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Reform Judaism


REFORM JUDAISM is the branch of the Jewish faith that has been most adaptive, in belief and practice, to the norms of modern thought and society. It is also sometimes called Liberal Judaism or Progressive Judaism. By Reform is meant not a single reformation but an ongoing process of development. Well over one million Reform Jews live in the United States and Canada, with about another 100,000 in Europe, Latin America, South Africa, Australia, and Israel. Internationally, all Reform congregations are united in the World Union for Progressive Judaism, which holds biennial conferences, usually in Europe or Israel. In the United States some nine hundred independent congregations constitute the Union of American Hebrew Congregations (UAHC), and more than seventeen hundred rabbissome of them serving abroadmake up the Central Conference of American Rabbis (CCAR). Rabbis, as well as scholars, educators, community workers, and cantors, are trained at the Hebrew Union CollegeJewish Institute of Religion (HUCJIR), which has branches in Cincinnati, New York, Los Angeles, and Jerusalem. The most influential role of organizational leadership in Reform Judaism is the presidency of the UAHC, since the late twentieth century a professional position held by a rabbi.

Beliefs and Practices

Unlike more traditional forms of the Jewish faith, Reform Judaism does not hold that either the written law (Torah) or the oral law (Talmud) was revealed literally by God to Moses at Sinai. It accepts biblical and other historical criticism as legitimate, understanding Scripture and tradition as a human reflection of revelation rather than its literal embodiment. Whereas theologies among Reform Jews vary greatly, from the traditional to the humanistic, concepts of God strike a balance between universal and particular elements, with somewhat more stress upon the former than among other religious Jews. Like other branches of Judaism, Reform recognizes the close connection between religion and ethics. It especially emphasizes the prophetic message of social justice and seeks to act upon it both congregationally and as a united movement. Judaism is seen to exist for a higher universal purpose, which aims messianically at the biblical vision of world peace. Traditionally, in Reform Judaism, this sense of purpose has been known as the "mission of Israel."

The doctrine that most significantly sets Reform Judaism apart from more traditional currents is the conception of progressive revelation. Reform Jews hold that revelation is ongoing with the progress of human knowledge and moral sensitivity. This represents a reversal of the Orthodox belief whereby the theophany at Sinai, as interpreted by the rabbis, constitutes the authoritative, permanent expression of God's will, which must therefore remain normative for all time. The Reform conception of progress in understanding of the divine does not necessarily imply an unbroken moral advance of the Jews or of Western civilization, although Reform Judaism before the Holocaust was prone to draw that conclusion.

The freedom of the individual Jew to be selective, to draw from Jewish tradition those elements of belief and practice that he or she finds the most personally meaningful, is far greater among Reform Jews than among either Orthodox or Conservative. Religious anarchy, while always a danger, is restrained by a common though theologically diverse liturgy, general agreement on basic commitments, and a well-structured organizational framework. Reform Jews do not accept the Jewish legal tradition as binding but have alwaysand especially since the late twentieth centuryturned to it for guidance in ritual matters. The CCAR has issued guides for Sabbath and holiday observance and for the Jewish life cycle.

At most Reform congregations in America the main religious service of the week is held after dinner on Friday evenings, though a service before the meal has gained increasing popularity; men and women sit together, participating equally in the service. In the last two decades of the twentieth century, many rabbis, some male congregants, and a much smaller number of women began to wear the ritual head covering (kippah, or yarmulke) during worship. In nearly all Reform synagogues (or temples, as they are often called) the liturgy is accompanied by an organ, while musical responses are led or performed by a choir or a cantor. Most of the prayers are spoken in English, except for those of central significance, which are rendered in Hebrew; the ratio varies from congregation to congregation. Especially under the impact of the state of Israel, the relative amount of Hebrew in the service has generally increased, and its pronunciation has been altered from the Ashkenazic (central and eastern European) to the Sefardic (Spanish and Near Eastern) accent used in the Jewish state. Formality and decorum have been hallmarks of the Reform temple, but a growing number of congregations have sought to regain some of the informality and emotion of the traditional synagogue through greater congregational involvement in the service and experimentation with alternative musical instruments, such as the guitar. The influence of worship services conducted in the summer camps of the National Federation of Temple Youth has been an appreciable factor in this regard.

Outside the synagogue, Reform Jews practice their faith by attempting to guide their lives according to the moral precepts of Judaism. A large percentage practices some Jewish rituals in the home, especially the lighting of the Sabbath candles on Friday evening; the sharing of the Passover eve ceremony, or seder; and the celebration of anukkah. Once especially aware of their religious differences from traditional Jews, Reform Jews emphasize to a greater extent their common ethnic identity and the faith shared by all religious Jews, limiting the significance of denominational differences.

Reform Jews remain more favorably inclined to proselytism than other branches of religious Judaism. The largest portion of converts to Judaism become Reform Jews, often as the result of marriage with a Jewish partner. Such "Jews by choice" comprise a small but growing percentage of the membership of most Reform congregations. Reform Judaism has given much attention to issues concerning procedures for conversion as well as the Jewish legal status of children born from mixed marriages in which the father is Jewish but not the mother. According to the halakhah (traditional Jewish law), such children are not Jewish unless formally converted; however, Reform Judaism recognizes them as Jewish if they are being brought up as Jews. About one-half of Reform rabbis will conduct weddings for mixed couples in which the non-Jewish partner does not intend to convert to Judaism. In such instances, however, the couple usually promises to raise its children as Jews.

The Movement in Europe

Reform Jews have often pointed out that religious reform was inherent in Judaism from its beginnings. They have noted that the prophets were critics of contemporary religious practices, that the Talmud includes reforms of earlier biblical legislation, and that even later legal scholars were willing to alter received beliefs and practices. Such willingness to adjust to historical change waned only under the pressure of persecution and the isolation of the ghetto. Latter-day Jews seeking religious reform thus sought, and to a degree found, precedent for their programs in earlier layers of Jewish tradition. However, they soon became aware that most of their fellow Jews, and especially the established rabbinical leadership, did not share such views. The result was a movement for reform originally intended to harmonize all aspects of Jewish life with the modern world into which European Jews increasingly entered beginning in the eighteenth century. Only gradually did the movement come to focus specifically on the religious realm, and only after a generation did it separate itself as a differentiable religious current with a more or less fixed religious philosophy. In discussing origins, it is therefore more accurate to speak of the "Reform movement in Judaism" than of Reform Judaism. Even this terminology, however, requires the qualification that self-conscious awareness of being a movement with definite goals came only gradually with the coalescence of various elements of belief and practice.


The background for the emergence of the Reform movement is the changing political and cultural situation of central and western European Jewry in the last decades of the eighteenth century and the beginning of the nineteenth. For numerous generations Jews had been physically and intellectually excluded from the surrounding, largely Christian civilization. With occasional exceptions, they lived within their own spiritual world. Their communities possessed corporate status; they were allowed to conduct their internal affairs according to Jewish law. The curriculum of their schools was confined almost exclusively to study of traditional Jewish texts. Secular knowledge was gained only informally and only to the extent necessary for the conduct of daily affairs. This medieval situation of the Jews was undermined by two novel elements: political centralization and the universalism of the Enlightenment. As European states sought greater concentration of power, they found it necessary to remove the divisive elements of medieval corporatism. Jews were brought more directly under state control; their autonomous jurisdiction and the coercive power of their rabbis were curtailed. Hopes were raised among Jews that political integration would lead to the abolition of political, economic, and social disabilities. At the same time a more friendly attitude toward Jews, which regarded them foremost as creatures of the same God rather than as Christ killers, began to pervade enlightened circles, drawing Jews to respond with their own broader, more universal identifications. In increasing numbers they now began to learn modern European languages, to read contemporary literature, to absorb the prevalent aesthetic sensibilities, and to regard themselves culturally as Europeans no less than religiously as Jews.

Gradually, a gap was created between Jewish traditions, harmonious with medieval realities, and the new economic, social, and cultural status of a portion of Western Jewry. To be sure, this modernizing process did not affect all Jews at once or to the same degree. Well into the nineteenth century most Jews in eastern Europe remained virtually untouched by the norms of modern civilization, whereas even in western Europe modernization among Jews was a slow process, more so in the religious than in the cultural sphere. However, as early as the beginning of the nineteenth century there began, especially in Germany, a pronounced falling away from Jewish belief and observance on the part of those Jews most exposed to the currents of modernity. Fears arose that, unless Jewish traditions could be brought into harmony with the intellectual canons and the social norms of the surrounding society, Judaism might find itself relegated to the dustbin of medievalism. The Reform movement arose as an attempt to reconcile Jewish religious tradition with cultural and social integration, to stem the rising tide of religious apathyand even conversionin certain circles, and to reshape Judaism in such a way as would make it viable under radically novel circumstances.

The first religious issue to arouse major controversy was burial on the very day of assumed death, as required by Jewish law. The famed Jewish philosopher of the Enlightenment, Moses Mendelssohn (17291786), who remained an Orthodox Jew, broke with established practice in 1772 when he advocated temporary "burial" above the ground and a graveyard vigil until actual death could be determined with certainty. Mendelssohn based his view both on the precedent of an ancient custom and on current medical experience. For decades thereafter, this question served as a touchstone separating traditionalists from modernists, those who held that all customary practice was sacred and inviolable from those who believed that, at least in some instances, criteria external to the Jewish tradition should be invoked to determine religious obligation.

A new theoretical religious position, which thereafter was largely if not directly absorbed by the Reform movement, first appears in a work titled Leviathan (1792) by Saul Ascher (17671822), a Jewish book dealer living in Berlin. Ascher rejected the Mendelssohnian dichotomy between natural religion (that shared by all rational human beings) and revealed law (that given exclusively to the Jews and the basis for their separation as a religious community). For Ascher the distinguishing feature of Judaism was not its legal corpus but its unique religious faith. Thus, Judaism was not dependent on political or judicial autonomy; it could take its place alongside Protestantism and Roman Catholicism, differentiated from them as one faith from another. In contrast to Mendelssohn, Ascher held that Judaism does indeed possess specific dogmas that set it apart from natural religion. These include belief in the God of love, who revealed himself to the patriarchs, who rewards and punishes, and who guides the world through divine providence. Likewise essential to Judaism are certain practicesincluding circumcision, observance of Sabbaths and holidays, and atonementas a way of seeking God's favor. Ascher's arbitrary selectivity marks a sharp departure from traditional Jewish thought. In the fashion of non-Jewish thinkers of the eighteenth century, it makes religion largely a means to the end of personal spiritual happiness (Glückseligkeit) rather than, as in Judaism, the fulfillment of God's will as expressed in divinely ordained commandments. Though Ascher's specific program remained idiosyncratic, his subjectivization of the Jewish faith and its confessionalization soon became characteristic of the Reform movement. In later literature the differentiation is repeatedly made between what is essential to Judaism and what has been added by historical accident"the kernel and the husk." In Jewish education the concomitant to this endeavor to isolate the basic tenets and distinctive practices of the faith was the catechism, increasingly introduced in place of, or supplementary to, traditional texts.

The reform of synagogue ritual under modern cultural influence was undertaken for the first time by the Adath Jeshurun congregation of Amsterdam in 1797. This synagogue was established in separation from the general community following the grant of emancipation to Dutch Jewry by the French-controlled Batavian Republic the previous year. The congregation buried its dead only on the third day, shortened its liturgy, made aesthetic "improvements" in the worship service, introduced a regular sermon on a moral theme, and eliminated a prayer that asked for vengeance against those who had martyred Jews at the time of the Crusades. The congregation had existed for only about a decade when the new king of Holland, Louis Bonaparte, required it to rejoin the general Jewish community.

Although France preceded other European states in giving its Jews complete political equality (at the time of the French Revolution), its Jewish community did not lead the movement for religious reform. The Assembly of Jewish Notables (1806) and the Sanhedrin (1807), called by Napoleon, committed French Jewry to the fulfillment of all civic obligations and to the official acceptance of the superiority of the law of the state over Jewish law. However, the delegates were not required to undertake liturgical reforms, give up any religious practices, or alter their theological conceptions. The centralized Jewish consistory system, which emerged in France shortly thereafter, militated against individual initiative in religious matters, favoring a superficially modernized official orthodoxy.

A program of religious reforms for an entire Jewish community was first undertaken by an officially constituted body enjoying government support in the kingdom of Westphalia. Under the leadership of the wealthy and influential financier Israel Jacobson (17681828), a Jewish consistory composed of three rabbis and two laymen was created there in 1808. The consistory introduced the confirmation ceremony (which it borrowed from Christianity) removed secular elements from the sacred space of the synagogue, and generally sought to impose a more dignified and decorous mode of worship. One of the rabbinical members of the consistory, Menachem Mendel Steinhardt (17681825), attempted to justify some of its reforms by reference to Jewish law and tradition as well as to the variant customs of Sefardic Jewry.

Jacobson moved to Berlin following the demise of the Westphalian kingdom and its Jewish consistory in 1813, and some months later he established regular weekly worship in his home for those members of the community who desired a service modeled on that of Westphalia. Like the services that Jacobson had instituted at the chapel of a school that he sponsored in the small Westphalian town of Seesen, the worship here was enhanced by the use of an organ and by a boys' choir. Later moved to larger quarters, these services attracted as many as four hundred worshipers. There were hymns and regular edifying sermons in the German language. However, the liturgyfor which a special prayer book was publishedremained mostly traditional in content if not in form. As long as the prayer gatherings remained a private venture, the Orthodox faction of the community was willing to tolerate them. However, once it seemed that some of these reforms would be introduced into the community synagogue, traditionalist opposition, combined with Prussian government hostility to religious innovations, led to a royal edict in 1823 prohibiting any and all Jewish religious reform. This was the first of many disputes and polemical exchanges between reformers and traditionalists that thereafter punctuated the history of the Reform movement.

In 1817 the New Temple Association was formed in the independent city of Hamburg. Its members, who represented a broad economic and social cross section of the city's Jewry, succeeded in establishing and maintaining their own synagogue, despite Orthodox opposition, on account of the more indulgent attitude of the city's senate. The Hamburg temple, which lasted until the Holocaust, remained for a generation the model for the movement. In 1819 it issued a prayer book that, for the first time, made substantial changes in the liturgy. Intensely particularist passages were removed or altered. While references to Zion were not wholly excised, the prayer book reflected the members' abandonment of the desire to return to the Land of Israel and reestablish the ancient sacrificial service. Two lay preachers gave regular German sermons on the Christian model and prepared both boys and girls for the confirmation ceremony.


The next two decades may be described as a period of latency in the history of the Reform movement. The climate of political reaction in Europe was not conducive to religious innovation. Orthodox opposition, moreover, had proven to be pervasive and united. No new Reform prayer books were published between 1819 and 1840, and no new congregations were established. Aside from the Hamburg temple, Reform of any more than a minimal variety flourished only in those modern Jewish schools that, as in Berlin and Frankfurt am Main, offered a modified worship service for the children and their parents.

However, during this same period a new generation of rabbis came to maturity, some of them eager to institute religious reforms. Schooled not only in traditional Jewish texts but also at German universities, this younger rabbinical generation was able to provide spiritual leadership for what heretofore had been basically a lay movement. Gradually these men received rabbinical positions, first in the smaller Jewish communities and then in the larger ones. A number of them possessed considerable scholarly abilities and applied themselves to the task of creating a historical theology for the Reform movement. The most prominent was Abraham Geiger (18101874), who rapidly became the leading ideologist of the movement in Europe. Employing the new critical approach to Jewish texts, an approach known as Wissenschaft des Judentums, Geiger wrote scholarly studies and delivered lectures that presented Judaism as an evolving entity subject to the forces of history. The essence of Judaism, Geiger argued, was not its legal system but its religious spirit, reflected and symbolized in its rituals. This Jewish spirit was the product of revelation and created, in turn, the great literary monuments of Judaism. Geiger stressed the universal message of Judaism, setting its rational ethical monotheism into sharp contrast with Christian trinitarian dogma and pagan materialism. Under the influence of the early Romantic thinker Johann Gottfried Herder (17441803), who conceived spiritual epochs succeeding one another in nondialectical fashion, Geiger saw Judaism as a spiritual historical entity that in the modern world was entering a new epoch in its history. It bore within it the combined heritage of previous stages of its development and was moving toward yet undetermined forms of historical existence. For Geiger it was the task of the Reform rabbi to press the wheel of history forward with a program of modernizing and rationalizing reforms.

Geiger's colleague Zacharias Frankel (18011875), the rabbi of Dresden, took a more conservative position. Frankel recognized the historical development of Jewish law, but also its centrality, and he believed that the rabbinical leadership should be responsive to the present collective will and spiritual situation of the community, rather than attempt to direct and hasten its course of development. In 1845 Frankel broke with fellow reformers on the issue of Hebrew in the worship service, and in 1854 he became the head of the new conservatively oriented rabbinical seminary in Breslau. The most prominent radical reformer in this period was Samuel Holdheim (18061860), who believed the revolutionary new situation of Western Jewry demanded a thoroughgoing transformation of Judaism. Holdheim favored transfer of the Jewish Sabbath to Sunday and the abolition of all legal elements in Judaism. He regarded his own age as representing a clearly higher level of religious evolution, and he then argued that contemporary Jews had the right to reshape Judaism in messianic, universal terms without overmuch regard for preserving continuity with the past. Holdheim eventually became the rabbi of a separatist Reform congregation in Berlin that radically abbreviated and altered the traditional liturgy, retained only a minimum of Hebrew, and conducted its principal weekly service on Sunday.

Collective activity and diffusion

In the 1840s the Reform movement in Germany underwent a major revival. After considerable opposition, Geiger was able in 1840 to assume his tasks as one of the rabbis in the influential Breslau community. A year later the Hamburg temple issued a new version of its prayer book on the occasion of its move to more spacious quarters. Lay societies seeking more radical reforms sprang up in Frankfurt am Main, Berlin, and Breslau. Led for the most part by university-educated, highly acculturated German Jews, these societies proposed elimination of national symbols and ritual prescriptions from Judaism in favor of a highly spiritualized and universalized faith, anchored in a humanistic understanding of the Hebrew Bible and virtually excluding later rabbinic tradition. In their religious radicalism they paralleled similar contemporary movements in German Protestantism and Catholicism.

The rabbis inclined to religious reform now undertook a collective initiative for the first time. A total of forty-two rabbis, most still in their thirties and holding doctorates, participated in three conferences in the years 1844 to 1846. Although the rabbis represented a spectrum of opinion, the tenor of these conferences reflected a middle position among German reformers, dissatisfying both conservatives like Frankel, who favored only the slightest revisions in existing law and custom, and radicals like Holdheim, who urged strict conformity to the demands of the zeitgeist. Among the conclusions reached were that the use of Hebrew in the service was a subjective but not an objective necessity, that prayers for the return to Zion and the reinstitution of the sacrificial service should be eliminated from the prayer book, and that it was permissible to accompany the service with an organ even on the Sabbath. Plans for a new common liturgy and a committee report favoring the lay religious equality of women were not acted upon when the annual conferences ceased after the third year, in part because of the agitated political situation preceding the revolution of 1848.

In the second half of the nineteenth century, the Reform movement in Germany continued to make inroads in the Jewish communities, though generally with less éclat and polemic than heretofore. Increasingly, the larger Jewish communities provided for modified services (with organ accompaniment and a modified liturgy) as well as traditional ones. Religious reform became institutionalized in Germany as Liberal Judaism, one of two religious currents or trends (Richtungen) within the general community, and it soon won over the majority of German Jews. Synods, including laity as well as rabbis, were held to discuss further reforms in 1869 and 1871. At the end of the century a permanent union of Liberal rabbis was established, and a similar national organization for all Liberal Jews came into existence in 1908. However, a common prayer book for the German Liberal congregationsquite traditional in characterwas not issued until 1929.

While the Reform movement in Europe remained centered in Germany, which had the largest Jewish population west of the czarist empire, it spread to other countries as well. As early as 1826 the Vienna community adopted a number of aesthetic reforms, as did some congregations in Hungary, Galicia, Holland, and Denmark. Even in Russia certain circles of maskilim ("enlightened" Jews) or immigrants from the West introduced decorum, choirs, and vernacular sermons. In the 1860s some Russian Jewish intellectuals argued, as did reformers in the West, that religious reform was indigenous to Jewish tradition from ancient times and that Orthodoxy in fact reflected stagnation.

In England a Reform congregation, called the West London Synagogue of British Jews, was founded in 1840. Generally conservative in character, its most pronounced reform was the abolition of the second days of certain holidays that were celebrated only according to rabbinic, not biblical, precept. Similar congregations were established elsewhere in England. After the beginning of the nineteenth century, a more radical religious movement emerged that soon adopted the term Liberal to differentiate itself from the earlier Reform. British Liberal Judaism, which was patterned closely upon the American Reform Judaism of the time, sought to win back to the synagogue the large mass of English Jews who had become alienated from all religious Judaism. Its liturgy was largely in English, and men and women sat together.

In France the centralized consistory long militated against religious division. Some reforms, mostly cosmetic, were undertaken by the chief rabbis, and proposals for more radical change were aired with some regularity in the Jewish press. However, a viable, independent Reform congregation, the Union Libérale Israélite, was established only after the separation of church and state in France in 1905.

European Liberal Judaismtogether with its counterpart in Americafinally achieved international organizational unity with the establishment of the World Union for Progressive Judaism in London in 1926. Until World War II, the work of the Union, and of Reform Judaism in Europe generally, was particularly influenced by Leo Baeck (18731956), a Liberal rabbi in Berlin and a teacher at the seminary of the movement, the Hochschule für die Wissenschaft des Judentums, which had been established there in 1872. As a religious thinker, Baeck elaborated an antiromantic theology, greatly indebted to Immanuel Kant (17241804), which stressed the revealed moral commandment that emerges out of the mystery of revelation. Under the influence of Rudolf Otto (18691937), Baeck's theology later became less rationalistic, whereas his perspective grew more particularistic as he came to focus his attention on the unique religious history of the people of Israel.


Reform Judaism has enjoyed its greatest success in the United States. In Europe it was repeatedly forced to assert itself against an entrenched Orthodoxy, sometimes supported by the government; in the New World it faced no such established institutions. The United States lacked officially recognized Jewish communities, like the German Gemeinde with its powers of taxation and centralized control over Jewish affairs. The complete separation of church and state, the numerous Christian denominations existing side by side, and the prevalent notion that religious activity was strictly a matter of free choice created an atmosphere most conducive to Jewish religious fragmentation. Moreover, it was difficult for an immigrant Jew in nineteenth-century America to make a living while still observing all the inherited traditions. Given the large influx of Jews from Germany in the second third of the nineteenth centuryamong them some who had had experience with religious reform, as well as a number of Reform rabbisit is understandable that, until the massive Jewish immigration from eastern Europe in the last decades of the century, Reform Judaism should play the dominant role in American Jewry. In the freer atmosphere of America, Reform soon took on a considerably more radical character than its counterpart in Europe.

Classical American Reform

With the exception of an isolated and short-lived attempt in 1824 to create a Reform congregation in Charleston, South Carolina, somewhat on the model of the Hamburg temple, Reform Judaism took hold in the United States only toward the middle of the nineteenth century. Beginning in 1842 with Har Sinai in Baltimore, liturgical reforms were gradually introduced into existing synagogues or new Reform congregations founded in New York City, Albany, Cincinnati, Philadelphia, and Chicago during the next twenty years. Jewish periodicals favoring religious reform appeared, as did new prayer books embodying various degrees of liturgical revision. When a rabbinical conference held in Cleveland in 1855 reaffirmed the authority of the Talmud, it aroused protests from the more thoroughgoing reformers, whose influence increased in the following decades.

During the second half of the nineteenth century, American Reform was dominated by two immigrant rabbis representing, respectively, a consistent, separatist ideological position and a pragmatic, relatively more conservative stance, which sought to make Reform Judaism broadly acceptable. David Einhorn (18091879), a rabbi in Baltimore and later in New York, stressed the priestly mission of the Jewish people and vigorously opposed mixed marriages, but he saw little value in most Jewish ceremonials and was a firm believer in the progress of Judaism beyond its ancient sacred texts. His influence was dominant at a meeting of Reform rabbis held in Philadelphia in 1869. Following debate in the German language, this conference declared that the dispersion of Israel providentially served its universal messianic aim. It also rejected the traditional dogma of bodily resurrection in favor of belief only in the immortality of the soul.

Isaac Mayer Wise (18191900) was the founding father of organized Reform Judaism in the United States. Unlike Einhorn, whose intellectual stature he did not rival, but whom he far excelled in practical energy, Wise sought to create an Americanized Judaism that could appeal to the widest spectrum of Jewry in the United States. Eschewing consistency, Wise sometimes took one position on religious issues, sometimes another, being concerned more with momentary effect than with crystallized ideology. However, unlike the radicals, he consistently rejected pentateuchal criticism as undermining the foundations of Judaism. As a rabbi in Cincinnati, Wise came to represent the more moderate midwestern wing of Reform Judaism, which differentiated itself from the more thoroughgoing Reform of the East Coast. It was largely due to Wise's efforts that the national organizations of Reform Judaism were created: the UAHC in 1873, Hebrew Union College (HUC) in 1875, and the CCAR in 1889.

In 1885 Wise served as president of a rabbinical conference that formulated the Pittsburgh Platform, a document that represented the ideological position of American Reform Judaism for the next half-century. The key figure at the conference, however, was not Wise but Kaufmann Kohler (18431926), a son-in-law and spiritual heir of David Einhorn, who became the movement's leading theologian and, after a short interval, succeeded Wise as president of Hebrew Union College. Under Kohler's influence the Pittsburgh conference declared that "Judaism presents the highest conception of the God-idea as taught in our holy Scriptures and developed and spiritualized by the Jewish teachers in accordance with the moral and philosophical progress of their respective ages." It recognized in the Bible "the record of the consecration of the Jewish people to its mission as priest of the One God," but found only the moral laws of the Pentateuch to be binding, while ritual precepts were to be subjected to the criterion of their continuing capacity to sanctify life and to be harmonizable with modern civilization. Jews were defined as a religious community, not a nation, their religion as progressive, "ever striving to be in accord with the postulates of reason." A final paragraph expressed a commitment to seek social justice in American society by reducing the "contrasts and evils" in its present organization (Meyer and Plaut, 2001, pp. 197199). For the next fifty years, Reform Judaism adhered to the Pittsburgh Platform. During this period the movement increased in numbers, reaching a high point of about 60,000 families in 285 congregations before the Great Depression temporarily halted its growth. In 1892 the CCAR published the first edition of the Union Prayer Book, which, with only relatively minor revisions, remained standard in Reform Judaism until 1975. However, during this same half-century the movement was forced to give up its hopes of becoming the norm for American Jewry. It was increasingly associated specifically with the German Jewish immigrants and their descendants. Eastern Europeans, concentrated in New York, either remained Orthodox, dissociated themselves from religion entirely, or in the second generation were attracted by the more ethnic and nostalgic appeal of Conservative Judaism. Until the late 1930s most Reform Jews were opposed to Jewish nationalism, seeing in Zionism a retreat from the universal mission of Judaism. Nonetheless, a small percentage, especially among the rabbis, played active roles in Zionist affairs from the beginning of the century.


Only in the late 1930s did Reform Judaism in the United States began to lose its identification with the German immigrants. Reform rabbis, and then increasingly the laity as well, were now coming from eastern European backgrounds. During this same decade, awareness of the lot of Jews in Nazi Germany created stronger national ties among all Jews. Gradually, Reform Judaism began a process of transformation from which it emerged with a much more significant ethnic and ceremonial component than heretofore. Eventually the earlier period came to be designated Classical Reform Judaism, and whereas its particular emphases continued to be represented in a small number of congregations, even down to the early twenty-first century, a reoriented Reform Judaism began to displace or modify it at an increasing pace.

The first major indication of this shift in position was the Columbus Platform, adopted by the CCAR in 1937. This document was largely the work of Samuel Cohon (18881959), an eastern European Jew who served for many years as professor of Jewish theology at Hebrew Union College. The Columbus Platform spoke of a "living God" rather than a "God idea"; described Torah, in its broad sense as both written and oral law, as enshrining Israel's "ever-growing consciousness of God"; and declared that it was the task of all Jews to rebuild Palestine as a Jewish homeland, both as a "refuge for the oppressed and a center of Jewish culture and spiritual life" (Meyer and Plaut, 2001, pp. 199203). In contrast to the Pittsburgh Platform, it stressed the use of Hebrew in worship and the importance of customs, symbols, and ceremonies. Like its predecessor, the platform declared the movement's commitment to social justice, a dominant concern of Reform Judaism during those years of economic distress in the United States.

Developments after World War II

In the immediate postwar years, Reform Judaism in the United States enjoyed remarkable growth. New congregations were established in the suburbs of major cities as increased Jewish affluence made possible higher levels of support for religious institutions both locally and nationally. The Christian religious revival of the 1950s produced renewed interest in Jewish theology. In 1951 the UAHC moved its offices from Cincinnati to New York, the center of Jewish life in the United States. From 1943 to 1973 the congregational union was headed by Rabbi Maurice Eisendrath (19021973), a talented organizer and impressive public speaker. The well-known biblical archaeologist Nelson Glueck (19001972), as president of Hebrew Union College from 1947 to his death in 1971, was able to achieve a merger with the Jewish Institute of Religion, founded by the Zionist Reform rabbi Stephen S. Wise (18741949) in 1922, and to bring about considerable expansion of the combined institution.

Reform Judaism now engaged vigorously with the moral issues troubling American society. Rabbis and laity participated actively in the civil rights movement and later in the organized opposition to the Vietnam War. In 1961 the UAHC established the Religious Action Center in Washington, D.C., with the intent of making a direct impact on legislation of Jewish and general religious or moral concern as well as educating the Reform constituency with regard to questions under current legislative consideration. In the spirit of ecumenism the UAHC developed a department dealing with interfaith activities, supplementing the long-standing work of individual congregations and of the National Federation of Temple Brotherhoods in this area.

Reform theology in this period grew increasingly diverse. A group of Reform rabbis, who became known as "covenant theologians," favored a more personalist and existential grounding of their faith. Influenced by the twentieth-century European Jewish thinkers Franz Rosenzweig (18861929) and Martin Buber (18781965), they eschewed the earlier idealist theology based on progressive revelation in favor of the notion of divine-human encounter as represented both by the testimony of the Torah and by contemporary religious experience. At the same time, however, there arose a significant rationalist and even humanist faction within the movement. Its members stressed the impact of biblical criticism and psychoanalysis upon religion, as well as the difficult theological questions that the Holocaust had raised for Jewish theism.

Whereas theological positions in Reform Judaism generally moved apart, religious practice, for the most part, became more traditional. The postwar period witnessed a renewal of interest in Jewish law not as authoritative in the Orthodox sense but as a guide for the religious life. Over three decades Solomon Freehof (18921990) of Pittsburgh, one of the most influential Reform rabbis, published half a dozen collections of Reform responsa on issues ranging from aspects of synagogue ritual to matters of individual observance. The publication of these responsa, as well as guides for religious observance, was due in part to the feelings of most of the religious leadership that Reform Judaism needed to reengage with traditional symbols and practices if it was not to dissipate in the absorptive social climate of postwar America. It was also prompted by a heightened ethnicism and personalism in Reform Judaism. The individual bar mitsvah ceremony for boys reaching the age of thirteen, and later the equivalent bat mitsvah ceremony for girls, were increasingly adopted by Reform congregations, preceding the group ceremony of confirmation. The rabbinical role, which in Reform Judaism had principally been that of prophetic preacher, now became more priestly, as congregants especially sought rabbis whose personal warmth would enhance life-cycle ceremonies. Reform synagogues introduced more Hebrew into the liturgy and encouraged greater congregational participation.

Jewish education among Reform Jews became more comprehensive in the 1970s. In place of the customary two hours per week of Sunday school instruction, most temples now offered twice-weekly classes supplemented by weekends or summer sessions at a camp. A handful of Reform day schools came into existence for those children whose parents desired them to obtain more extensive Jewish knowledge and depth of Jewish commitment. The National Federation of Temple Youth introduced study programs for Reform teenagers beyond religious-school age, and rabbinical education was extended to women. The first woman, Sally Priesand, was ordained by HUCJIR in 1972. In 1981 the UAHC published its own Torah commentary, encouraging lay study of the Pentateuch according to the liberal approach of Reform.

The commitment of Reform Judaism to Zionism deepened in the postwar period. Reform Jews welcomed the establishment of the state of Israel in 1948, shared feelings of crisis and relief during its Six-Day War, and increasingly appropriated its cultural impact. Israeli melodies entered the synagogues, religious schools, and summer camps. The CCAR declared Israeli Independence Day a religious holiday, and beginning in 1970 HUCJIR required all entering rabbinical students to spend the first year of their study at its campus in Jerusalem. Reform Jews organized the Association of Reform Zionists of America (ARZA) to give Reform Judaism an individual voice in the world Zionist movement.

In the state of Israel, the first successful Progressive congregation was established, mostly by German Jewish immigrants, in Jerusalem in 1958. Congregations in the other major cities followed, and attendance reached about five thousand for the High Holy Days. The congregations and their rabbis united as the Movement for Progressive Judaism in Israel, a regular constituent of the World Union for Progressive Judaism. The latter moved its headquarters to Jerusalem in 1974. In the 1970s, Israeli Reform also established its first kibbuts (collective agricultural settlement) in the southern desert and a youth movement with groups in various cities. In 1980 HUCJIR for the first time ordained an Israeli Reform rabbi in Jerusalem. However, Reform Judaism (and also Conservative Judaism) remained unrecognized by the Israeli rabbinate and was forced to wage a continuous, and by the early twenty-first century incompletely successful, struggle for equal rights with Orthodoxy. In general, Israeli Reform emerged as considerably more traditional than its counterpart in the United States, finding the positions taken by the American radical wing on such matters as rabbinical officiation at mixed marriages and conversion procedures embarrassing in the Israeli milieu.

The centrality of Jewish peoplehood, symbolized by the state of Israel, found clear expression in a new platform of Reform Judaism. Called "A Centenary Perspective" because it was composed about one hundred years after the creation of the first national institutions of American Reform Judaism, it was adopted by the CCAR in 1976. The statement was the work of a committee chaired by Rabbi Eugene Borowitz, a professor at the New York school of HUCJIR and one of the most influential contemporary theologians of the movement. Unlike previous platforms, it did not seek to define Judaism as a whole dogmatically, but only to give a brief historical account of Reform Judaismwhat it has taught and what it has learnedand to describe its present spiritual convictions. Recognizing and affirming the diversity of theology and practice in contemporary Reform, it pointed to those broad conceptions and values shared by most Reform Jews. In the wake of the Holocaust, and recognizing the physically precarious situation of Israeli Jewry and the assimilatory forces operative on American Judaism, the statement gave prominence to the value of ethnic survival, an element not highlighted in earlier platforms. It affirmed the reality of God without setting forth any specific theology and defined the people of Israel as inseparable from its religion. Torah was seen as the product of "meetings between God and the Jewish people" (Meyer and Plaut, 2001, pp. 203207), especially, but not only, in ancient times. Rejecting the optimism of nineteenth-century Reform Judaism, the statement nonetheless reaffirmed the religious significance of human history and the moral obligations of Jews, both particularly in Jewish matters and in the pursuit of universal messianic goals.

Late-Twentieth-Century Trends

During the last two decades of the twentieth century, Reform Judaism continued to assume a more traditional character. Religious services incorporated a higher proportion of Hebrew; ritual practice became as important as social action. In other respects, however, Reform Judaism took radical positions that separated it from both Conservative Judaism and Orthodoxy. Unlike the latter, and in contradiction to Jewish law, Reform Judaism accepted children of mixed marriages whose fathers but not mothers are Jewish and gave full equality in religious leadership to gays and lesbians. It sought to make non-Jews married to Jews feel welcome in the synagogue.

Whereas a generation earlier the Reform movement, like American Judaism in general, was largely focused upon Jewish peoplehood, the Holocaust, and the state of Israel, it increasingly emphasized the religious life of the individual, introducing prayers for healing into its services and stressing spirituality. Its rabbinate, perhaps under the influence of an increasing number of women within its ranks, came to place less emphasis upon the sermon and more upon pastoral counseling. Finally, the leadership of the movement stressed Jewish literacy, resulting in enhanced Jewish education for both children and adults. Most of these new trends were reflected in the platform of the movement adopted in Pittsburgh in 1999.

See Also

Baeck, Leo; Buber, Martin; Frankel, Zacharias; Geiger, Abraham; Herder, Johann Gottfried; Holdheim, Samuel; Judaism, article on Judaism in Northern and Eastern Europe since 1500; Kohler, Kaufmann; Mendelssohn, Moses; Otto, Rudolf; Rosenzweig, Franz; Wise, Isaac M.; Wise, Stephen S.


The most comprehensive historical work on Reform Judaism is Michael A. Meyer, Response to Modernity: A History of the Reform Movement in Judaism (New York, 1988), which replaced David Philipson, The Reform Movement in Judaism, 2d ed. (New York, 1931), reissued with a new introduction by Solomon Freehof (New York, 1967). Earlier, W. Gunther Plaut brought together a copious selection of primary sources, abbreviating the lengthier ones and translating into English those in other languages. The material in two volumes edited by Plaut, The Rise of Reform Judaism (New York, 1963) and The Growth of Reform Judaism (New York 1965), extends to 1948. Still of value is Max Wiener's Jüdische Religion im Zeitalter der Emanzipation (Berlin, 1933), translated into Hebrew (Jerusalem, 1974) but not, regrettably, into English. The specific matter of liturgical change is comprehensively treated, with extensive quotation from primary sources, in Jakob J. Petuchowski's Prayerbook Reform in Europe (New York, 1968). The initial phases of Reform Judaism in the United States are well understood from Leon A. Jick's study, The Americanization of the Synagogue, 18201870 (Hanover, N.H., 1976), and the story of the movement's seminary from Samuel E. Karff, ed., Hebrew Union CollegeJewish Institute of Religion at One Hundred Years (Cincinnati, 1976).

The more significant speeches delivered at meetings of the Central Conference of American Rabbis have been collected in Joseph L. Blau, Reform Judaism: A Historical Perspective (New York, 1973), and some of the more thoughtful members of the CCAR reflect on various aspects of the history of their organization in Bertram Wallace Korn, ed., Retrospect and Prospect: Essays in Commemoration of the Seventy-Fifth Anniversary of the Founding of the Central Conference of American Rabbis, 18891964 (New York, 1965). The variety in Reform Jewish theology after World War II is well reflected in Bernard Martin, ed., Contemporary Reform Jewish Thought (Chicago, 1968). Two sociological analyses based on surveys taken in the early 1970s present the state of belief and practice among Reform rabbis and laity at that time: Theodore I. Lenn, Rabbi and Synagogue in Reform Judaism (New York, 1972), and Leonard J. Fein et al., Reform Is a Verb: Notes on Reform and Reforming Jews (New York, 1972).

Principal sources and the texts of the platforms of American Reform Judaism are in Michael A. Meyer and W. Gunther Plaut, eds., The Reform Judaism Reader: North American Documents (New York, 2001). Dana Evan Kaplan has edited two volumes of reflections on the American Reform movement, Contemporary Debates in American Reform Judaism (New York, 2001) and Platforms and Prayer Books: Theological and Liturgical Perspectives on Reform Judaism (Lanham, Md., 2002). Contemporary American Reform Judaism is best followed through its major periodicals: Reform Judaism is a popular UAHC magazine circulated to all members four times a year; the CCAR Journal, a quarterly, is the official organ of the Reform rabbis. Current information on Reform Judaism is available on the websites of its major institutions.

Michael A. Meyer (1987 and 2005)

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