Beginnings of Reform Judaism

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Beginnings of Reform Judaism


A People Set Apart. One of the most important concepts in Judaism is that the Jews consider themselves to be the chosen people. Even though they had no country in the mid nineteenth century, the Jews still thought of themselves as a nation, a distinct group held together by Gods covenant with them. In Europe anti-Semitism set Jews apart from the people among whom they lived. Until the early nineteenth century, most European governments restricted Jews to living in certain sections of cities called ghettos. Some laws limited the number of Jews who could marry in a given year, thus preventing Jewish population growth. Other statutes, meanwhile, prohibited Jews from receiving an education or from entering professional careers. Whether by their own choice or by the prejudices of others, Jews were a distinct group.

Early American Judaism. Before 1850 the majority of the Jews who came to the United States were Sephardim, Jews whose ancestors had lived in Spain and Portugal and who had been expelled in 1492 after the Christian rulers Ferdinand and Isabella seized the area from the Moorish Empire. Sephardic Jews settled in seaport communities such as Savannah, Charleston, Philadelphia, New York, and Newport. Since there were so few of them, the Sephardim did not have the community support they needed to keep every Jewish law. They had no rabbis and no one to sell them kosher, or ritually fit, food. Therefore, they were pragmatic reformers. They went without the traditional head coverings that every Jewish male was supposed to wear. Each congregation appointed a hazan, or leader from among the laity, who led the devout in prayer and sometimes preached. Early American Jews generally did not speak or read Hebrew fluently, just well enough to pronounce the prayers correctly. For some parts of synagogue worship, they used Ladino, a language based on Spanish that their ancestors had used; mostly, they used English.

The German Migration. During the early nineteenth century, the American Sephardim were joined by the first Ashkenazim, Jews from the German principalities and the Austro-Hungarian empire, and were called German Jews. German migration soon led to the creation of new synagogues because Sephardic and Ashkenazic Jews differed in rituals and forms of worship. German Jews also reacted to differences between American and Jewish culture in various ways. For example, the American workweek ran from Monday to Saturday, while Jews observed Saturday as a Sabbath on which work was forbidden. Other cultural conflicts existed as well. Jews belonged to the middle class economically, but not socially, and their religious practices seemed to be one reason. Middle-class, mostly Protestant, Americans attended church on Sunday morning in family units. There they did everything together: stand, sit, sing, and recite prayers. They used a language they all understood and listened to a sermon intended to edify and uplift them. Synagogue practice seemed unaesthetically chaotic by comparison. Services were held Friday night while Gentiles finished their work or indulged in recreation. Only the men had to attend, and if the women did come, they had to sit upstairs in a curtained-off balcony. Each man prayed at his own pace from his own prayer book, rather than reciting prayers aloud in common. They used books of Hebrew prayers, and while they could pronounce the Hebrew letters, they did not necessarily know what the words meant. If there was a sermon, it would be based on the Talmud, which was not a widely shared piece of Jewish literature but a biblical commentary put together over hundreds of years that only rabbis truly had time to study. German Jews divided into congregations, depending on how much change the congregation members wanted. However, all changes were animated by the same sort of pragmatism that had earlier inspired the Sephardim.

The First Rabbis. With the German Jewish migration came the first trained and ordained rabbis to work in the United States. They had begun their rabbinical careers in Europe and had worked with reform-minded congregations there. Leo Merzbacher migrated in 1841 and was soon followed by Max Lilienthal (1846), Isaac Mayer Wise (1846), David Einhorn (1855), and Samuel Adler (1857). When they came to the United States, they found congregations that had altered Jewish tradition because they lacked the means or opportunity to practice those traditions in middle-class American society. The newly arrived rabbis quickly implemented reforms.

From Nation to Religion. The Jewish reformers were animated by an idea which found its expression in an

1869 meeting held in Philadelphia and chaired by Rabbi Samuel Hirsch. The meeting promulgated a fundamental reinterpretation of a central event in Jewish history. In 70 A.D. the Romans leveled the Jewish capital of Jerusalem, leaving only the Western Wall of the Temple standing, and scattered the Jewish population. Jews interpreted this event, as they had interpreted the period of slavery in Egypt and the Babylonian captivity, as punishment for straying from the covenant. Reform Jews added that it also facilitated the covenant. If the Jews were Gods chosen people, then they could spread that revelation among the people with whom they lived. Rather than look for the restoration of Israel, Jews, therefore, should transform their concept of themselves as a nation into a concept of themselves as a religion. Aside from emphasizing the theological concept of monotheism, Judaism advanced the importance of living a good, ethical, moral, and righteous life that honored God, served humanity, and secured ones salvation. Reform Judaism asked its followers to give up the desire espoused in a Passover ritual, Next year in Jerusalem! Rather than wait for the Messiah to restore Jerusalem, Jews were to be the Messiah who brought truth to the world.

Branches of Judaism. The understanding of Judaism as a religion stimulated a spectrum of responses. David Einhorn, considered a radical in his day, dispensed with many Jewish customs. Not only were they inconvenient and out of step with the nineteenth century, they were unnecessary if the real purpose of Judaism was to bring monotheism and a right understanding of the importance of an ethical life into the world. Isaac Mayer Wise, considered a moderate reformer, judged each custom in the light of Jewish history. Therefore, he kept the idea of a Saturday Sabbath, despite the inconvenience, because it was of scriptural origin. However, he dispensed with the bar mitzvah, a ceremony in which a thirteen-year-old boy formally assumed his responsibilities in Jewish worship, because it was not found in Scripture. Sabato Morais, who in 1851 became rabbi of Congregation Mikveh Israel in Philadelphia, thought that Jewish tradition was as appropriate to a religion as it was to a nation, and his position led him to be one of the forebears of Conservative Judaism. Isaac Leeser, who had led services at Mikveh Israel before Moraiss arrival, preserved Orthodox Judaism and rejected the idea that Halakah or Jewish law was amenable to the kinds of changes, especially the deletions, that Einhorn, Wise, and sometimes even Morais advocated. Nevertheless, the development of Conservative, Orthodox, and Reform branches of Judaism did not represent such serious deviations in teaching that one party considered the others to be false.

Life in American Jewish Households. Exactly how Jews lived depended on how much of Jewish law they wished to observe, whether they lived in a community that could support their desired level of observance, and on their age and sex. In general, all Jews lived within a series of cycles. Everyday observance of Jewish law included prayers for the adult men and keeping kosher or observing dietary laws, as the women prepared the food and the family ate it. Weekly rounds included Friday night or Saturday morning visits to the synagogue for Conservative and Orthodox Jews and Sunday services for families of Reform Jews, and the womens preparation of the Sabbath meal. For Orthodox women who had access to a mikvah, or ritual bath, there was a monthly round of washings that coincided with their menstrual cycle. One interesting development in Judaism was the evolution of the annual cycle of holidays as the Jewish calendar meshed with the secular American one. The Jewish New Year started in the American autumn, with a holiday called Rosh Hashanah. It was followed by the Day of Atonement, or Yom Kippur, on which Jews fasted and prayed that Gods mercy might outweigh their failures to keep the covenant. These were the High Holy Days of the Jewish calendar. Sukkoth, a harvest festival, came about a month after; usually occurring in December, Ha-nukkah had historically been a minor celebration. As Christmas became a more important holiday, and a more secular one, Hanukkah grew to match it. Passover had always been an important celebration, with its element of renewal. In Europe, where Jewish income was quite limited, that renewal was expressed by thorough house-cleaning and by preparing and consuming foods that were specifically for Passover, using tableware especially reserved for that occasion. In the United States renewal was expressed not only by housecleaning but by purchasing new clothes as well.

Community Life. In Europe anti-Semitic legislation and poverty conspired to keep the Jewish community compact. In that situation the kehillah, or community, provided for several services considered necessary to Judaism: it arranged for the care of the orphaned or sick, collected money for the poor, and made sure there were people competent to slaughter meat according to kosher ritual or to perform bris, the circumcision ceremony which brought an infant male into the covenant. In the United States capitalism and freedom of religion created a different situation. Individuals who had special skills that served the community marketed those skills. The ritual slaughterer of the ghetto became the kosher butcher with a shop. Other people found work as cantors, singing at services, or as mohels, performing the bris ceremony. In addition, wealthy Jews many times came together to build institutions such as orphanages and hospitals. In Philadelphia Jews borrowed from a Protestant institution to develop Sunday Schools, where poor Jews could come on their weekly day off from work to learn to read.

Organizing Reform. Although the Jewish population worked together to provide social services, the different branches of Judaism had their own institutions for education. The Orthodox rabbi Isaac Leeser was one of the most prominent Hebrew educational reformers. He began editing the weekly newspaper, Occident, in 1843. Between 1867 and 1873 he and a committee of Orthodox rabbis operated Maimonides College in Philadelphia. Among the Reform Jews, Isaac Mayer Wise was the leader. Beginning in 1855, conferences of Reform rabbis met in order to obtain agreement on teaching methods. In 1873 Wise organized the Union of American Hebrew Congregations, an organization through which Jews could determine which teachings and practices could be left to individual congregations to approve and which should be kept uniform. Wise hoped to keep all Jewish synagogues and temples in one organization. In 1875 he became the first president of the new Hebrew Union College of Cincinnati, which not only provided an institution of higher education for Jewish males but also provided specialized preparation for Reform rabbis.

Challenges to Judaism. While the branching out of Judaism into Conservative, Orthodox, and Reform was amiable, some Jews regarded it uneasily. Reform Judaism, which measured all traditions by nineteenth-century standards, seemed to be leaning too close to Uni-tarianism. In 1874 Solomon Schindler became the rabbi of Temple Israel in Boston and from that position moved so far into the circles of city reformers that he eventually resigned his post in favor of a career in secular reform. In 1876 Felix Adler left Reform Judaism to found the New York Society for Ethical Culture. The most common reason a person ceased to practice Judaism was marriage

to a Gentile. Ironically, at the same time that Jews feared Reformers were causing Judaism to lose its distinctive character, there were incidents of anti-Semitism indicating that Gentile Americans still considered the Jews as a people set apart. In December 1862 Gen. Ulysses S. Grant issued General Order No. 11, which ordered the evacuation of all Jews living in conquered Tennessee, an act meant to punish them for trading with the enemy. In 1877 Joseph Seligman, who had migrated from Germany in 1837 and had made a fortune in the clothing business and investment banking, was turned away from a resort hotel at Saratoga Springs, New York, because he was Jewish. In Europe such anti-Semitism led to Zionism, the idea that if Jews were indeed a separate national group, then they should have their own nation-state in the land of Israel.


Hasia R. Diner, A Time for Gathering: The Second Migration, 1820-1880, volume II of The Jewish People in America, edited by Henry L. Feingold (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1992);

Arthur Hertzberg, The Jews in America, Four Centuries of an Uneasy Encounter: A History (New York: Simon 8c Schuster, 1989);

Israel Knox, Rabbi in America: The Story of Isaac M. Wise (Boston: Little, Brown, 1957);

Jacob Rader Marcus, The American Jews, 1585-1990: A History (Brooklyn, N.Y.: Carlson, 1995).