Reform Judaism


Reform Judaism (also known as: Progressive Judaism, while in the U.K. Reform Judaism and Liberal Judaism, together, make up Progressive Judaism) is a branch of Judaism characterized by:

  • The belief that an individual's personal autonomy overrides traditional Jewish law and custom. The individual decides which Jewish practices, if any, to adopt as binding
  • A liberal attitude toward modern culture
  • The belief that both traditional rabbinic modes of study, and less traditional textual analysis, are valid ways to learn about and from the Hebrew Bible and rabbinic literature.
  • A non-religious method of understanding the Jewish principles of faith. In Reform Judaism, it is the individual who decides which beliefs, if any, to adopt.

Origin of Reform Judaism in the 1800s

In response to Haskalah and the emancipation, elements within German Jewry sought to reform Jewish belief and practice. In light of modern scholarship, they denied divine authorship of the Torah, declared only those biblical laws that are easily understood to be binding, and stated that the rest of Halakhah (Jewish law) need no longer be viewed as normative. Circumcision was abandoned, rabbis wore vestments modeled after Protestant ministers, and instrumental accompaniment --- banned by Halakhah in Jewish Sabbath worship --- reappeared in Reform synagogues, most often in the form of a pipe organ, to model what appeared in churches. The traditional Hebrew prayer book (the Siddur) was replaced with a German text which truncated or altogether excised some parts of the traditional service. Reform Synagogues began to be called Temples, a term reserved in more traditional Judaism for the Temple in Jerusalem. The practice of Kashrut (keeping kosher) was abandoned. The early Reform movement renounced Zionism and declared Germany to be its new Zion. This anti-Zionist view is no longer held; see below.

Early Reform Judaism, in order to assimilate more into European culture, held that Judaism was no more a peoplehood, but was only a religion. This was because holding Judaism as a culture and peoplehood prevented Reform Jews from being ordinary citizens in their host nation. Making Judaism only a religion allowd them to announce that their host nation was their fatherland and its non-Jewish citizens their brethren. This also meant that other Jews elsewhere were no longer considered brethren, and that Zionism was denounced for it could raise accusations of dual loyalty against Reform Jews. This is no longer part of Reform Judaism, and today, peoplehood and Zionism is a primary component of Reform Judaism.

One of the most important figures in the history of Reform Judaism is the radical reformer Samuel Holdheim.

Classic German Reform prayer services

The Reform movement in its earlier stages involved sweeping changes in public worship, in the direction of rendering them more like what could be found in services of Protestant Christians. With this in view, the length of the services was reduced by omitting certain parts of the prayer-book. In addition, the piyyutim (poetical compositions written by medieval poets or prose-writers) were curtailed.

The Reform movement gradually removed the majority of traditional prayers from the Jewish prayer book; instead of translating the prayers into modern German, they were usually deleted . In their place Reform liturgists created new liturgies that had only a few paragraphs in Hebrew, surrounded by German chorals, and occasional sermons in the vernacular. The rite of confirmation for teenagers also was introduced, first in the duchy of Brunswick, at the Jacobson Institute. These measures were aimed at the esthetic regeneration of the liturgy rather than at the principles of Jewish faith or modification of Jewish law.

The Reform movement later took on an altogether different aspect in consequence, on the one hand, of the rise of Wissenschaft des Judentums, or "Science of Judaism," the first-fruits of which were the investigations of Leopold Zunz, and the advent of young rabbis who, in addition to a thorough training in Talmudic and rabbinical literature, had received an academic education, coming thereby under the umbrella of German philosophic thought.

On the other hand the struggle for the political emancipation of the Jews (see Riesser, Gabriel) suggested a revision of the doctrinal enunciations concerning the Messianic nationalism of Judaism. Toward the end of the fourth and at the beginning of the fifth decade of the nineteenth century the yearnings, which up to that time had been rather undefined, for a readjustment of the teachings and practices of Judaism to the new mental and material conditions took on definiteness in the establishment of congregations and societies such as the Temple congregation at Hamburg and the Reform Union in Frankfort-on-the-Main, and in the convening of the rabbinical conferences at Brunswick (1844), Frankfort (1845), and Breslau (1846).

These in turn led to controversies, while the Jüdische Reform-Genossenschaft in Berlin in its program easily outran the more conservative majority of the rabbinical conferences. The movement may be said to have come to a standstill in Germany with the Breslau conference (1846). The Breslau Seminary under Zecharias Frankel (1854) was instrumental in turning the tide into conservative or, as the party shibboleth phrased it, into "positive historical" channels, while the governments did their utmost to hinder a liberalization of Judaism.

Development of Reform in the United States

Arrested in Germany, the Reform movement was carried forward in the United States. The German immigrants from 1840 to 1850 happened to be to a certain extent composed of pupils of Leopold Stein and Joseph Aub. These were among the first in New York (Temple Emanu-El), in Baltimore (Har Sinai), and in Cincinnati (B'ne Yeshurun) to insist upon the change of the services. The coming of David Einhorn, Samuel Adler, and, later, the philosopher Samuel Hirsch gave to the Reform cause additional impetus, while even men of more conservative temperament, like Hübsch, Jastrow, and Szold, adopted in the main Reform principles, though in practice they continued along somewhat less radical lines. Isaac M. Wise and Lilienthal, too, cast their influence in favor of Reform. Felsenthal and K. Kohler, and among American-bred rabbis Emil G. Hirsch, Sale, Philipson, and Shulman may be mentioned among its exponents. The Philadelphia conference (1869) and that at Pittsburgh (1885) promulgated the principles which to a certain extent are still basic to the practice and teachings of American Reform congregations.

Early Reform Judaism's view of Zionism

In the 1800s and very early 1900s, Reform Judaism rejected the idea that Jews would re-create a Jewish state in their ancestral homeland. They rejected the idea that there would ever be a personal messiah, and that the Temple in Jerusalem would ever be rebuilt, or that one day animal sacrifices would be re-established in a rebuilt Temple, in accord with the Hebrew Bible.

Reform Judaism rejected the classical rabbinic teaching that the Jews were in exile ("galut"). For reformers, dispersion of Jews among the nations was a necessary experience in the realization and execution of its Messianic duty. Instead, the people Israel was viewed as the Messianic people, appointed to spread by its fortitude and loyalty the monotheistic truth over all the earth, to be an example of rectitude to all others. For reform Jews, all forms of Jewish law and custom were seen as bound up with the national political conception of Israel's destiny, and thus they are dispensable.

Reform Jews ceased to declare Jews to be in exile; for the modern Jew in America, England, France, Germany, or Italy has no cause to feel that the country in which he lives is for him a strange land. Many Reform Jews went so far as to agree that prayers for the resumption of a Jewish homeland were incompatible with desiring to be a citizen of a nation. Thus, the Reformers implied that for a German, Frenchman, or American Jew to pray from the original siddur was tantamount to dual loyalty, if not outright treason.

Since the Holocaust and the establishment of the modern State of Israel, Reform Judaism has totally repudiated anti-Zionism . All factions and official organs of Reform Judaism are now officially Zionist.

Teachings on the Oral Law

According to traditional Judaism, God revealed His Law on Mount Sinai to Moses in two forms, (1) the written law ("Torah shebichtav"), and (2) the oral law ("Torah shebe'al peh"). According to some Reform Jews, human reason alone was competent to grasp and construe all religious truths.

This philosophy was inspired by the investigations into the historical development of Judaism. The idea of progress, historical growth, at the time that the young science of Judaism established the relative as distinguished from the absolute character of Talmudism and tradition, was central in German philosophy, more clearly in the system of Hegel. History was proclaimed as the self-unfolding, self-revelation of God. Revelation was a continuous process; and the history of Judaism displayed God in the continuous act of self-revelation. Judaism itself was under the law of growth, and an illustration thereof. The laws and customs of the Talmudic era were interpreted as appropriate for the Talmudic period alone; however Reform scholars held that these laws are not an inherent or necessary part of Judaism.

This was the dilemma with which Reform theologians were confronted. This was an inconsistency which, as long as Judaism and Law were interchangeable and interdependent terms, was insurmountable. To meet it, a distinction was drawn between the moral and the ceremonial laws, though certainly the Torah nowhere indicates such distinction nor discloses or fixes the criteria by which the difference is to be established. God, the Law giver, clearly held the moral and the ceremonial to be of equal weight, making both equally obligatory. Analysis of the primitive scheme in connection with the possible violation of the precepts, tends to prove that infractions of certain ceremonial statutes were punished more severely than moral lapses. (See also, the various positions within contemporary Judaism as regards the Talmud.)

National and universal elements

The principle was not carried out consistently. Reform Judaism rejected the Sabbath and the other Biblical holy days, and the dietary laws, as the Torah prescribed. Were these not ceremonial? What imparted to these a higher obligatory character?

Holdhelm, to escape this inconsistency, urged as decisive the distinction between national and religious or universal elements. The content of revelation was two-fold: national and universal. The former was of temporary obligation, and with the disappearance of state and nation the obligatory character ceased; but the universal religious components are binding upon religious Israel. While this criterion avoided many of the difficulties involved in the distinction between ceremonial and moral, it was not effective in all instances. The sacrificial scheme was religious, as Einhorn remarked when criticizing Holdheim's thesis, and still Reform ignored its obligatory nature. Nor could Judaism be construed as a mere religion, a faith limited by creedal propositions.

(more to be added and edited.)


1875 Reform Judaism's Hebrew Union College is founded in Cincinnati. Its founder was Rabbi Isaac Mayer Wise, the architect of American Reform Judaism.

1885 A group of Reform rabbis adopts the Pittsburgh Platform.

1922 Reform Rabbi Stephen S. Wise establishes the Jewish Institute of Religion in New York. It merged with Hebrew Union College in 1950. A third center was opened in Los Angeles in 1954, and a fourth branch was established in Jerusalem in 1963.

1937 The Central Conference of American Rabbis adopts "The Guiding Principles of Reform Judaism", known as the Columbus Platform.

1976 On the occasion of the centennials of the Union of American Hebrew Congregations and the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, the Central Conference of American Rabbis adopts "Reform Judaism: A Centenary Perspective".

1983 The Central Conference of Reform American Rabbis formally states that a Jewish identity can be passed down through either the mother and the father, thereby making official what had been the state of affairs in many Reform communities since the early twentieth century. Despite its rejection by Conservative Judaism and Orthodox Judaism, and the state of Israel, descent through the mother or the father becomes the standard for North American Reform and unaffiliated Jews. This leads to the disintegration of the inter-denominational Synagogue Council of America.

1997 On the occasion of the centenary of the first World Zionist Congress, the Central Conference of American Rabbis adopts the Miami Platform, dedicated to the relationship between Reform Judaism and Zionism.

1999 The Central Conference of American Rabbis adopts "A Statement of Principles for Reform Judaism" in Pittsburgh.

2003 The congregational arm of the Reform Movement in North America adopts the new name "Union for Reform Judaism", replacing its previous name "Union of American Hebrew Congregations" at its Biennial Convention in Minneapolis, MN

Reform Jewish theology today

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 Judaism has always promoted theism, and monotheism in particular. This belief is reaffirmed in its new statement of principles. However, it also holds that personal desire is absolute; in recent decades it has no longer asked that its adherents hold any particular beliefs. Reform rabbis and laypeople have come to affirm various beliefs including theism, deism, Reconstructionist naturalism, polydoxy, and non-theistic humanism. All of these positions are considered equally valid within Reform Judaism. The official American Reform prayerbook, "Gates of Prayer: The New Union Prayerbook", is predominantly theistic, but also includes a non-theistic, humanist service that omits all references to God (pp.204-218).

The Reform movement has had a number of official platforms. The first was the 1885 Declaration of Principles, the Pittsburgh Platform. The next platform was written in 1937 by the Reform movement's Central Conference of American Rabbis (CCAR). CCAR rewrote its principles in 1976 with its "Centenary Perspective" and rewrote them again in the 1999 "A Statement of Principles for Reform Judaism". While original drafts of the 1999 statement called for Reform Jews to consider re-adopting some traditional practices on a voluntary basis, later drafts removed most of these suggestions. The final version is thus similar to the 1976 statement. According to CCAR, personal autonomy still has precedence over these platforms.

Reform's position on Halakha (Jewish law) today

The classical approach of Reform Judaism was based on the views of Rabbi Samuel Holdheim (1806-1860), leader of Reform Judaism in Germany. He believed that Reform Judaism should be based solely upon monotheism. Almost everything connected with Jewish ritual law and custom was of the ancient past, and thus no longer appropriate for Jews to follow in the modern era. This approach was the dominant form of Reform Judaism from its creation until the 1940s. Since the 1940s the American Reform movement has slowly begun distancing itself from its previous stances. Many Reform Jews now go to Temples on Saturday, many have more Hebrew in their religious services, and many are incorporating more aspects laws and customs, in a selective fashion, into their lives. This is a disintegration of the original reform position in favor of more traditional Judaism.

Even those in the traditionalist wing of Reform Judaism still accept the primary principle of classical Reform: personal autonomy has precedence over Jewish tradition; halakha has no binding authority to reform rabbis. The difference between the classical Reformers and the Reform traditionalists is that the traditionalists feel that the default position towards choosing to follow any particular practice should be one of acceptance, rather than rejection. While only representing a minority of the movement, this group has influenced the new Reform statement of principles, which states that "We are committed to the ongoing study of the whole array of mitzvot and to the fulfillment of those that address us as individuals and as a community."

Currently, then, some Reform rabbis promote following elements of halakha, and belief in many parts of classical Jewish theology, while others actively discourage adopting Orthodox practices or beliefs, because they feel that this is not in the tradition of the Reform movement. Both encouraging or discouraging practices stipulated by halakha are considered acceptable positions within Reform. (See also, the various positions within contemporary Judaism as regards Halakha.)

Jewish identity

Despite a 1973 Central Conference of American Rabbis resolution recommending otherwise, CCAR allows its rabbis to officiate at interreligious marriages. Recent surveys by the Rabbinic Center for Research and Counseling show that 40% of CCAR Reform rabbis now perform some form of intermarriages. This is an important consideration for many Reform Jews, since according to a recent survey, 53% of Reform Jews intermarry. [Gordon and Horowitz] However, the great majority of Reform rabbis will only officiate at intermarriages where both the Jewish and the non-Jewish spouse agree to maintain a Jewish home, and to raise the children as Jewish. It is not clear what the direct impact was of the 1973 decision, since years before the decision some Reform rabbis had already been officiating at intermarriages. It is in fact more likely that the 1973 decision was more a result of pressure from the greater reform laity than an actual philosophical evolution in reform doctrine.

A recent comprehensive survey of the American Jewish population [Gordon and Horowitz] reveals the overwhelming trend towards assimilation in Reform Jewry. The study ( demonstrates that out of a sample of 100 Reform Jews in America, within two generations this sample population dwindles to 51 Jews, within three generations to 26 Jews, and within four generations to 13 Jewish decendents. Comparing this with statistics from various branches of Orthodox Judaism, where within four generations 100 Jews lead to between 346 to 2588 Jewish descendents. This has given rise to both internal and external criticism of Reform Judaism as a movement whose demographic future is questionable.

American Reform Judaism accepts the child of one Jewish parent (father or mother) as Jewish if the parents raise the child as a Jew by Reform standards. Gentiles may serve on Temple committees, and may count as full members of the movement. "In many congregations...non-Jewish choristers and soloists have occupied positions which seemed to make them into shelichei tsibbur [cantors, leaders of prayer services]." Various Reform teshuvot (e.g. "Gentile Participation in Synagogue Ritual 5754.5") offer non-binding guidance limiting the role of gentiles in Reform prayer service, but local lay and rabbinic leadership have no obligation to accept this recommendation. Thus, 88% of Reform Temples allow gentiles to be synagogue members if they are married to Jews; 87% of Reform Temples allow gentiles to serve on synagogue committees, 22% of Reform Temples allow gentiles to have an aliyah to the Torah. [Survey conducted by the Commission on Reform Jewish Outreach, see Wertheimer 1993].

In contrast, most Reform/Progressive Judaism outside the United States rejects patrilineal descent and intermarriage, and does not allow gentiles to lead prayers in Jewish prayer services, have an aliyah, or count as synagogue members.

A recent trend is an increase in the number of Reform congregations that are accepting of openly gay and lesbian members and clergy.


Chaim Stern, ed., Central Conference of American Rabbis. Gates of Prayer - for Shabbat and Weekdays. A Gender-Sensitive Prayerbook 1994 ISBN 0-88123-063-4 LoC: BM674.34.C46 DDC: 296.4-dc20

Central Conference of American Rabbis, New York, and Union of Liberal and Progressive Synagogues, London. Gates of Prayer - The New Union Prayerbook for Shabbat, Weekdays and Festivals. Services and Prayers for Synagogue and Home. 1975 ISBN 0-916694-01-1 LC: 75-13752

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Official website of Reform Judaism in the UK (Part of UK Progressive Judaism) (
Official website of Liberal Judaism in the UK (Part of UK Progressive Judaism) (
Reform Judaism Compared To Other Streams of Judaism (ødedom

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