The Past is Prologue: Great Moments in Reform Jewish History

January 22, 2015Rabbi Gary Phillip Zola

Without a doubt, Jacob Rader Marcus (1896-1995) has a rightful place in the pantheon of American Reform Judaism's most brilliant luminaries. After receiving his rabbinical ordination in 1920 from what is now Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion in Cincinnati, OH, Marcus went on to become one of Reform Judaism's best-known figures in the last half of the 20th century.

Professor Marcus served as an active member of HUC-JIR's faculty for 75 years; it is likely that he amassed the longest continuous record of service in the school's 140-year history. Although a complete roster of Marcus's scholarly and professional achievements could easily go on for pages, at the very least it must be noted that he served as president of the Central Conference of American Rabbis (1949-1951), as well as the American Jewish Historical Society (1955-1958). Yet Jacob Rader Marcus is best remembered as the first American-born, academically trained scholar to study American Jewish history. To this very day, two decades after his death, American Jewish historians reverently refer to this scholar as "the Dean of American Jewish historians," because all who study this subject are the beneficiaries of Dr. Marcus's extraordinary contributions to his primary field of study.

In Act 2, Scene I of The Tempest, William Shakespeare wrote, "What's past is prologue." One of Marcus's best-known aphorisms, to the same effect, is today emblazoned over the entrance to the American Jewish Archives, the great research center he founded in 1947 on HUC-JIR's historic Cincinnati campus. Upon entering the building, one's eyes immediately take note of his oft-repeated apothegm: "A people that is not cognizant of its past can have little hope for its future."

The Union for Reform Judaism's new Ten Minutes of Torah feature, themed "Great Moments in Reform Jewish History," will appear regularly on and in email inboxes throughout 2015. Surely, such an initiative has been inspired by Dr. Marcus's admonition.

The future of the Reform Movement in Judaism will unquestionably be shaped by our collective perspective on the past. In other words, if we who call ourselves Reform Jews have little or no familiarity with the long road that has carried us to our present circumstance, then we can take it as an incontrovertible certainty that our collective future will be desultory. By examining a wide array of episodes that have shaped the Reform Jewish Movement, Ten Minutes of Torah reminds us of what has arguably been the Jewish people's most distinctive and enduring ideal: Zakhor y'mot olam! Binu sh'not dor va-dor! Remember the days of old! Consider the years of generations past! (Deuteronomy 32:7)

More than 150 years ago, Bernhard Felsenthal (1822-1908), one of the most distinguished rabbinical figures in 19th-century American Reform Judaism, delivered a dedicatory address at the founding of Zion Temple in Chicago, IL (now Oak Park Temple). Felsenthal immigrated to the U.S. in 1854 from a small town located in what is today southwest Germany. In 1858, he settled in Chicago, where he became a founder and the guiding spirit of Chicagoland's first Reform synagogue − historic Sinai Congregation. A few years later, Felsenthal and Sinai's lay leaders parted ways, and he − together with several disciples − subsequently established Chicago's second Reform congregation, Zion Temple.

In this 150-year old inaugural address, Felsenthal outlined a mission and vision of the Reform Jewish synagogue that seem remarkably contemporary. In his sermon, titled "Wherefore We Rejoice?" (which can be found in Emma Felsenthal's book, Bernhard Felsenthal: Teacher in Israel), Felsenthal told his congregants that the Reform Movement in Judaism is a distinctive religious community that existed in order to champion three fundamental ideals that its partisans firmly embrace:

  • First, Felsenthal told his listeners, "we are [Jews] and nothing that concerns [the Jewish people] leaves us unmoved..."
  • Second, he continued, "we are friends and adherents . . . [to a] Judaism of the present and the future."
  • Finally, the rabbi declared, "we are human beings and nothing that concerns [humankind] is foreign to us..."

In the coming months, Ten Minutes of Torah's "Great Moments in Reform Jewish History" essays will undoubtedly illustrate the validity of Dr. Felsenthal's inspiring assertions. The great moments in Reform Jewish history that we will encounter in the coming year will prove that during the course of our Movement's history, (a) nothing significant in the stream of Jewish civilization has ever been foreign to the interests of Reform Judaism, and (b) Reform Judaism has self-consciously and doggedly engaged with the daunting challenges of the present in an effort to preserve our heritage's future, and (c) Reform Judaism has, from its beginnings, insisted that the Jews qua Jews have a solemn duty - as the renowned Pittsburgh Platform put it - "to solve on the basis of justice and righteousness, the problems presented by the contrasts and evils of the present organization of society."

In colloquial Jewish parlance, the study of any Jewish text is commensurate with the study of Torah - the Pentateuch itself. History, too, is Torah, because the lives of our Jewish forebears constitute a sacred text.

If you don't yet receive Ten Minutes of Torah, sign up now to get a daily email topics of Jewish interest. It only takes 10 minutes a day to get started on a lifelong journey. Spend 10 minutes a day — and before you know it you’ll have completed 100 hours of Torah study!

Related Posts