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Classical Reform Judaism: An Enduring Tradition

Author's Name Withheld
Spring 2000

During the last three decades, Reform Judaism in the United States has been subjected to considerable changes. These changes have reshaped American Reform Judaism so extensively as to justify the adoption of a nomenclature "mainstream Reform" which would make it distinguishable from the historic tradition now known as "classical Reform." Many Reform congregations have been persuaded or urged to "move into the mainstream of present-day practice" by adding many of the traditional rituals and ceremonies to the carefully measured practices of classical Reform. But in reality, the mainstream of present-day practice constitutes not merely a return to rituals and ceremonies which the earlier Reform movement had discarded as incompatible with its style and philosophy, but it also reflects a different concept of the Jew and his Judaism. Although the term "mainstream" seems to describe innocuously the golden mean between extreme positions on the religious right and left, and to illumine the broad avenue the average Jew can choose to share harmoniously with the majority of his fellow-Jews, it is in reality not so innocuous. It connotes something far more significant than a rising need for more traditions or the supposed bridging of the gap between Conservative and Reform Judaism. The reintroduction of discarded prayers and rituals is calculated to have the Reform Jew of today see himself in a light that differs sharply from that in which his parents and grandparents saw themselves. The harmless word "mainstream" conceals a drastic change. What is the essence of that change? And why is it being foisted upon the Reform Jew of this generation?  

Evaluation of Classical Reform  

The answer to these questions and an understanding of the intrinsic substance of mainstream Reform Judaism require a brief evaluation of classical Reform Judaism. Reform Judaism has never been monolithic; different shades of emphasis can be observed since its inception in Germany about 150 years ago. Isaac Wise and David Einhorn were prominent leaders of American Reform Judaism; yet, though contemporaries they held divergent views on how far necessary and desirable reforms should be extended. It is widely acknowledged that the historic totality of Reform Judaism is made up of a variety of strands. "Classical Reform" designation which came into vogue when fresh insights into U.S. Reform Judaism emerged and challenged what had been considered immutable until then-is merely one of them.  

There is no specific document or pronouncement which can be identified as the official position of classical Reform Judaism, though the "Pittsburgh Platform" of 1885 has been cited as the best statement of its philosophy. This document, consisting of eight paragraphs, was largely composed by Kaufmann Kohler, one of the advocates of classical Reform, and was chiefly intended as a reply to the attack on the Reform movement launched by the Conservative Rabbis Alexander Kohut and Benjamin Szold and the editors of the American Hebrew. Keeping that specific purpose in mind, Rabbi Kohler and his associates digressed from producing a complete, well-balanced exposition of Reform Judaism. Nevertheless, the platform was accorded authoritative status by all, supporters and opponents alike. For it simply stated that those who agreed with this platform saw themselves as a religious community and nothing else.  

This declaration, affirming the purely religious nature of Judaism and expunging all nationalistic elements handed down from the past, was a repetition of what had been stated previously by others; the idea did not originate with the writers of the platform. As early as 1812, the year of the Emancipation of the Jews in Prussia, David Friediaender, a prominent layman in Berlin, had written: "I pray for blessing and success for my king, for my fellow-citizens, for myself and my family and not for a return to Jerusalem, not for a restoration of the Temple and the sacrifices. Such wishes I do not have in my heart. Their fulfillment would not make me happy. My mouth shall not utter them." When the Hamburg Temple Association, the first congregation established for the specific purpose of carrying out reforms, published its prayer-book in 1819, Friedlaender's sentiments were restated. In a prefatory comment, he explained that the wish for a return to Jerusalem had been omitted from the prayer-book because very few Jews harbored that desire. As for those prayers for a return to the Holy City which had been retained, he indicated they were to be taken in a spiritual sense, for "we do not request that God transport us physically to Zion, because we are satisfied with the place where we live."  

Impact of the Emancipation  

As time elapsed and Jews found gratifying accommodation in the duties and privileges of citizenship which the Emancipation had bestowed upon them, all of the particularistic and nationalistic elements in their religious tradition became problematic. In essence, all reform tendencies, whether minimal, moderate or extensive, attempted to relate Judaism to the new status the Jew had gained with his citizenship. Emancipation had removed the Jew from the ghetto, and even those who continued to recite the old prayers concerning Zion and Jerusalem no longer took them literally, but enhanced them with a new spiritual meaning. The most radical reforms, an inevitable consequence of the Emancipation, were advocated by Rabbi Samuel Holdheim, a major architect of classical Reform. With his unsentimental and compelling logic he proceeded to outline the task at hand in a book published in 1843, which he entitled The Autonomy of the Rabbis. His guiding principle stated: "Only if the Jew surrenders all particularistic national conceptions, only if he believes that he can be true to the idea of Judaism as a religion in each and any fatherland wherever he may live, can he be truly attached to his fatherland. But if he entertains as a religious tenet and as a matter of conscientious conviction the belief that the Jewish state will again rise, then he cannot possibly be in earnest in the matter of the separation of the religious and political elements and its implied corollary of true loyalty to the fatherland."  

These basic ideas were brought to our shores and inspired the development of that kind of liberal or progressive Judaism which is called "classical Reform." All varieties of modern Judaism bear the stamp of the Emancipation and reflect the reaction of the Jew to the end of Jewish corporate identity and to his becoming the inconspicuous Jewish counterpart to his Christian fellow-citizen. In a way, the Emancipation caused a religious crisis: The Jew was forced to make a fundamental decision. The given Jewish milieu of the ghetto had disappeared; would he be willing to remain a Jew under drastically changed conditions, and if so, what kind of Judaism would make it possible for him to be a Jew in the modern world, a Jewish citizen? Classical Reform offered a meaningful answer to those who wanted to live as individual Jews in the modern world. Whatever its detractors have to say today, this veritable achievement is recorded in the annals of Jewish history.  

Jews came to this country hoping ardently to echo the editors of the Hamburg prayer-book: "we are satisfied with the place where we live." They wanted to sink roots here because here they were not "at best tolerated guests in someone else's home." This was to be their home and their children's home; it was only natural that their Judaism could be no more than the faith of a religious community. They identified themselves, insofar as their religious preference was concerned, as Jews. And just as they had to adjust themselves to life in the New World, so their Judaism had to be adapted to the mores of a free society. Such were the dynamics of Reform Judaism. There was simply no other way to endow Judaism with meaning and vitality on these shores.  

In Holdheim's Footsteps  

The reformers followed in Holdheim's footsteps and, without restraint or remorse, sloughed off all traditions which did not fit naturally and harmoniously into their existential consciousness. They saw no reason for imbuing an outdated hope with spiritual or symbolic meaning, and therefore created a prayerbook without any reference to the ancient Temple ritual and Jerusalem. Memories of a national past failed to sustain their devotion to Judaism; and dreams of a resurrected Jewish nation, understandable in the oppressive atmosphere of the ghetto, no longer exemplified the ties which Jews as members of a free society could have to the faith of their fathers. Jewish particularism and Jewish nationalism simply could not offer a valid identification for the Jewish citizen of the United States.  

Thus, classical Reform Judaism emerged as the inevitable expression of the religious life style of those who chose to be Americans of Jewish faith. Of necessity, the reformers' outlook was universalistic; and having come to a land of promise, their outlook was optimistic. They looked forward not to the wondrous appearance of a personal Messiah but to the dawn of the Messianic age when humanity's hope for truth, justice, and peace would be fulfilled. To their Judaism they ascribed the "sacred task to toil for the speedy dawn" of the Messianic age, a task that could be met by applying the ethical lessons of Prophetic Judaism to the conduct of their daily existence. This universal outlook was clearly mirrored in the Reform service. The prayers were in harmony with the concerns and aspirations of a Jewish citizen, at home in the land of the free. And for the sake of clarity and immediacy, they were recited in the vernacular. The few symbols and rituals which were retained appealed to heart and mind; the old synagogue tunes, rearranged in the style of the great masters, inspired those who came to pray. The service was distinguished for its clear structure, a tranquil atmosphere and the absence of emotionalism.  

In 1936, the Central Conference of American Rabbis adopted the "Columbus Platform." This document is said to have superseded the "Pittsburgh Platform." This premise is correct only to a certain extent, for the section on "the people of Israel and the rehabilitation of Palestine" makes the Conference's neutral stand on Zionism unmistakably clear. The references to Palestine, to which refugees from Eastern and Central Europe had been coming, represented a compromise- non-Zionists agreed to "the obligation of all Jewry to aid in its upbuilding as a Jewish homeland," and Zionists acquiesced in regarding Palestine as "not only a haven of refuge for the oppressed but also a center of Jewish culture and spiritual life." To be sure, the new generation of Reform rabbis no longer stressed the purely religious character of the Jewish community, but then they also refrained from validating its national ties. Divergent opinions could be identified with the carefully chosen language: Palestine was to be the object of humanitarian endeavors organized for the sake of incoming refugees. Who could quarrel with that?  

The "Jewish Army" Crisis  

A critical stage was reached during World War II when the CCAR adopted a resolution in support of a specific policy vigorously advocated by the organized Zionist movement. Soon after the outbreak of hostilities in 1939 the Jews of Palestine registered for military service, hoping to mobilize a volunteer army under its own flag, which would wage war against the Nazis under British command. When the British government rejected this offer, the American Zionist movement rallied political help for the Jews in Palestine by supporting the call for a Jewish army. This had nothing to do with alleviating the distress of Jewish refugees; this signified political action in an area remote from humanitarianism. When 32 members of the CCAR signed a resolution at the meeting in 1942 in support of "the demand that the Jewish population of Palestine be given the privilege of establishing a military force under its own banner on the side of the democracies," a crucial point was reached. Passions ran high and a line was clearly drawn between those who contended that Zionist political pressures would "confuse the attitude of America toward the Jews" (Louis Wolsey). and those who warned that "American Jewry cannot be isolated from the fate of world Jewry" (Philip Bernstein). Evolving history seemed to demand that "the fate of world Jewry become the principal concern of Jewish thought and deed."  

In the decades spanning the issuance of the Pittsburgh platform and the end of World War II, there were always some Reform rabbis who identified with varying emphases in Zionism. These rabbis viewed the Jewish community as something more than merely a religious association and therefore objected to the Pittsburgh platform which, acknowledging only the religious character of Jewry, implied that Reform Judaism and Zionism were incompatible. They reconciled their commitment to an enlightened religious Judaism with working for the fulfillment of the promises which Zionism held out to the forlorn Jews in Eastern Europe. They insisted that Reform Judaism and Zionism were compatible,.largely because they perceived Zionism as a humanitarian effort on behalf of those who could not feel at home where they lived.  

No Longer Different Entities  

The role of political Zionism in the 1970s is no longer identical with that of the 1920s, 1930s or even the 1940s. The State of Israel, beset by more than financial worries, needs the ideological and political support of the Jews in the free world, in addition to their financial assistance. Interdependence and cooperation have developed to such an extent that American Jewry and Israeli Jewry are no longer seen as two different entities with different aspirations and purposes, but as coordinated parts of one entity, the Jewish People. American Jewry, in this interdependent relationship, is assigned the task of being available for every kind of help. A sincere commitment to meeting the various needs of the State of Israel is expected of the American Jew, so that the United' Jewish Appeal can now speak of "taxation" instead of "contribution." But such a commitment requires adaptation to a new orientation or identity. Hence, the allegation that Judaism is much more than a religious designation; that Jewishness is an amalgam of ethnic and nationalistic connotations as well. For Zionist purposes, it was imperative for Judaism to be recognized as a religio-ethnic-national entity and accepted as such by the Jewish community and the general public at large.  

Mainstream Reform Judaism represents a deliberate effort to relate Reform Judaism to this new Jewish ideology or new political image. It represents a radical mutation in the identity of the Reform Jew. Classical Reform Judaism made the Jew religiously distinct in his environment; mainstream Reform Judaism seeks to extend that distinction to nationalistic and ethnical areas that are associated only with the remote past of Jewish existence.  

Israel and the Diaspora  

Mainstream Reform Judaism bears the official imprimatur of the Union of American Hebrew Congregations. The leadership of the UAHC had intended to mark the 100th anniversary of the founding of the UAHC by preparing a new platform for adoption at its biennial in November 1973. It was felt that discussions on the congregational level would facilitate the adoption of a new Reform platform; to stimulate such discussions the UAHC published several pamphlets under the title Critical Issues Facing Reform Judaism. The pamphlets leave no doubt about the new orientation the UAHC considers desirable and essential.  

One pamphlet deals with "Israel and the Diaspora." Its opening paragraph contains the following sentence: "Our national identity starts with a group of slaves leaving Egypt for the Promised Land." Until now we have commemorated the exodus from Egypt on Passover and as Reform Jews have celebrated it in order to be "imbued with a deep sense of our duty as free men." The theme of Passover has been freedom as a privilege which obligates the individual to moral responsibility. But this appeal to the individual and his religious conscience is no longer sufficient, for it does not encompass the new kind of Jewish identity. Therefore, the departure from Egypt must be understood as the starting point of "our national identity" the event in history which created the Jewish People. This, in brief, is the difference between classical and mainstream Reform.  

Restoring Traditional Halakhah  

One should not overlook another aspect of the dissimilarity between the two interpretations of Reform. The reformers, from their inception until the present, have relegated Halakhah, the legal system of Judaism, to a place of minor importance. They realized that this complex legal system can at best serve as a guide, but that it can no longer command binding authority. For Reform Judaism, rooted in rationalism and liberalism, acknowledges the right of the individual to determine the extent of his religious observances. Only the individual conscience can dictate religious observances; the Halakhah with all of its ramifications, as the governing order in Jewish society, has been replaced by the much less definitive and more individualistic principles of the moral law as set forth by the Prophets. Thus, the old regulations concerning marriage, divorce, and conversion have been generally disregarded by Reform rabbis who let their actions be guided by the mores of modern western society. But in the State of Israel, all cases of personal status are administered not by state courts but by rabbinical courts which are governed solely by the rules of the Halakhah.  

The Orthodox rabbinate in Israel regards Reform Judaism as an aberration and declares marriages and conversions performed by Reform rabbis invalid. As time goes on, the gap between Orthodox and Reform Judaism must grow deeper and wider, and by necessity threaten "the unity of the Jewish people." But this, according to the advocates of mainstream Reform, must not happen. Therefore, the new trend in American Reform Judaism is a capitulation to the proposal "that Reform Judaism accept traditional Halakhah" in matters of personal status, marriage, divorce and conversion. Reform Judaism is being urged to compromise "at a time when there is a resurgence in Jewish identity and when the State of Israel, where matters of personal status are determined in accordance with Halakhah, has assumed a paramount place in our lives as Jews." While classical Reform has tried to make Judaism indispensable as a part of the American scene, mainstream Reform, subscribing to questionable assumptions about a Jewish national identity, seeks to subordinate certain aspects of Jewish life in this country to the life-style representative of the State of Israel. Instead of encouraging a reciprocal relationship between Israeli and American Jews, the focus is on adapting the quality of American Jewish life to the hierarchical conditions of Israeli Society.  

Different Concepts of Judaism  

It is obvious that the two expressions of Reform Judaism we are dealing with are not variations of the same religious philosophy of Judaism, but are radically different concepts of Judaism and the Jew. The unbridgeable differences inherent in classical and mainstream Reform must be brought into clear focus if there is to be any realistic grasp of the meaning of Jewish existence.  

While classical Reform advocates the independent development of Judaism in accordance with the given needs and possibilities of American life, mainstream Reform recognizes the Jewish entity in the State of Israel as the overriding and determining factor for the reshaping of Reform Judaism. The classical Reform Jew is concerned with the status of Judaism as a religion in our open society, but the mainstream Reform Jew wants to transform Reform Judaism into a religious front for the State of Israel and have it represent ancient and modern ties with Jerusalem. Thus, A Passover Haggadah, published recently by the Central Conference of American Rabbis for use in the homes of American Reform Jews, again concludes the Seder celebration with a prayer which simply does not express the existential aspiration of the vast majority of American Reform Jews: "Next year in Jerusalem!" A few years ago, the CCAR added the observance of Israel's Independence Day to the Reform calendar, furnishing liturgies to facilitate congregational observance.  

The classical Reform Jew is responsive to the humanitarian needs of his co-religionists in the State of Israel but he does not concede that this demonstration of philanthropic concern does in any way imply acceptance of the State of Israel as the principal source of religious guidance. The mainstream Reform Jew regards the Holocaust and the State of Israel as the central determinants of Jewish identity and believes that a restoration of the so-called "traditional" rituals and customs would be consonant with basic Zionist political aims: "solidarity" with the State of Israel and the realization of "Jewish unity."  

Existential Strength and Human Relevance  

Mainstream Reform is now the predominant orientation of Reform Judaism. Classical Reform has been pronounced "dead." In eliminating the national element from its interpretation of Judaism, classical Reform created a dilemma for Reform Jews who subscribe to the primacy of a Jewish national identity. While classical Reform values are currently obscured by the overwhelming din of Jewish nationalist propaganda, it would be a mistake to mourn the demise of classical Reform. Ultimately, our life-style is determined by the reality of our existence, and not by the manipulation of ideological panaceas. The reality of our existence is the open American society, not the ideology of a Jewish national or ethnic condition. What is now regarded as obsolete or extinct may yet assert its existential strength and human relevance. Though the year 1948 is a most important milestone in the annals of Jewish history, the interrelation of classical Reform with the American way of life will remain an enduring reality for many Reform Jews.  

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