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

Reforming Reform Judaism

Jay R. Brickman
Winter 2007

One tends to think of the birth of Reform Judaism in revolutionary terms. Like Martin Luther hammering  
his 95 theses on the door of the Wittenberg Cathedral, or Henry VIII breaking with the Pope, the early  
Reformers are viewed as revolutionaries who threw off the suffocating yoke of traditional Jewish  
thought and practice. There were such radicals at the turn of the 19th century when Reform was born,  
but they were few, and have remained few in the history of our movement. The rabbis who gave birth to  
Reform Judaism had all been trained in Orthodox institutions and were well informed in traditional  
thought and practice. The modifications suggested at first were modest in scope and hardly disruptive  
of community norms. A struggle between the more or less radical elements was initiated, and the  
debate has characterized Reform, for a goodly portion of our history. Representatives of the “warring”  
factions in Germany, birth place of Reform, were Solomon Holdheim and Abraham Geiger. Holdheim  
was the more radical Rabbi of a small synagogue in Berlin, he introduced major changes in ritual  
practice, and when there was protest from the larger community, indicated in word and behavior that  
he did not care what others thought. He saw Reform as a splinter group, destined to go its own way. A  
more modest approach to Reform was that of Abraham Geiger. Geiger was an accomplished student of  
Jewish law. He endeavored to find traditional justification for the modest reforms he proposed, seeking  
not only to retain contact with the larger Jewish community, but to convince all Jews to accept the  
suggested reforms  
Competing Ideologies  
The competing ideologies were brought to these shores and effected the development of American  
Reform. Emil G. Hirsch was a proponent of Holdheim’s ideology. The more moderate position was  
assumed by Isaac M. Wise, founder of the institutions which represent to this day the organizational  
structure of American Reform. Like Geiger, Wise endeavored to demonstrate that Reform was a path  
intended for all Jews, and was willing to compromise to attain this. The struggle between the two  
elements was reflected in strenuous debates at meetings of the Central Conference of American Rabbis  
and Union of American Hebrew Congregations. Individual congregations were divided on these issues  
and annual meetings of a tempestuous nature often ran late into the night. The earlier Reform  
congregations in this county were established by German Jews, more liberal in their ideology than new  
comers from Eastern Europe. East European Jews were accepted into Reform congregations with some  
reluctance, and were expected to accept existing standards. In time, there occurred what was  
humorously referred to as “The Litvak Revolution”. The German migration to these shores was modest  
in size. They were soon outnumbered in every aspect of Jewish life, including the Reform synagogue, by  
the vast number of immigrants from Russia and Poland. These Jews had more knowledge of the  
tradition and more affection for practices and folk ways of the Old World.  
Liberals Felt Outnumbered  
The battle within the movement continued, but to their great shame, proponents of the more liberal  
stance, feeling themselves outnumbered, and their views little respected, quickly gave up the fight.  
Some departed our ranks for the Unitarian Church. Others dropped affiliation. Those who remained  
were for the most part peripherally identified with the congregation, limiting attendance to evening  
services on the High Holy Days. Once the opposition was stifled, the movement hastened, in the  
absence of debate, to adapt all manner of traditional and ethnic embellishment. Services were  
conducted mostly in Hebrew, which few congregants, even among the traditionalists, understood. While  
wearing of the tallis and yarmulke were not obligatory, the fact that the rabbi and cantor wore them and  
that they were conspicuously displayed at the entrance door, proved quite intimidating. The organ was  
replaced by the piano and guitar, which for some reason seemed less “church like”. Sins were thrown  
into the river on Rosh HaShanah in a new/old Tashlich ceremony. It is my understanding that some  
architectural drawings for new Reform synagogues include plans for a Mikveh.  
Voice of Encouragement  
There are many Jews who find this large shift to the right most unsettling. But they have been led to  
believe they are few in number and should stop “whimpering”, and accept the will of the majority. I am  
not certain they are so few in number. It is to the great credit of the American Council for Judaism that  
they have proposed picking up the cudgel for this disenfranchised section of the Reform community.  
Their objectives are not, and should not be, to split the movement. We have sufficient splintering within  
the religious community, Jewish and Christian, and do not need more. What we do need is a voice of  
encouragement to represent the sentiments of a significant element of the Reform population. Given  
support, I believe this faction has the capability and responsibility to assert itself on the national scene  
and the individual congregation. As Reform once went too far in separating itself from Jewish roots and  
Jewish sensibilities, it is now in danger of extremism in the opposite direction.  
Reformers Have Been Silent Too Long  
When I was a young rabbi, I had a specific notion of how I wished to shape the ideology of my  
congregation. For the most part, my vision was supported by the Board and membership. But I was  
frustrated in my endeavors by two men who always appeared at annual meetings and argued intensely  
that we were heading in the wrong direction. These individuals are long deceased. I have come in time  
to forgive them their disruptive behavior and come to recognize and appreciate the blessing they  
brought to the congregation and to me. Unlike Moses, I was not the recipient of divine revelation;  
neither were the lay leaders of the congregation. We needed the challenge! Martin Buber, a significant  
Jewish philosopher of the last generation, distinguished in his writing between the collective and the  
community. The former represents a group with a single ideology, to which all participants are  
expected to conform. The latter, and the Reform congregation should fall into this category, treasures  
the individuality of members, and arrives at policy through ongoing compromise. As the Jewish people  
we are commanded to follow the way of God. The best manner of determining the ‘way” is by familiarity  
with the tradition, and shared insights as to how the tradition applies to current circumstances. The  
Reformers within Reform have been silent for too long, and their silence has done spiritual damage not  
only to themselves, but to the movement as a whole. It is to give them voice that the Council has  
undertaken this new endeavor.

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