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Reform movement in Judaism is a historic and on-going religious and social movement that originated simultaneously in the early nineteenth century in the United States[1] and Europe.[2] The term is used by two widely read and frequently cited historians of the movement: David Philipson and Michael Meyer. Philipson wrote The Reform movement in Judaism (1903, 1931) covering the movement from its beginnings up until 1930. Meyer wrote Response to Modernity: A History of the Reform Movement in Judaism (1978). Meyer's book, the first general history of the movement since Philipson, updates Philipson's coverage to reflect modern concerns with bias and to extend the history of the movement up to the 1970s.[3]

Throughout its history, Jewish beliefs and practices in the reform movement have undergone dynamic changes and innovations. Due to its origins in Enlightenment-era Germany, the reform movement has eyed traditional Jewish beliefs through the lens of liberal thought, such as autonomy, modernity, universalism, and the historical-philosophical critique of religion. The reform movement in Judaism challenged many traditionalist Jewish doctrines, adapted or eliminated practices, and introduced its own theological and communal innovations.

Whether in support or reaction, some Ashkenazi Jewish denominations can trace their intellectual and organization origins to this critical time in Jewish history.[4] [5]

The nineteenth century


In response to the Haskalah, Enlightenment, and Jewish Emancipation, reform-minded thinkers within German Jewry, such as Israel Jacobson, Abraham Geiger, Samuel Holdheim and Leopold Zunz, sought to change Jewish belief and practice. Initially, the reformers did not call for a separate organizational structure. They convened synods but did not formally establish independent organizations or a rabbinical body. However, reform efforts shifted after the German state permitted the establishment of separate organizational structures in the Jewish community, including congregations. During the 1840s and 1850s, separate reform congregations were set up in two major centers of the German Jewry, Frankfurt and Berlin. No other separatist reform congregations were established for decades in Germany and key reformers, including Geiger, did not serve in these separate synagogues. The movement did take the significant step, in 1870, to create a rabbinical seminary and research center known as the Hochschule für die Wissenschaft des Judentums.

Beyond Germany

In Denmark, controversial Reform movement efforts were undertaken by Mendel Levin Nathanson and Isaac Noah Mannheimer. The dispute was sparked by a reform confirmation service in 1817. Meyer states:"... the Copenhagen community remained divided between unbending traditionalists and Jewish minimalists. ... Among the reformers were highly assimilated families, including that of Nathanson, whose hold on Judaism was so weak that it could not prevent apostasy in the next generation.[6]

In Austria, Vienna was introduced to the Reform movement through Isaac Noah Mannheimer, who left Copenhagen in 1821 and found in Vienna that "the Jewish elite mingled freely with highly placed Gentiles," gained sometimes great wealth, yet whose 135 families were barely tolerated by the empire. This elite built a large, high status new Temple and recruited Mannheimer. Since Mannheimer was "known as a man who in Denmark had expressed patently reformist views," the Temple and its community sought to dampen reform and called it "restoration" instead.[7]

Around the same time, reform efforts in North America started to emerge, but with none of the governmental opposition and regulation facing their European counterparts. Christian Americans may have been prejudiced, but the separation of church and state philosophy allowed for the Reform movement to blossom differently overseas. In addition, North America lacked rabbis of any kind, Orthodox or reformist.[8] In 1825, lay members of Beth Elohim in Charleston, South Carolina founded the Reformed Society of Israelites as a breakaway ground seeking mild reforms.[9] In America, while the Charleston effort "was only slightly influenced by the German model," this soon changed: "the classical Reform ideology in America was almost fully developed in Europe and transplanted to the United States."[10]

The New Hamburg Temple (about 1845)

In Hungary, a supporter of Geiger and of the Hamburg Temple emerged as an influential thinker and leader: Aaron Chorin (1766-1844). Chorin "served as a valuable authority for the German Reformers" and, albeit from Hungary, was "one of the movement's pioneers." A talmudic scholar, Chorin was traditional at first but then "began to deviate from the norm." He changed the kashrut requirements, condemned kabbalah, instituted some of the earliest changes in the alenu prayer practice, and abolished amulets and the kol nidre prayer of Yom Kippur. According to Meyer, "Chorin was a reformer on the basis of Haskalah, not historical development. With his rabbinic training, he wrote Jewish law responsa to permit train travel and organ playing on Shabbat.[11] Yet Chorin was not the only Hungarian reformer.

In Budapest, there were "less thoroughgoing religious reformers" who were inspired by the reform Temple in Vienna. Budapest reformers, in turn, "moderate reforms" were undertaken in various cities and outreach efforts were made to various German rabbis, including Zacharias Frankel, widely seen as the pioneer of Conservative Judaism.[12] Ignaz Einhorn, a Hungarian-born rabbi, "put forward a program based neither on halakhic reform nor on 'Mosaic' Judaism -- in fact not on a reform of historical Judaism at all, but on an alternative kind of Judaism called 'Reform.' Though Einhorn said little which had not already been expressed by Holdheim, nowhere previously had the principles and program of a radical Reform Judaism been formulated as clearly."[13] Einhorn sought to abolish the ceremonial element of Judaism and retain its faith and morality. Says Meyer, "Very much like Zacharias Frankel, Einhorn found his authority in what he called 'the religious consciousness of the people' except that here the people (Volk) consisted of the most acculutrated among the Jews, those most rooted in the present." Einhorn permitted mixed marriages, ended circumcision, shifted his congregation's Shabbat worship to Sundays and, "sounding a note that would be heard often thereafter in American Reform Judaism, was recognized simply by his idea of God and the moral dicta on which he acts."[14]

Out of these multi-faceted Continental European reform developments, there arose a variety of thinkers who, like Ignaz Einhorn, anticipated or participated in reform elsewhere. For instance, after leaving Germany, a rabbi was appointed for a brief stint in Budapest who proved instrumental to reform both in Europe and America: David Einhorn, unrelated to Ignaz, David Einhorn was a "talented radical who would later become a leading figure in American Reform." [15] Indeed, Einhorn had participated in the controversial Frankfurt assembly and his "Reform philosophy had crystallized" in Europe.[16]

In Great Britain, reform efforts were sparked by efforts to change the liturgy at London's Bevis Marks, as had been done with the Hamburg Temple. Despite some initial reforms in 1836, further alterations were rebuffed in 1839. in requested the introduction of such alterations and modifications as were in the line of the changes introduced in the Reform synagogue in Hamburg and other places. The British reformers established an independent congregation, the West London Synagogue of British Jews, on 15 April 1840. The West London Synagogue reformers paved the way for the modern British reform movement, the Movement for Reform Judaism. In 1856, Act of Parliament was passed to allow the minister of the West London Synagogue of British Jews to register marriage ceremonies. This act established the full autonomy of the congregation and ensured its equality before the law with the Orthodox congregations.

Across the Atlantic, by 1873 sufficient Reform congregations had emerged to organize as the Union of American Hebrew Congregations (UAHC). Shortly after, in 1875, the Hebrew Union College was establish to improve the quality of rabbis in the US.

As in Europe, there were significant disagreements among the reformers over the role of tradition. In 1883 a banquet was planned to celebrate the first graduating class of rabbis from Hebrew Union College. The more radical element planned the banquet with a menu containing shrimp. Soon after this banquet, known as the Trefa Banquet, intensified the conflict between the radical and conservative reformers.[17] The conflict further intensified in 1885 when a fierce debate broke out between Kaufmann Kohler and Alexander Kohut over the nature of reform.

In response to debate, Kohler called a conference of reform-minded rabbis in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Isaac Mayer Wise, the rabbinical head of Hebrew Union College, presided over the conference. The conference produced the Pittsburgh Platform. This platform was highly controversial and an organizational split between those more and less conservative.[18] In 1887 a separate rabbinical school, the Jewish Theological Seminary was founded. In 1889, the more liberal rabbis organized under the banner of the Central Conference of American Rabbis.

The Twentieth Century

At the start of the twentieth century, the European reform movement gained new steam organizationally. In Germany, rabbis and followers organized under the banner of Liberal Judaism. Meanwhile, inspired largely by Claude Montefiore, Lily Montagu spearheaded reform efforts in Great Britain. Around 1902, following liturgical changes and debates, they formed the Jewish Religious Union in London. Liberal Judaism steadily gained adherents after the founding in 1911 of the Liberal Jewish synagogue, the first of more than thirty Liberal congregations in the UK.

At the same time, reform-minded French Jews established the Union Liberale Israelite, which was criticized as a revolutionary schism.[19]

In 1926, representatives from the U.S. and Europe convened the first international conference for the Reform movement in Judaism and formed World Union for Progressive Judaism.[20] With British and then American leadership, the WUPJ spread the reform movement to many countries, most notably Israel, to which the WUPJ headquarters were relocated.

In the United States, the Reform movement grew significantly through the Union of American Hebrew Congregations and its affiliates. In 1922, Reform Rabbi Stephen S. Wise established the Jewish Institute of Religion in New York, which merged with Hebrew Union College in 1950. Other centers were opened in Los Angeles (1954) and Jerusalem (1963).

On policy matters, the American Reform movement has had a number of official platforms. The Columbus platform was written in 1937 by the Reform movement's Central Conference of American Rabbis (CCAR). The CCAR rewrote its principles in 1976 with its Centenary Perspective and rewrote them again in the 1999 as A Statement of Principles for Reform Judaism. According to the CCAR, personal autonomy still has precedence over these platforms. In 1983, the Central Conference of American Rabbis took one of its most controversial stands and formally affirmed that a Jewish identity can be passed down through either the mother or the father, if the child is raised with a Jewish identity.

The emergence of Conservative and Reconstructionist Judaism

Historians of Conservative Judaism trace its intellectual origins to thinkers like Zacharias Frankel, who held a religious middle ground between German Reformers and Orthodoxy. Institutionally, the Conservative movement in the US developed in reaction to reforms. For instance, a group of rabbis split with the Reform movement due to the controversial Pittsburgh Platform.[18] In 1887, they founded a separate rabbinical school, the Jewish Theological Seminary and, in 1901, Conservative rabbis organized as the Rabbinical Assembly and by 1913 their congregations banded together under the banner of the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism.

From the Conservative movement, another liberal, non-orthodox Judaism approach was created by Mordecai Kaplan. Initially, Mordecai Kaplan was deeply opposed to the formation of yet another American Jewish denomination. In 1955, the Reconstructionist Fellowship of Congregations was formed. This organization allowed reconstructionist congregations to share common concerns but required members to be dual affiliated with either the US Reform or Conservative movement. In 1961 the dual affiliation requirement was dropped and Reconstructionist Judaism became a full-fledged third denomination on the American scene.[21] After building its own rabbinical seminary and congregational presence, the Reconstructionists eventually affiliated[22] in the 1990s with the World Union of Progressive Judaism.

Orthodoxy and the Reform movement in Judaism

Historians, such as Jacob Katz, David Ellenson and Shmuel Feiner, see the co-emergence of the non-Orthodox and Orthodox movements as a gradual, dialectical process. This dialectical dynamic is dominated largely by controversy and conflict, of both an intellectual and organizational character, yet mixed as well with intermittent measures of cooperation, dialogue, and personnel exchange. In addition, both movements went through a gradual process of identity formation and ideological differentiation -- primarily during the 19th century, yet continuing to this day.

Criticism and interchange

Since the very beginnings of the movement, reformers and traditionalists have often been strongly critical of one another.

Reformers often felt traditionalists were encouraging secularization and assimilation by creating an identity that Jews could not relate to or be nurtured by. They accused traditionalists of being irrational or intellectually naive in rejecting what modern textual criticism, historiography, psychology, anthropology, and sociology had to say about Jewish history and peoplehood.

Traditionalists often argued on behalf of tradition making much the same claims: that reformers were creating a meaningless Jewish identity that encouraged assimilation and failed to nurture the Jewish spirit. They accused reformers of dishonoring Torah, and even God in their pursuit of the modern.

Yet despite this interchange between Traditional and Reform, there has from time to time been a positive flow of ideas between the communities. Many of the early reformers had a rich knowledge of Jewish text and tradition to draw on, a knowledge nurtured by years spent studying in traditional yeshivas.

When Western modes of university study began to dominate the educational landscape of the reformers, they soon found themselves with a generation of educators who knew a great deal about modern scholarship and very little about the historic content of Judaism. In recent years non-orthodox Judaisms have turned to the traditional yeshiva or bet-midrash model, and even imported Orthodox teachers to help them maintain the connection to tradition. Thus the US conservative movement has its Conservative Yeshiva in Jerusalem and both the New York and Jerusalem school of HUC sponsor part-time batei-midrash.

There has been a similar flow in the other direction as well. Modern Orthodoxy still maintains a traditional approach to Halakhah, but has been increasingly comfortable with the study techniques pioneered by the Wissenschaft des Judentums school. Some of the products of that school are found today on almost every yeshiva desk, even those that reject the historical critical method: among them the Aramaic dictionary of Marcus Jastrow and the concordance of Abraham Even-Shoshan.

Organizational identity

Elements of Orthodoxy developed their cohesive identity in reaction to the Reform movement in Judaism.[5]

In the United States, reformers took control of several synagogue boards, prompting Orthodox members to separate and form new congregations. For example, in Charleston, South Carolina, the first reform synagogue in the United States, in 1939, the cantor of Beth Elohim asked the congregation for an organ. Traditionalists opposed the proposal and when the congregation supported the proposal, the traditionalists left and formed their own congregation, Shearith Israel.[23]

In the United Kingdom, Orthodox congregations maintained control of state sponsored religion and reformers were forced to separate and form their own communities.

Also in the United Kingdom, the Masorti movement (Conservative) started in the 1950s when the Chief Rabbi at the time refused to appoint Louis Jacobs as principal of Jews' College and refused to allow him to return to his former congregation. A crisis ensued and the majority of the congregation left and formed the New London Synagogue in 1964. Other synagogues later joined the New London Synagogue and formed the Assembly of Masorti Synagogues.[24]


  • Leo Baeck, Essence of Judaism
  • Bernfeld, Simon. Toldot ha-reformatsiyon ha-datit be-Yiśrael (Hebrew) Warsaw: Ahiasaf, 5660, 1900.
  • W. Gunther Plaut. The Rise of Reform Judaism: A Sourcebook of its European Origins. New York: World Union for Progressive Judaism, 1963.
  • David B. Ruderman and Teaching Company. Jewish intellectual history. The great courses. Chantilly, VA: Teaching Co., 2002.
  • Schreiber, Emanuel (1852-1932) Reformed Judaism and its pioneers: a contribution to its history Spokane, Washington: Spokane Printing Co., 1892. Note: One of the first English histories of the reform movement in Judaism, this book covers Moses Mendelssohn, David Friedlaender, Israel Jacobsohn, Aaron Chorin, Gotthold Salomon, Abraham Kohn, Samuel Holdheim, Leopold Loew and Abraham Geiger.

See also


  1. The beginning of the US Reform movement is usually dated to 1824 when a group of reformers in Charleston, South Carolina broke away from Beth Elohim and set up an independent congregation named the Reformed Society of Israelites. (cf Meyer, Response to Modernity, 228-229).
  2. The beginning of European reform is less clear cut. While many called out for reforms in the late eighteenth century and early nineteenth century, attempted changes in synagogue worship and education were short lived until the Hamburg temple was founded in 1818 (cf. Meyer, Response to Modernity, 61) There is little evidence of interaction between the US and European movements until the German immigration in the 1840's. (cf. Meyer, Response to Modernity, 235-236).
  3. Michael Meyer, Response to Modernity:A History of the Reform Movement in Judaism (New York: Oxford University Press, 1988) vii-viii, 475-477.
  4. Louis Jacobs, The Emergence of Modern Denominationalism I: Modernization and its discontents: the Jewish Enlightenment and the emergence of the Reform movement from The Jewish Religion: A Companion, Oxford University Press, 1995. ISBN 0198264631
  5. 5.0 5.1 Louis Jacobs, The Emergence of Modern Denominationalism II:The development of Orthodox, Conservative, and Reconstructionist Judaism from The Jewish Religion: A Companion, Oxford University Press, 1995. ISBN 0198264631
  6. Meyer,Response to Modernity, 144f.
  7. Meyer, Response to Modernity, 146-149
  8. Meyer 226. But is this correct?
  9. Meyer 228f.
  10. Meyer p.226, 232
  11. Meyer, p. 158f.
  12. Meyer, p.84ff. on Frankel, p. 159ff. on Budapest etc.
  13. Meyer, p. 162
  14. Meyer, p. 162f.
  15. Meyer, p. 163
  16. Meyer, p.138, 245
  17. The "Trefa Banquet" and the End of a Dream in Michael Feldberg (ed.), Blessings of Freedom: Chapters in American Jewish History, The American Jewish Historical Society / KTAV, 2002. ISBN 0881257567. Chapter 5.7 (or #52 online). Accessed November 2, 2007
  18. 18.0 18.1 Meyer, Response to Modernity, 268
  19. Meyer, p.223
  20. Meyer, Response to Modernity, 336
  22. Jewish Virtual Library
  23. Meyer, Response to Modernity, 233.
  24. Rose, Michael. A Short History of the Masorti Movement. Last accessed November 14, 2007

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