Reform Judaism refers to the modernizing efforts in central and western European Judaism following the enlightenment and the abolition of benighted ghettos in the late 18th century(Terry 150). The Jews people have adhered to the Jewish traditions even as they continued to interact with people from other cultures. Since its inception in the late 18th century and beginning of the 19th century, Reform Judaism is founded on assertions that ancient Judaism beliefs and practices cannot be used to effectively guide the lives and interactions of those who live in modern times. It does not view the Jewish laws and traditions as binding but rather as useful guides and principle that can be bent to align with changes in time. The movement traces its origins in German but has since spread to Britain and North America. This paper seeks to unpack the key stages in the history of the movement and highlight its major beliefs and practices.
The roots of Reform Judaism can be traced back to Germany in the periods between 1810 and 1820. During this period, congregations in Seesen, Hamburg, and Berlin introduced significant alterations in traditional Jewish practices and beliefs, these included; mixed seating, the introduction of German as a service language, one-day observance of festivals, and use of a choir(Jewish Virtual Library). The introduction of the movement in America was shaped by the immigration of the perceived German “reformers” into the country in the mid-1800s and soon Reform took center stage of the belief systems of the American Jews of the time. It is believed that the first “Reform” group was molded by a number of individuals that fragmented from Cong Beth Elohim in Charleston SC(Jewish Virtual Library).
It is argued that the American Reform benefited from the absence of a centralized religious authority. Rabbi Isaac Mayer Wise is believed to have been the pillar of American Reform Judaism(Jewish Virtual Library). He migrated to the US in 1846 from Bohemia, the Rabbi lived in Albany for eight years before relocating to Cincinnati, he is credited to have; written the first siddur edited for American worshipers, initiated the Union of American Hebrew congregations and started the Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati and being the founder of the Central conference of American Rabbis (CCAR). By 1890, most the American synagogues had undergone Reform.
The early Reform that was fronted by Rabbis followed an increasingly radical stance in accordance with the Pittsburgh Platform that was adopted by the pioneer Rabbis of the movement in 1885 which outlined the guiding principles of the movement(Karesh and Hurvitz 394). American reform was also spearheaded by a number of Jewish organizations such as the Educational Alliance, the Young Men’s Hebrew Association, the American Jewish Committee, and the ADL of B’nai Brith(Jewish Virtual Library). The early Reform also followed an anti-Zionist approach, this was a belief that diaspora indispensable for the Jews to reach enlighten the rest of the world. The Columbus Platform of 1937 asserted to all Jews an obligation to all Jews to assist in constructing a Jewish homeland. Past 1937, Reform continued to take an active role on the social front.
Beliefs of Reform Judaism
Although Reform Judaism acknowledges diversity in Jewish beliefs and practices, the movement upholds the central doctrines of Judaism which are God, Torah and Israel(Lange 66). Tikkunolam, meaning repairing the world, is a hallmark of the movement in their endless efforts to bring peace freedom and justice humanity. The Pittsburgh Statement of Principles acknowledges the existence of “one and indivisible, transcendent and immanent Creator, and sustainer of the universe, source of moral law, a God of justice and mercy who demands that human beings shall practice justice and mercy in their dealings with one another”(Karesh and Hurvitz 394).
Many reform Jews regard the Torah as the base of Jewish life and that it umbrellas God’s unending revelation to humanity as well as the accounts of human relationships with their creator. Although they do not believe that the Torah was written by God, many consider it to be divinely inspired. Reform Jews see the biblical writers as humans who were attached to the cultural practices and societal values of their time and place. This is not to say that they devalue the Torah, but rather implies that they believe that the Torah contains a lot that is imperfect, petty and found on old politics and culture. Reform Jews consider the Torah as well as Mishnah, Talmud and Midrash as invaluable sources of wisdom, guidance and inspiration; they however assert that these books should be interpreted in the context of the modern world and not literally(Kaplan 9).
The Messiah and the afterlife
Reform Judaism does not recognize the idea of a personal messiah whose coming will bring about the resurrection of the dead and eternal life for the righteous. Most Reform laws also cast off the idea of physical resurrection, the movement hold no consensus on the possibility of life after death.
Reform Judaism regards Israel as a holy land and is highly supportive of their cradle land (Kaplan 2). They believe that the diaspora has an important role to play in shaping the present and future of the Jewish people. Reform Jews are against the rigorous pro-Orthodox bearing that religion in Israel currently follows, they are peace oriented and are of the opinion that good rapport between Arabs and Jews in Israel should be enforced.
Sexuality and identity
Reform Judaism recognizes the traditional Jewish family as the model lifestyle and raising children in this context is best placed for effective transmission of faith. The movement disregards promiscuity and adulterous tendencies and insists that human beings should desist from sexual activities till marriage. While the movement does not condemn homosexuality, it is clear from their literature that heterosexuality is considered nobler than homosexuality. The movement calls for understanding of homosexuals in society and recognizes that righteousness may be found in committed same-sex relationships. The movement does not consider the Jewish identity as a matter of genetics but rather as culture and upbringing. While one is a Jew by virtue of being born of Jewish parents, one is also considered a Jew if they are brought up in Jewish environment or converts to Judaism.
Reform Judaism Practices
Reform Judaism allows the freedom of choice for either cremation or burial in circumstances of death. It also grants men and women equal rights to participate in funeral and mourning rituals. The movement also encourages its members to participate in organ donations appropriately.
Unlike the Conservative Judaism, Reform Judaism does not enforce the observance of Jewish dietary rules; it leaves the matter to personal preference. Even so, the movement holds a religious dimension to the consumption of food and champions for blessing and thanksgiving to God before and after meals (Kaplan 11).
Reform Judaism has harmonized the language of petitions with modern sensibilities. The prayer books have been reformulated to suit the movement’s theology. Certain sections for instance those that point to the return of the messiah and resurrection of the dead have been replaced or excised completely. The Reform movement advocates for religious equity between men and women, it allows men and women to sit together during service. The reform movement also permits women to conduct service as well as serve as witnesses during ritual matters (Kaplan 169).
Reform Judaism is one of the three forms of modern Judaism currently practiced worldwide. The movement which is widely based in North America traces origins from Germany. Although it still holds the traditional Judaism founding principles, the movement has adopted new religious beliefs and practices to suit the changing times. These changes are majorly depicted in their religious practices.
Jewish Virtual Library. “Reform Judaism: History & Overview.” 2008. Jewish Virtual Library. https://www.jewishvirtuallibrary.org/jsource/Judaism/reform.html. 12 December 2016.
Kaplan, Dana Evan. “Chapter 5: A New Reform Revolution in Values.” Kaplan, Dana Evan. The new Reform Judaism : challenges and reflections. Philadelphia : The Jewish Publication Society, 2013. 165-208. Web.
Karesh, Sara E and Mitchell M Hurvitz. Encyclopedia of Judaism. New york: Infobase Pub, 2005. Web.
Lange, Nicholsa De. “The Jewish religion .” Lange, Nicholsa De. An Introduction to Judaism. Cambridge: CAMBRIDGE UNIVERSITY PRESS, 2002. 66-83. Web.
Terry, Michael. Reader’s Guide to Judaism. Chicago: Fitzroy Dearborn, 2013. Print.