A Brief History of Reform Judaism


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In the 18th and 19th centuries, political, economic, and social upheavals in Europe resulted in schisms within Judaism. One of the biggest was the formation of Reform Judaism.

Emancipation in Europe led to many personal freedoms not previously enjoyed by Jews. No longer confined to ghettoes, Jews started to integrate into the wider society. The result was increased tension among many Jews between contemporary society and traditional observant Judaism. While most Jews didn’t want to completely assimilate into European Christian culture, they also felt that many rituals and practices didn’t fit with their modern lifestyles.

Israel Jacobson is credited with performing the first Reform services in Germany in 1810. He and other leading Reform thinkers believed that Judaism should adapt and change with the times.

The services were conducted in German rather than Hebrew. Music from an organ was played and choirs sang. A confirmation ceremony for boys and girls replaced the traditional bar mitzvah. Men and women sat together. References to the coming of the messiah and a return to the land of Israel were omitted from prayers.

The movement quickly spread through central and western Europe. Reform congregants were encouraged not to wear head coverings or tallit, the prayer shawl. Daily group worship was stopped, kosher dietary laws were abandoned, and work was allowed on the Sabbath. The main service was moved from Saturday mornings to Friday evenings or Sundays.

Monotheism and moral ethics based on the old prophets became the essence of the Reform movement.

By the mid-1800s, Reform Judaism had arrived in the United States. New rabbinical schools and prayer books were established.

As anti-Semitism increased in the 20th century, some Reform leaders pushed for a move back to more traditional forms of worship and customs. Hebrew usage became more common in services. For some, kippahs and tallit were once again worn. Saturday services returned and support for a Jewish state grew.

From small beginnings, Reform Judaism has emerged as the largest denomination in Europe and North America. Interestingly, most Israeli Jews do not identify as either Reform or Conservative.

Today, the Reform movement is noted for it’s liberalism, egalitarian services, diversity, and interfaith outreach. As many as half of married Reform Jews have a non-Jewish spouse.

About the Author
Mark Shiffer is a freelance writer living in Canada. He has a degree in history and loves writing about the subject. Mark particularly enjoys Jewish history, as it encompasses a massive time span and many regions of the world.
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