Reform, Liberal and
Reconstructionist Judaism

Reform Movement and The Divine Law

European Tolerance Secularisation and Liberalising Christianity Impacting on the Jews towards Reform

History of Reform Movements

Reform into the United States and Britain

Women in Judaism


Reform Movement and The Divine Law

The principle difference between understanding Orthodox Judaism and Reform with Liberal Judaism is the question of what happened on Mount Sinai. For the Orthodox, the revelation at Sinai was beyond normal human experience. God did truly give the written and oral Torah to Moses at Sinai, full and complete, which the Rabbis were later to argue about in terms of their meaning and application. It is not that God dictated everything, but this is pretty close.

For Reform Judaism, the Law was written according to human understanding of God's will. Because of this it has a potential for addition, revision and even replacement, though remaining as the source tradition worked out by a community over a longer time than simply what happened on a mountain. The work of the Rabbis in producing the Talmud was to keep Judaism relevant, which is all the Reform branch have been doing.

Whilst Orthodox Jews retain practices and observances and ask how they can be carried in contemporary society, Reform Jews ask how they can keep an essence of Judaism and reform its practices to live within contemporary society. Rather than modify all Halakhah laws, the Reform are prepared to discard as out of date and out of place.

So Reform Judaism is the consequence of living in a less supernatural believing society, where the explanation of events is no longer derived from the heavens but from science and technology and where religion matters less in day to day living, and how we think, and also resulted from a more religiously tolerant society, as was emerging the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.

If society is less supernatural, then explanations for the origin of supernaturally descriptive texts is likely to be found more in this world. If society is more tolerant, and a group of people are less defensive, then they are less defensive and less conservative with their own beliefs and practices. Thus comes redefinition.

Reform Jews then are also resisting assimilation into secularising but doing this through compromise, asking questions about where their faith and people identity lies. Liberal Jews are still more progressive about their faith and assimilation into society than the Reform. The Orthodox Jews however say that nothing is different about their faith than was once believed, they just face challenges of application. Ultra-Orthodox Jews say that society is hostile and so recreate for themselves a society that feels Torah friendly as was the case in the Middle Ages. So this is how we tell them apart.

Jews have organised their faith on these institutional grounds due to developments in modernising, tolerating Europe, until 1933. This contrasts with Christianity where, with some exceptions, the same arguments about revelation by and large have taken place within the same institutions (when churches had divided on other issues), and Islam has not deviated from the view that the Qur'an was dictated because this was the basis of having a further revelation, its division based on early authority.

Note that Reform and Liberal Jews may be cremated as well as buried. The seven day intense morning period (shiva) may be cut with other alterations following (Orthodox Jews mourn for a year). Liberal Jews do not hold regular weekday services.

European Tolerance
Secularisation and Liberalising Christianity
Impacting on the Jews
towards Reform

The Reform movement has origins in Germany. Jews in Europe had for a long time been distinct and defensive in the face of a dominant and often intolerant Church, maintaining all their practices and appearances, only sharing in the universe of meaning that what was real and worked came from God.

Then in the 1500s in Germany came the stirrings of Protestant Christian breakaway and reform, still much of it very intolerant of others. However, Germany into the 1800s became the place for Christian biblical criticism and new church ideas, which advanced tolerance, along with newer wider secularised ways of understanding. It also had an economically developing society with this worldly technological solutions to problems, and this-worldly accounts of human origins and destinations, all increasingly free of feudal restrictions and Church thinking in wider society. There was a new Humanism that had its origins in the revival of Europe in the Renaissance after the Dark Ages.

In the past, when Jews were so clearly identifiable and went against the grain of Christian society, were simply isolated, oppressed, and used. Now with a new Humanism, toleration took on different forms. One was the invitation of citizenship and assimilation into wider humanity, encouraged by Napoleon in his expansion across Europe, which seemed attractive to many Jews, and this assimilation they called Haskalah. The boundaries between Jewish and non-Jewish would drop or even disappear. This was also unattractive to many Jews who wished to keep their Jewishness. But they did want to join in with social and intellectual changes, and be a part of the more welcoming reforming society, and they felt the same wind of change happening to Christian reformers, especially in Germany.

Therefore some leading Rabbis, starting with Israel Jacobson, opening a Christian and Jewish boarding school in 1801, reformed not just the Jews in society but Judaism in its practices too.

History of Reform Movements

The giving of political freedoms long denied to Jews, and the promise of Emancipation in the eighteenth century in a more tolerant Europe, led to many Jews taking up citizenship in France and Germany and finding that their practices kept them from being full members of society.

Moses Mendelssohn (1729-86) was a leading thinker in Jewish life who called for and organised a wider education for Jews into European secular subjects, not just the Torah and Talmud, and he translated the Hebrew Bible into German. This movement was called the Maskilim and followed on from Haskalah (emancipation and assimilation).

Whereas Rabbi Sampson Raphael Hirsch (1808-1888) argued for keeping the bedrock of Jewish practices and staying with its divine fundamentals whilst appreciating being in the world, the position which became Orthodoxy as we know it today, others like Abraham Geiger (1810-1874) pursued reforming Judaism itself.

Geiger said Judaism had always evolved. The rabbis of the Talmud had adapted the biblical Torah (this view is anathema to Orthodox), and Mediaeval rabbis had adapted the Talmud. Now there could be change again towards Ethical Monotheism. Mitzvot (commandments) which had lost relevance were to be removed (another view anathema to the Orthodox).

Reformers came to the view that Moses had not directly received the full and complete Torah.

Samuel Holdheim (1806-1860) wanted to abandon all commandments as binding. In his group Sabbath was changed to Sunday, circumcision was discontinued and men prayed without skull caps.

Between 1844 and 1871 there were Reform conferences which effectively launched the movement. They stopped prayers to restore the Holy land and the Temple, a key part of the Jewish Covenant (the Promised Land), they stopped belief in an actual returning Messiah in favour of a messianic age, redefined work especially for application to the Sabbath, made dietary laws optional, and started making women more equal.

The more radical wing of Reform grew from the second half of the nineteenth century, especially in the United States, and in the twentieth century in the UK.

Lily Montagu (1873-1963) joined Claude Montefiore (1858-1938) and Israel Abrahams in a movement for a more consistent reform in the UK which led to the Jewish Religious Union in 1902 and later the Union of Liberal and Progressive Synagogues. The Bible was a humanly written book valuable for its ethical statements and in some cases Jewish ethics have to match the highest elsewhere. The Jewish tradition requires study and then free choice according to conscience. Mitzvot is optional but ethical demands are vital; kosher food is optional; sunset starts to festivals are optional; at Shavuot young people of 16 can be confirmed. Main festivals keep their practices but Shavuot (on receiving the Torah) is symbolic only. A child is Jewish if either parent is a Jew and also if raised as a Jew.

Reform into the United States and Britain

A moderate beginning was led by Isaac Mayer Wise but in 1885 the Pittsburgh platform Rabbis led by Kaufmann Kohler went further. They abandoned the idea of the Jews as a chosen people or Holy Nation with special obligations and separation regarding the Covenant. Only those mitzvot (obligations or commandments) that elevated spiritual life were to be accepted, and others which prevented absorption into life in wider society were to be dropped.

In 1937 with more immigration from Eastern Europe traditional Ashkenazim fleeing the Nazis, the Columbus Platform produced the Guiding Principles of Reform Judaism and restored a more traditional view of mitzvot, ceremonies and removed the block to restoring Israel. The San Fransisco Platform of 1976 also made a conservative move in terms of coming to grapple with tradition and saw the need for Hebrew with the local language. Yet it still retains the full spread of views from Pittsburgh Platform to the San Fransisco Platform.

Rabbi Mordecai M. Kaplan (1881-1983) was the founder of Reconstructionism, a communal progressive movement.

The move to Reform in Britain was really a dispute about having a synagogue in West London. Settled Ashkenazim Jews became wealthier and moved west. East London synagogue Jews wanted to keep their money, but the westenders went ahead, built their own and synagogue and broke away in 1842. This later led to the Reform Synagogues of Great Britain. Reform Jews liberalised a little but mostly in proclaiming women's equality, and 13% of British Jews are Reform. Also 7% are Liberal, who are more ideological in terms of defining a radical Judaism (under the movement started by Lily Montagu (1873-1963) and Claude Montefiore (1858-1938).

High placed British evangelical Christians accepted strongly biblical Jews into the political elite and a neo-Kairite movement emphasised scriptural Torah over rabbinic Talmud.

The Reform Movement is strongest in the United States but there are complications here. 41% of Jews are Reform, compared with 40% Conservative, only 7% Orthodox, 5% "just Jewish", 3% traditional, 2% Reconstructionist (1990). However, in the US, Reform means roughly our Reform to Liberal, and Conservative in the US means roughly here Reform (or Masorti) towards Orthodox. They do not quite match up to UK labels. In the UK then, our Reform movements are more conservative than American Reform, and Liberalism is covered within their Reform movement. In the United States there is quite some co-operation and sharing between some Reform Jews (at equivalent to our Liberals) and Unitarian Universalists, the creedless liberal Christian, humanist, Eastern and neo-Pagan grouping. This religious crossover does not happen in the UK where religious institutions are older and more fixed.

Orthodox: Jewish Law unchanging
Conservative: Jewish Law used and adapted to contemporary society - conservative when compared with Reform
Reform: Ethical Monotheism with individual conscience
Reconstructionism: Communal ethical and social agenda with tradition as a guide

In the UK, our Reform synagogues make up about 20% of synagogues compared with around 80% in the US. So the New World supports a newer Judaism. In Israel only Orthodox Judaism is recognised as properly legitimate, and so the split is on secular Jews and religious Jews lines. In Israel there are 50% Orthodox, 30% secular and 20% Religious (keeping some commandments).

Women in Judaism

Ultra-Orthodox woman is married and has a large family and may work outside the home. Children go to a Jewish school as she did and are likely to be employed in Ultra-Orthodox Jewish businesses and not socialise with non-Jews. So they will marry within the faith. She prays, studies, maintains all food laws, and isolates herself from marital intimacy during menstruation and a week after (until she takes a ritual bath). When in public she covers her hair. Women do not read the Torah scroll but can pray together.

Orthodox Jewish woman is married, has a small number of children and they attend state schools. There is a Jewish Sunday School (note the day) the children can attend. She hopes and intends that they children grow to marry Jews; the daughter in law especially would have to be Jewish so that her grandchildren were Jewish. She either goes regularly to synagogue or perhaps for some festivals like Rosh Hashanah (New Year) and the Day of Atonement. There she sits in the women's gallery with others looking down at the conducting of the service by men. She keeps to food laws at home but when going out with friends she is more relaxed. She is important in maintaining a Jewish home and may or may not be in paid work. The strong emphasis is on a woman's role in the family, not taking any active role in Jewish worship (e.g. women's prayer groups are frowned upon), and in Orthodoxy a woman remains married even after a civil divorce if her husband refused her a religious divorce. genesis 3:16 says a woman is a man's helper and obeys. Women are exempted from those mitzvot (obligations) that interfere with being a mother, their primary role.

Reform Jewish woman has many non-Jewish friends as do all members of her family. She hopes that children, if she has them, will marry other Jews, but the wider family has a patchwork of marrying in and out and some even still attend Orthodox synagogue. She goes at times to the Reform Synagogue where the women sit with men, take part, and where there can be a woman Rabbi. She does hear Hebrew but the use of English is more relevant. She keeps to some festivals; foods chosen at times have a Jewish reasoning. She lives a Western life and expects full equality.

Liberal Jewish woman has many non-Jewish friends as do all members of her family. Her children may or may not marry Jews but her grandchildren children can still be raised as Jews. Her faith is important and she lets its adapted traditions address her contemporary lifestyle, adapting both. Her understanding of God is primarily ethical and very personal. She goes to the synagogue where full equality is normal. She is interested in other faiths and meets Christians, Unitarians, Bahais and others for discussion. This Western woman buys in the foods to mark some festivals.

Reconstructionist Jewish woman hopes her children can retain the sense of community she has got with other Jews of her synagogue. She is a keen social activist and has a radical Western outlook. She sees how important it is that the Jewish tradition should be changed. She is not sure what God means, but the idealism of God is found among all people (not just Jews) in all their ethnic, cultural and personal identities. She compares her outlook with those of other faith communities, especially female radicals, and she relates to the secular world in general. She marks Jewish festivals at the synagogue.


Reform Movement and The Divine Law

European Tolerance Secularisation and Liberalising Christianity Impacting on the Jews towards Reform

History of Reform Movements

Reform into the United States and Britain

Women in Judaism