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Classical Reform Judaism: A Timeless Legacy

Rabbi Michael P. Sternfield
Fall 2002

Classical Reform is viewed by many as the last gasp of an antiquated expres­sion of Judaism more intent on assimila­tion than regeneration. This is an erro­neous picture. Much in Classical Reform remains compelling and applicable to the current state of American Judaism.  

Consider these original and most hon­ored precepts of Reform Judaism.  

1. Reform was founded specifically in response to emancipation and modernity. Envisioned by Jews who had left behind the mindset of the shtetl, the Reformers, from the very beginning, emphasized that worship needed to be understandable and accessible in the vernacular, edifying, and spiritually uplifting through the use of beautiful music and elegant language. Thus was born the Union Prayer Book. To this day, there are a great many Reform Jews who can recite passages verbatim from this inspiring siddur. One does not have to be fluent in Hebrew in order to worship with the UPB. Worship is acces­sible to everyone, including non-Jews - a point of considerable significance today.  

2. The founders of the Reform Move­ment drew their inspiration from the great Hebrew prophets, even more than from the Torah. Today’s impetus toward tikkun olam, the repair of our broken world, is a reaffirmation of the moral imperative originally stated by our Prophets, Isaiah, Amos, Hosea, and others. Our founders boldly articulated Reform’s mission as profoundly universal, seeking to make the world a better place for all people. Whether we call this Prophetic Judaism or social action, it remains the great guiding principle of our Reform Movement.  

3. The universal mission of Reform Judaism was also reflected in its stance that the great beliefs of Judaism could also be embraced by non-Jews. “My house shall be called a house of prayer for all people” is among the most revered scriptural passages in the UPB. Long before interfaith marriage was common­place, the language of worship opened Reform Judaism’s doors to all who would join with us in prayer or in action.  

4. Reform distinguished itself from Orthodoxy from the very beginning. With­out apology, Reform never claimed to be halachic Judaism. The many rules, cus­toms, and traditions of the Talmud and Shuichan Aruch, indeed the many ritual commandments of the Torah itself, were considered secondary to Judaism’s ethical teachings. In fact, the radical Reformers who wrote the original Pittsburgh Plat­form of 1885 went so far as to state that they “accepted as binding only the moral laws and ceremonies which sanctify our lives.” Ethical conduct was deemed of much greater importance than ritual; the primary function of ritual was to stress the ethos of the religious community.  

5. Reform Judaism began as a rational faith system. Equipped with the tools of modem biblical criticism, Reform scholars rejected the Orthodox belief that the Torah was revealed word for word to Moses on Mt. Sinai. Reform’s willingness to depart from irrational and unprovable Orthodox doctrines and practices continues to be one of its most liberating elements. The Ortho­dox will never accept the legitimacy of Reform Judaism, and we do ourselves harm when we try to be more like them.  

Our Movement should be less hasty in embracing traditional practices that are contrary to the vision of our founders. In its quest to redefine itself for the 21st century, our leaders would do well to look to our own historic roots, rather than attempt to refashion Reform Judaism in the image of Orthodoxy.

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