Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Reform Judaism's 200th birthday

A guest post by Rabba bar bar Chana

Reform Judaism is something new under the sun. It isn’t “real” Judaism and will disappear as everyone in the movement assimilates, right?

Well, it’s worth noting that this Shabbat, the 17th of July, will mark the 200th anniversary of the first Reform Synagogue. It was established by Rabbi Israel Jacobson in Seesen, Germany. 200 years is hardly a flash in the pan, and shows that despite the hopes of many frum Jews, Reform Judaism is here to stay.

This may sound like I’m celebrating Reform Judaism, and in a sense I am. More on that below. But I certainly have a lot of issues with it as well, especially as it was practiced in the beginning. My biggest issue was the expunging of the any hint of yearning for Eretz Yisrael. Reform Judaism was meant to show loyalty to the country the Jews lived in. And the temple was decked out to look and feel like as much as possible like a church.

Over the years, American Reform Judaism softened their anti-Zionist stance, and today are usually strongly supportive of the state of Israel.

Interestingly, there was no gender egalitarianism in that first temple in Seesen. Men and women sat separately. Hmm – separate seating and anti-Zionism… was that first Reform temple charedi? (Yes, I’m aware that “Zionism” per se didn’t exist in 1810. I’m using term for convenience.)

One innovation that shocked and appalled more traditional Jews was the use of German to deliver the sermon, instead of the more traditional Yiddish so that the masses could understand. Today we think nothing of hearing a drasha in English in the most Charedi shuls.

And Reform certainly changed traditional Judaism in far larger ways as well. Opposition to Reform brought rapprochement between the Chassidim and Misnagdim and created a new movement called Orthodox Judaism. This wasn’t merely a gathering together under a new name, but a crystallizing of disparate practices and movements into one. Thus, in a sense, Reform Judaism preceeded (and created) Orthodox Judaism.

I still have problems with contemporary Reform Judaism. I think that a Judaism devoid of ritual is far poorer for it and loses much of its Jewish character. (Though ritual has been increasing in the movement in recent years.) But I still feel that there’s much to celebrate about the movement as well, as I mentioned above.

One common refrain among Orthodox Jews is that Reform Judaism has been a huge gateway to assimilation. That may be true, to a degree. But let’s pretend that Reform (or the other heterodox movements) didn’t exist. Do you really think that those 1.5 million American Jews that count themselves as Reform would have anything to do with Judaism at all today? It’s unlikely that they’d all be Orthodox. If anything, Reform has probably helped more Jews retain a Jewish identity than they’ve helped lose. That’s 1.5 million Jews who might have been lost to Judaism entirely. 1.5 million Jews who care about Israel. Yes, some of their Jewish identity may be superficial, but frankly, that could be said of some Jews in every movement.

So Happy 200th Birthday, Reform Judaism!

Search for more information about the history of Reform Judaism at

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