature.”

“Against Method: Liberal Halakhah Between Theory and Practice,” Walter Jacob, ed., Beyond the Letter of the Law: Essays on Diversity in the Halakhah, Rodef Shalom Press, 2004, pp. 17-18

Ideas about Jewish law are made on an individual basis. On Mail.Liberal.Jewish Rabbi John M. Sherwood writes:

“There are no authoritative sources in the Reform movement. Every position taken by the CCAR and/or the UAHC has no authoritative power. All resolutions make recommendations, but are not binding. The only phenomenon that would appear to be an exception to this position was the refusal of the UAHC to admit a Jewish Humanist Synagogue that had applied for membership, and that issue was argued at length on both sides by a number of movement leaders. The congregation’s rabbi remains a member in good standing of the CCAR.”

Similarly, we read in the Encyclopaedia Judaica:

“Reform Judaism’s manifestations vary from place to place, and have undergone constant change in the course of time. They all share the assertion of the legitimacy of change in Judaism, and the denial of eternal validity to any given formulation of Jewish belief or codification of Jewish law. Apart from that, there is little unanimity among Reform Jews either in matters of belief or in practical observance. Conservative and radical positions coexist and enjoy mutual respect.”

The Reform movement holds that Jews don’t have any specific principles of Jewish faith, whether from the Talmud, Maimonides, or otherwise. Rabbi W. Gunther Plaut writes:

“there is no such thing as a Jewish theological principle, policy, or doctrine.” This is because Reform Judaism affirms “the fundamental principle of Liberalism: that the individual will approach this body of mitzvot and minhagim in the spirit of freedom and choice. Traditionally Israel started with harut, the commandment engraved upon the Tablets, which then became freedom. The Reform Jew starts with herut, the freedom to decide what will be harut – engraved upon the personal Tablets of his life.”

– Bernard Martin, Ed., Contemporary Reform Jewish Thought, Quadrangle Books 1968

Reform has been criticized by Conservative and Orthodox rabbis for taking away precisely what people seek when they turn to religion for guidance:

… [the Reform] method – which seeks to determine morality on the basis of each individual’s interaction with God – poses a severe danger of anarchy, for each person will be on his or her own in determining what is right and good. One wonders how community is supposed to be maintained under such a system. Reform idealogues like Eugene Borowitz have claimed that Jews are identified by their common commitment to the Covenant, but I, for one, doubt whether this has any meaning in practice without specification of authoritative norms under that Covenant. Moreover, this “covenantal” method ironically robs individuals of precisely what they seek when they turn to religion for guidance in these matters, for it tells them to seek God and decide for themselves!

 – “A Methodology for Jewish Medical Ethics” by Elliot N. Dorff

Origin of Classic Reform Judaism

Between 1810 and 1820, {Reform} congregations in Seesen, Hamburg and Berlin instituted fundamental changes in traditional Jewish practices and beliefs, such as mixed seating, single ­day observance of festivals, and the use of a cantor/choir. Many leaders of the Reform movement took a rejectionist view of Jewish practice and discarded traditions and rituals. For example:

Reform Rabbi Kaufman Kohler convened the Pittsburgh conference of Reform rabbis, in which he disparaged circumcision, and all of rabbinic Jewish law:

“I do not for a moment hesitate to say it right here and in the face of the entire Jewish world that… circumcision is a barbarous cruelty which disfigures and disgraces our ancestral heirloom and our holy mission as priests among mankind. The rite is a national remnant of savage African life… I can no longer accept the fanciful and twisted syllogisms of Talmudic law as binding for us… I think, if anywhere, here we ought to have the courage to emancipate ourselves from the thralldom of Rabbinical legality.”

Walter Jacob, ed., The Pittsburgh Platform in Retrospect: The Changing World of Reform Judaism, Rodef Shalom Congregation Press, 1985, p.101-104.

Kohler became President of the Hebrew Union College, the official rabbinic seminary for the Reform movement. There the movement taught “There is no justification whatsoever for… the most precious time of the student to be spent upon Halakhic discussions… [and] the inane discussions that fill so many pages of the Babylonian Gemarah.

– Jack Wertheimer, ed., Tradition Renewed: A History of the Jewish Theological Seminary of America, volume 2, Jewish Theological Seminary of America, 1997, p. 550.

Other examples of how Reform differed from traditional Judaism were:

The Hebrew language was removed from the liturgy – and replaced with German.

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 observed.

All traditional Shabbat restrictions were abolished. Some Reform rabbis, in alignment with Christianity, moved the Sabbath to Sunday. See The Sunday-Sabbath Movement in American Reform Judaism, by Kerry M. Olitzky.

For more details see the article on The_Origins_of_Reform_Judaism here.

Most Reform Jewish congregations in the United States and England followed this classic German Reform, until the 1970s.  Since then there has been a growing return-to-tradition wing within parts of Reform, showing more respect for classical rabbinic literature. An increasing number of official publications from Reform approvingly teach that Jews should be educated in these works, and should use their autonomy to experiment with observance of Shabbat, Kashrut, tefillin, and other traditional practices.

History of Reform Judaism
History of Reform Judaism (alternate link)

Reform Judaism today may refer to:

  • Classic German Reform, the historical predecessor of Reform Judaism today that originated in 19th Century Germany (and was the most common version of Reform in England and the USA until the 1970s)
  • A positive attitude toward modern culture, including studying the classical western tradition, and accepting Enlightenment values.
  • A large denomination of Judaism in America
  • Any Jewish movement affiliated with the World Union for Progressive Judaism, including the British Movement for Reform, the Union for Liberal and Progressive Synagogues, etc.

Rabbi W. Gunther Plaut writes

“there is no such thing as a Jewish theological principle, policy, or doctrine.” This is because Reform Judaism affirms “the fundamental principle of Liberalism: that the individual will approach this body of mitzvot and minhagim in the spirit of freedom and choice. Traditionally Israel started with harut, the commandment engraved upon the Tablets, which then became freedom. The Reform Jew starts with herut, the freedom to decide what will be harut – engraved upon the personal Tablets of his life.”
Bernard Martin, Ed., Contemporary Reform Jewish Thought, Quadrangle Books 1968.

Similarly, Central Conference of American Rabbis (CCAR) President Rabbi Simeon J. Maslin wrote a pamphlet about Reform Judaism, entitled “What We Believe…What We Do…”.

“if anyone were to attempt to answer these two questions authoritatively for all Reform Jews, that person’s answers would have to be false. Why? Because one of the guiding principles of Reform Judaism is the autonomy of the individual. A Reform Jew has the right to decide whether to subscribe to this particular belief or to that particular practice.”

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Thanks for reading. While you’re here see our articles on Jewish ethics, Halakhah,  Kashrut (keeping kosher) , LifecycleMishnah and Talmud studyphilosophy & theologyTefila (prayer)Torah studyZionism, and our Trad-Egal online havurah. Check out our table of contents for a fuller listing.
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2 comments

  1. While your history of Reform Judaism may be correct, it does not speak to the thoughts and actions of many Reform Jews in 2019.
    Thoughts: Make An Informed Decision
    Actions: Look at many of the Congregations where Rabbinical Students were in Jerusalem for their 1st year. How has that experience changed their perspective as Clergy, and what changes have they
    brought to their congregations?

    Like

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