Membership, Community, Diversity

What problems did Reform Judaism attempt to solve?

Many German Jews of the early 1800s began to feel that the tradition-bound approach of Orthodox Judaism was losing touch with life in rapidly changing societies. Reform (alternatively called Liberal or Progressive) leaders began by seeking to adapt prayer and liturgy to the needs of people less able to follow them meaningfully in Hebrew. Ideas from the Enlightenment (Haskalah) that informed further developments were Moses Mendelsohn’s (1728-1786) principles of rational religion: the existence of God, divine providence, and the immortality of the soul.

Reform was a grassroots movement initiated by laypeople and only later enjoying rabbinical support. A student of Mendelsohn, David Friedlander (1756-1834) launched the movement by replacing Hebrew prayers with German and replaced the Jews’ plea for the restoration of Israel with hope for global renewal. Samuel Holdheim (1806-1860) took liturgical reforms further in Berlin, and, with Abraham Geiger (1810-1874), instituted dramatic changes. Sabbath worship moved to Sunday, with no gender separation, kippah, prayer shawl, or shofar. Their radical program of assimilation also rejected dietary laws and circumcision.

Geiger led a gathering of rabbis in 1837, arguing for a much-reduced authority for both Bible and Talmud. He believed Judaism was a world community rather than an ethnically based “nation.” The World Union for Progressive Judaism is the movement’s international umbrella organization. Several important developments have marked Reform Judaism in the United States. Reform theology regards scripture as divinely inspired (rather than directly revealed verbatim) and subject to the interpretation of each individual. In 1885 the Pittsburgh Platform altered ritual practice by doing away with strict dietary regulations and ancient codes of priestly purity. Reform Jews believe in the immortality of the soul, but not in bodily resurrection. Numbering about two million, they are the largest Jewish community in the United States, gathering in some nine hundred synagogues or temples.


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