Home  Principles & Statements  Positions of the ACJ  Articles  DonationsAbout Us  Contact Us  Links                                         

Classical Reform Judaism, A Concise Profile

Howard A. Berman
Winter 2007

The major commitment of the American Council for Judaism in this new era of its history, is the  
national advocacy of Classical Reform Judaism as a vital alternative for American Jews in the 21st  
century. We believe that a concise statement of the major ideals and principles of the historic Reform  
position can be a valuable resource for reflection and discussion. While the Council offers a variety of  
more comprehensive interpretations of this issue in its various official statements and publications, we  
offer this concise overview of the subject for readers of Issues.  
Like all religious groups, today’s Reform Judaism embraces a broad spectrum of interpretation, belief  
and practice. A diverse range of philosophies and worship styles are reflected in this spectrum,  
appropriate to a liberal religious Movement that affirms individual and congregational freedom and  
autonomy. “Mainstream” Reform in contemporary America, reflects the widespread embrace of  
traditional Jewish ritual and observance that has characterized the Movement’s theological perspectives,  
liturgies, and approach to observance over the past forty years. These trends are primarily reflected in  
the 1975 Prayer Book of the Central Conference of American Rabbis, Gates of Prayer, and, to an even  
greater extent in the new “official” liturgy, Mishkan Tefiliah.  
The “Classical” Dilemma  
The term “Classical Reform” is the most commonly used expression to denote the historic expression of  
liberal Reform Judaism in America, as it developed in the 19th and early 20th centuries. The use of the  
term “classical” is admittedly problematic, and raises the danger of viewing a vital, dynamic expression  
of religious commitment as antiquarian, or bound to a particular historical period. It also has been used  
to narrowly define and limit the timeless and enduring teachings of authentic Reform to a particular  
stage in its development. Other terms associated with this interpretation are “Prophetic Judaism,”  
referring to the centrality of the ethical ideals of the Biblical Prophets. Another common variation is  
“Progressive Reform,” emphasizing both the dynamic element of change, but also delineating a  
difference between a broad, contemporary spiritual and social liberalism, and the more ritually  
traditionalist character of “mainstream” Reform practice today. Whichever term is used, the particular  
ideals and expressions embraced by Classical Reform are clearly distinctive in the contemporary  
spectrum of the Movement.  
Historic Roots  
In essence, this tradition embodies the liberal spiritual ideals, rich intellectual foundations and broad  
universal vision of the early pioneers of Jewish Reform, initially in Germany, but primarily in the United  
States. Grounded in the pluralistic culture of American democracy, Classical Reform reflected the  
unique experience of Judaism in the free and open society of this nation. It taught that Judaism had  
always developed new responses to the challenges of each generation, and had historically engaged in  
a creative encounter and synthesis with many cultures throughout the ages, affirming that modern Jews  
had the right and responsibility to continue this dynamic process for a new chapter in Jewish history.  
The Classical Reform tradition is rooted in the legacy of the “radical” wing of the early Movement in the  
19th century, which sought a substantial revision of both synagogue liturgy and theological principles.  
Its leading rabbinic advocates were David Einhorn, Emil G. Hirsch and Kaufmann Kohler, as well as the  
more “moderate” Isaac Mayer Wise, the consensus-building founder of the central institutions of the  
American Movement. The major statement of principles of Reform Judaism known as the “Pittsburgh  
Platform”, adopted by both viewpoints in 1885, remains a formative expression of historic Reform  
teaching. In particular, its interpretation of the primarily religious nature of Jewish identity, and its  
rejection of any notion of Jewish nationalism, continue to influence many Classical Reform Jews today.  
The subsequent formulation of the Movement’s ideals, known as “The Guiding Principles” was ratified  
by the Central Conference of American Rabbis in Columbus, Ohio in 1937. This document represented  
a major departure in its affirmation of Jewish “peoplehood”, and reflected the trend toward a  
reclamation of traditional ritual. The 1937 Platform also affirmed support for the Zionist movement  
which by then had become a major force in the Jewish resettlement of the land of Israel. However, what  
is now understood as “Classical” was, in fact, the dominant perspective and style that emerged from the  
“union” of these two positions: embodied in the integration of their respective prayer books into the  
historic common liturgy of American Reform, the Union Prayer Book. Indeed, despite the debates on the  
role of Zionism that divided the two ends of the Reform spectrum in the 1940’s and 50’s, what is now  
called “Classical” in fact remained the broader Movement’s predominant worship style and synagogue  
culture — until the cultural shifts that influenced a major neo-traditionalist trend in the 1960’s. Much  
of this redirection of American Reform Judaism was a response to the tragedy of the Holocaust and to  
the new dynamic of Jewish identity engendered by the birth of the State of Israel in 1948. Classical  
Reformers however continued to affirm the validity and viability of the Movement’s historic liberal  
principles and worship traditions, as an alternative context for understanding these transforming  
Major Principles  
The fundamental principle of Classical Reform is that the eternal Jewish Covenant with God is at the  
heart of our identity and history as Jews. We understand Judaism to be primarily a universal religious  
faith, rather than an ethnic, cultural or nationalist identity. As a spiritual community, we cherish the  
unique ties of history and destiny that link us to our fellow Jews throughout the ages and around the  
world today. However, the major focus of our commitment is Judaism as a religion. While our faith  
engenders and empowers many different understandings and interpretations of the Divine, it is the  
spiritual quest for faith and meaning that is at the core of our Jewish identity.  
We uphold the historic Reform concept of the “Mission of Israel,” grounded in the ethical and moral  
vision of our Hebrew Prophets. Historic Reform’s moral force and social vision was rooted in the belief  
that as Jews, we are called to be witnesses to the Unity of God and the unity of all humanity, and that  
we must work as individuals and as a community to bring justice and peace to the world. The leaders of  
the Classical Reform tradition have always been in the forefront of these efforts and challenges,  
addressing the great moral issues of American society with prophetic courage and action. We affirm this  
broad, universalistic and humanistic spiritual vision.  
We cherish the distinctive worship traditions of historic Reform — a meaningful liturgy, primarily in the  
English language in its highest literary form. For many of us, the beauty and broad spirit of the Union  
Prayer Book, remain the most meaningful expression of this ideal, particularly in current revisions that  
reflect our contemporary sensitivity to inclusive language. While we share a reverence for the Hebrew  
language as a symbolic link to our ancient history, and to our ties to all Jews everywhere, Hebrew is not  
our native tongue. For most American Jews, it cannot be the means of authentic worship as the  
expression of our deepest yearnings and needs in prayer. What makes a worship experience truly  
“Jewish” is not its degree of Hebrew usage, but rather the ideals and values it reflects. Classical Reform  
worship also embraces the role of inspiring choral and instrumental music that elevates the spirit, and  
reflects the highest artistic standards — drawing on both the great historic musical traditions that have  
been the distinctive heritage of the Reform Synagogue, as well as contemporary compositions. Yet  
another dimension of historic Reform worship is the importance of intellectually challenging and  
inspiring pulpit teaching — with the sermon as a vital expression of the wisdom of Judaism in  
addressing both the moral issues of our day, as well as our personal spiritual growth. We believe that  
these characteristic qualities of Classical Reform worship Services remain a vital, creative option for  
many Jews today. This includes not only the many members of our congregations who were raised in  
and cherish this tradition, but also countless younger people — who are searching for a meaningful and  
accessible form of Jewish identity and worship, based not on nostalgia nor ethnicity, but rather rooted  
in the realities of their experience in our contemporary, pluralistic society.  
American Judaism  
We particularly affirm and celebrate the unique heritage of the Jewish experience in America. Our  
Torah’s principles of liberty, justice, and the equality of all people, have shaped American democracy  
from its earliest colonial beginnings. Inspired by the promise of the American values of freedom and  
opportunity, Jews have played a vital role in the founding and building of this nation. Classical Reform  
Judaism has always cherished this noble heritage and has remained committed to the nurturing of a  
distinctly American expression of Jewish worship, life and culture, that reflects the best of our nation’s  
democratic ideals.  
American Jews and Israel  
The question of our relationship as American Jews to the State of Israel is one of great importance, and  
has a complex history in the development of the Classical Reform perspective. In the midst of a broad  
diversity of opinion on this issue, there are a number of perspectives that many of us would share. The  
historic Reform position has always held that the national period in the early history of our faith was an  
important formative chapter in its development. The centuries in the Biblical era in which Jews  
constituted a sovereign commonwealth, created the shared sense of identity and fostered the spiritual  
and ethical values that it was our destiny to proclaim and share with all the world. This dynamic view of  
Jewish history rejects the concept that we are in “exile.” Our link to the land of Israel is a deep historic  
one, as the birthplace of our faith — but Israel is not our “homeland”. We believe that America alone is  
our homeland, not only geographically, but because Jewish values of freedom, liberty and justice have  
helped shape American democracy and ideals. In our affirmation that Jews everywhere share common  
bonds of history and destiny, the State of Israel has deep significance for the Jewish experience. As a  
refuge for many Jews who have suffered persecution and oppression in other places, Israel certainly has  
special personal meaning for us. We hope and pray for its wellbeing and peaceful future. And yet we  
also affirm that this relationship is a spiritual, historical and humanitarian one — it is not a political tie.  
We are American Jews — proud, responsible citizens of the United States alone, fully embracing our  
rights and obligations to our country. And we believe that the major setting for the continued dynamic  
development, influence and mission of Judaism in the future, will ultimately lie here in a vital and  
spiritually renewed American Jewish community.  
Rich Diversity  
We celebrate the rich diversity within today’s changing Jewish community. We are particularly  
committed to offering a warm, loving and unconditional welcome to the ever-increasing number of  
interfaith and multi-cultural families in our midst. We believe that we must support our young people  
and their partners and spouses with “open hearts and open doors” ... celebrating their weddings and  
offering them a spiritual community that respects both of their identities and integrity. We believe that  
Classical Reform Judaism’s broad, universal message and embracing, accessible worship, have a unique  
role to play in reaching out to our young people in interfaith relationships — offering them a  
meaningful setting for sharing their exploration and experience of Jewish tradition together.  
Our contemporary Reform Movement includes a broad diversity of interpretations and styles. Our hope  
and commitment is that the historic tradition of Classical Reform, which embodies its own integrity and  
enduring significance in the midst of the many rich streams of Jewish experience through the ages, is  
recognized and honored for its continuing vitality and potential to speak to a new generation of Jews  

< return to article list
© 2010 The American Council For Judaism.