History of Reform Judaism and a Look Ahead

In Search of Belonging
Lawrence A. Englander

The first Reform temple opened its doors more than 200 years ago in the town of Seesen, Germany. At the inaugural ceremony on July 17, 1810, a parade of rabbis, Christian ministers, and political dignitaries passed under a chiming bell-tower and entered the sanctuary, while an adult choir, accompanied by a pipe organ, sang hymns in German and Hebrew. The businessman and philanthropist who had founded this temple, Mr. Israel Jacobson (1768-1828), delivered the sermon while draped in a black clerical robe. Standing behind a pulpit at the front of the sanctuary, the man who had also established an egalitarian, religiously pluralistic boarding school for 40 Jewish and 20 Christian children told the august assembly: "On all sides enlightenment opens up new areas for religious development. Why should we Jews be left behind?"

Jacobson's call struck a responsive chord. In the decades that followed, Reform Judaism spread through Europe and then to North America.

Reform Judaism has now surpassed its 200th anniversary. Looking back, I believe it is possible to identify three stages through which our Movement has evolved and to see the beginnings of a fourth. These stages pivot on a common theme: how our predecessors confronted two opposing tendencies in their search to feel a sense of belonging within the general culture. The universalist tendency stressed the common values and behaviors they shared with their non-Jewish neighbors. The particularist tendency stressed the more introspective features of Jewish identity that made them unique among the peoples of the world. The interplay between these two factors underlies each stage of our Movement's evolution.

Stage One: Emancipation to the Creation of the Jewish State

Even before the Seesen synagogue set Reform Judaism in motion, Jews had entered modernity. Decades earlier, Napoleon had thrown open the doors of medieval ghettos. As Jews freely mingled with fellow Europeans, they were exposed to the cosmopolitan bustle of cities, the sophistication of theaters and opera houses, the rational inquiry of universities.

Eager to participate and demonstrate to their neighbors what loyal and productive citizens they could be, many Jews decided to jettison kashrut and other traditional laws and practices which prohibited them from eating at the homes of their gentile friends or attending social gatherings at cafés. They were embarrassed, too, should neighbors accustomed to the decorum of the Protestant or Catholic church visit the synagogue and witness a spectacle of men wrapped in strange prayer shawls noisily davening a repetitive liturgy while children tore up and down the aisles.

Determined to bring Jewish life into the modern age, the early German-Jewish reformers of the mid-19th century emphasized the universalist ethical teachings of biblical prophets. They no longer viewed ritual observance as ordained by God and inviolate, but as a means to reinforce the prophetic ideals of justice, freedom, and peace.

In synagogue worship, they began to pray in unison and introduced a professional choir and organ to render their hymns. The rabbi led services covered in ministerial robes as bareheaded worshipers listened in solemn silence. Later in the century, when Reform Judaism spread to North America, the main Shabbat service shifted to Friday night, allowing Jews to pursue their occupations on Saturdays, in concert with many of their gentile compatriots.

Thus, in this first stage of Reform Judaism's development-a period of adaptation to the wider gentile community-Reform Jews abandoned codes of diet, dress, and ritual practices which set them apart from fellow citizens.

These changes in Jewish practice were accompanied by a new theology, which also led to amendments to Reform prayer books. Traditionally, Jews had prayed for the coming of the Messiah, who would usher in a universal age of peace, resurrect the dead, and lead all Jews back to the restored Kingdom of Israel, where the Temple would be rebuilt and sacrifices once again offered upon its altars. The early reformers changed the focus of this national restoration to what they called the "Mission of Israel": the Jews' historic task to bring social justice to the world from within the lands where they lived. Now that the Jews of Europe or America had finally become prosperous, they had little desire to leave their "new homeland" for an uncivilized, swamp-ridden land halfway around the globe. They taught instead that "the Messianic Age," rather than the Messiah, would come to all enlightened nations-and, better still, it was just around the corner.

Reform Jews were now able to express their particularism on their own terms and to connect with growing numbers of like-minded compatriots. The adaptations to modern culture, however, entailed sacrificing a Jewish identity that had defined the Jewish people for generations. When freed from the yoke of halachah (religious law), Judaism was recast from an all-encompassing way of life to simply a religion. Just as Christians worshiped in a church, Jews worshiped in a synagogue, but in all other respects Jews were just as European or American as their non-Jewish neighbors next door.

This optimistic, universalist attitude was severely shaken by the Holocaust. In the 1930s and '40s Jews came to the grim realization that, despite their having blended into the general culture, they were still regarded as other. As a result, the Reform pendulum swung away from universalism toward particularism. Reform Jews began to reconsider their opposition to Zionism, the movement calling for the creation of a Jewish state. Reform support for Zionism-which the Central Conference of American Rabbis had endorsed in the Columbus Platform of 1937 by only a single vote-continued to gain momentum in the post-Holocaust years.

When the State of Israel was born in 1948, Reform Jews worldwide celebrated its creation and rejoiced in its achievements. Still, for the first two decades of Israel's existence, the Jewish State was a world away from the daily life of Reform Jews in Manhattan or Montreal. It would take an extraordinary event to bring Israel closer to home.

Stage Two: The Six-Day War to Saving Soviet Jewry

In the 1960s, ethnic pride was on the rise throughout North America. African-Americans were asserting a proud identity with the slogan "Black is beautiful." In Canada, French-Canadian nationalism gained momentum as the Québecois sought to become "maîtres chez nous" ("masters in our own house," promoting French language and culture). Then, suddenly, Israel's lightning victory in the Six-Day War of June 1967 sparked a similar pride among Jews. The muscular, confident sabra erased the lingering stereotype of the spineless ghetto Jew. Hebrew school students learned Israeli pop songs along with the traditional z'mirot (songs). People who had never affiliated with the Jewish community suddenly joined synagogues and Jewish community centers. Jewish students flocked to newly-established Jewish studies courses on university campuses. Jewish summer camps flourished. Young adults began sporting colorful knit kipot and/or chai pendants. Jewish charitable organizations received record contributions. In short, Reform's second stage was characterized by a rebirth of particularism manifested in a pride in Jewish peoplehood. Belonging to the Jewish people enhanced one's personal ethnic identity.

At the same time, Jews participated actively in universal causes of social action. North American Jewish youth joined the Civil Rights Movement at home and protested against the war in Indo-China. Many of the same activists, aroused by the mitzvah to redeem captives, organized campaigns to free their fellow Jews in the Soviet Union, and later in Ethiopia. Jews were now comfortable enough in their own skin to take the universal ideal of freedom and advocate it for their own people.

In the religious sphere, Jewish ethnicity sparked a trend "back to tradition." The Jewish Catalog, which taught its readers how to tie their own tzitzit and write a scroll for a homemade mezuzah, became a bestseller. Both children and adults were receiving a higher quality Jewish education because of the increasing professionalism of the field. As congregants became more ritually sophisticated, many Reform synagogues included more Hebrew in services.

It felt good to be Jewish-and to share one's Jewish pride with others.

Stage Three: Innovation and Interfaith

By the 1980s, Jews were interacting confidently as equals with their non-Jewish friends, while at the same time spending more time and energy in Jewish pursuits. In this and other ways, Reform's third stage manifested a complementary interplay between both universalism and particularism, like two weights swaying on a scale and eventually finding equilibrium.

On the universalist side of the scale, Reform congregations sought to share common principles with their neighbors by becoming increasingly active in interfaith dialogue. Jewish and Christian clergy exchanged pulpits and congregants arranged visits to each other's houses of worship. People of many faiths worked side by side in soup kitchens and food banks, and supported aid projects overseas. The feminist revolution brought more women onto the bimah as rabbis and cantors, and as lay leaders around the temple board table.

On the particularist side, Reform Jews brought fresh creativity to ritual. Recognizing the growing diversity of their membership, they widened the circle of belonging by introducing new lifecycle events, including brit (covenantal naming) ceremonies for newborn girls, rituals for adopting children, and Mi Shebeirach blessings for healing. As new definitions of family developed, Reform synagogues opened their arms to single parents as well as gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgendered Jews. To accommodate those who were not born Jewish or had not been educated in Jewish tradition, experimental prayer books in the 1980s added transliteration to the Hebrew liturgy.

To address the increasing number of Reform Jews who married outside the faith, in the late 1970s the Union of American Hebrew Congregations (now Union for Reform Judaism) launched an ambitious and successful Outreach program. Interfaith families were welcomed to join Reform congregations and non-Jewish spouses were encouraged to consider taking courses on conversion. If the female partner decided not to choose Judaism, the 1983 CCAR resolution on Patrilineal Descent acknowledged Jewish identity through the father when the child was Judaically educated and identified as a Jew.

Musically, cantorial solos were gradually replaced with new songs everyone could sing, many of them infused with a distinctly North American motif. Debbie Friedman's "Not By Might" became an anthem for youth, and songs by the Kol B'Seder duo Cantor Jeff Klepper and Rabbi Daniel Freelander such as " Shalom Rav" spread to synagogues and camps throughout the continent. This new music strengthened the sense of belonging to the Reform Movement: worshiping at your temple or far away from home, you could sing the same melodies.

As services became more accessible, congregants began to explore inner, spiritual quests. More time was devoted to silent prayer. New services incorporated Eastern meditation techniques; others focused upon text study as a form of prayer. In this third stage, Judaism not only clothed Reform Jews with a distinct ethnic identity; it also became more personally meaningful for many.

By the 1990s, the Reform Movement was becoming increasingly aware that the trend toward individualism posed a threat to the institution of the synagogue. Many young Jews seemed to be saying: "My religion teaches values that are essentially no different from those held by the majority of my fellow citizens; and if the most important of those values is to live an ethical life, then why do I need the rest of the baggage? Why be different? Wouldn't it be easier to assimilate? This would give me a much wider choice for a future marriage partner. Besides, now that Judaism can be an individual choice as well as a communal one, I can still express my ethnic Jewish identity without it becoming a barrier in my relationships. By choosing Judaism for myself-and which aspects of it I wish to practice-while at the same time allowing my partner to make his or her own choices, I can have it all!"

Stage Four: A Paradoxical State

Reform Jews are in a paradoxical state today. On the one hand, most of the barriers that kept us from "fitting in" and "being like everyone else" have come down; on the other, our ancestral roots still nourish us and we want to preserve our differences. Our sense of belonging is becoming simultaneously wider and narrower.

Our expression of universalism now embraces the entire world, for global culture has become increasingly homogenized: people from Toronto to Tokyo drink Coca Cola, listen to the same musicians, wear identical brand-name clothes, and engage in instant technology-driven communication.

At the same time, our understanding of particularism has shrunk from peoplehood to self. Two hundred years ago, one's personal identity was essentially defined through one or two primary groups to which one belonged-usually country and religion. Today, identity is more fractionalized and complex, determined by such factors as country, language, gender, profession, socioeconomic status-and religion. Each of these components make up our identity like pieces of a pie.

For many, identifying the Jewish piece of that pie or its importance among the other components has become increasingly difficult. What is the binding agent that connects us to the Jewish people? Our personal theological beliefs are far more divergent now than in stage one, and therefore connect us less strongly with Reform (or any branch of) Judaism. Our ethnic ties still draw us together, but nowadays ethnicity lacks the impetus it did in the second stage-perhaps, in part, because today's synagogues have many more members who were not born into Judaism and cannot share the commonalities of cultural heritage. Loyalty to the Reform Movement may be waning among younger generations of Jews, who tend to dislike labels and prefer more fluid lifestyles. They may seek out the Jewish community to fulfill current needs, such as a lifecycle ceremony or the education of their children, rather than regarding synagogue membership as a lifetime commitment.

Even the State of Israel no longer confers the sense of belonging it once did. We no longer respond instinctively to the "crisis mentality"-that either Israel is in danger and we must save her, or that Diaspora Jewry is vulnerable and only Israel can save us. Instead, our relationship with Israel has become more nuanced, as we have come to understand that the Israeli government-just like our own-sometimes makes unwise decisions, and that we Diaspora Jews, who hold a variety of perspectives about such policies, are free, even duty-bound, to express them.

How Reform Jews confront the paradoxical nature of universalism and particularism will determine the character of the Reform Jewish future.

To infuse Jews with a sense of belonging in this fourth stage, our Movement will need to develop a more flexible type of community. Even as we draw sustenance from members who make a lifelong commitment, it is incumbent upon us to also provide something of value for those just passing through. Nor can we wait for everyone to come to us; we also have to meet Jews wherever they happen to gather-restaurants, living rooms, internet chat rooms. And we have to make better creative use of electronic media for communication and online study.

At the same time, if Reform Judaism is to survive in this fourth stage, we will have to go somewhat against the stream in a society in which the only constant is change, by creating a community that stands for something timeless. As in the previous stages, our message is twofold. The universalist Mission of Israel teaches that our lives have meaning beyond the immediate present, beyond the aims and ambitions that we assign to ourselves. It reminds us that we must settle for nothing less than tikkun olam -repair of the world-in our continuous quest to bring justice, peace, freedom, and enlightenment to the world. The particularist side of the coin is that the Jewish people has a unique contribution to make in this effort. Our uniqueness derives from a blend of ethical, spiritual, educational, and cultural elements-a blend that is different for each individual, but can be shared with fellow Jews in community.

Adapting to new conditions while maintaining ancient traditions is part and parcel of the Jewish historical experience. In the Mishnah, at the end of Tractate Berakhot, the rabbis quote Psalm 119:126: "It is time to act for Adonai; they have nullified Your Torah." While most of the rabbis interpret this to mean that Jewish tradition must be preserved despite trends toward apostasy or assimilation, Rabbi Natan offers a different interpretation. He reverses the two parts of the verse: "Nullify Your Torah" because "it is time to act for Adonai."

In Rabbi Natan's view, one way to preserve tradition is to transform it. This is precisely what Reform Judaism, at its best, has been doing at every stage for the past 200 years.