Reform Judaism

“Reform Judaism” from Judaism Beyond God (1985)

Reform—at least in the beginning—chose a bolder format. It broke with rabbinic Judaism and rejected the halakha. Living in Northern Europe, the early Reformers were influenced by Protestant culture and by its attachment to the Bible. Fearful of proclaiming reason alone as the source of truth, they searched for a more traditional authority. Faith in the Bible was so respectable in their environment that it seemed a natural alternative. Some of them began to assault Orthodoxy with denunciations of talmudic superstition and with appeals for a return to the purity of the Bible.

But the Bible was hardly the anthology for teaching the Secular Revolution. In many respects, it was more “primitive” and less reasonable than the Talmud. Its view of the universe, nature, and society was not compatible with modern science. Its description of the rights of husbands, wives, and foreigners seemed a bit awkward as a preface to human dignity and universalism. And it was loaded with all kinds of laws about sacrifice, ritual purity, and dietary practices that the Reformers were eager to discard on rational grounds. Although they hesitated to give up such a powerful weapon, something else was clearly needed.

In the 1840s, there appeared a German duo of renegade rabbis, Abraham Geiger and Samuel Holdheim, who provided Reform with a presentable ideology. Unlike the Conservatives who were stuck with the theological formulations of the halakha and who (with the exception of the Reconstructionists) never really attempted to deal with an alternative value for Jewish identity, the Reform renegades sought to find a justification for Jewish identity in the age of reason.

Their new formulation took account of the consequences of the Secular Revolution on Jewish life. In Western Europe, they had lost their national culture. Neither language nor folk customs separated them from other Europeans in their region. Emancipation meant secular citizenship and secular education and the opportunity to sign up for the new secular nationalism of England, France, and Germany. As for the halakha, it had been discarded by many secularized Jews as a burdensome interference with social integration.

The Reform ideologues, for obvious reasons, discarded ethnicity and nationality as motivating values. They seemed to have no future. Personal Messiahs and supernatural rewards were also rejected. They offended reason. Rabbinic law was irrelevant. It rubbed against the higher values of secular existence.

Only theological ideas remained. But which one? The ideologues selected monotheism. But what is uniquely Jewish about monotheism? Millions of non-Jews worship one God. Here the Reformers picked up on the traditional idea of the Chosen People (which [Mordecai] Kaplan was later to discard) and transformed it. While it was true that many Gentiles were already monotheists, the Jews were the divinely appointed missionaries of ethical monotheism. The special job of the Jews was to be the role-model advertisers of the one God.

Jewish history was a “progressive revelation” of the existence and nature of the Supreme Being. While the Bible and Talmud were expressions of this revelation, they were imperfect and open to emendation by future events. The age of reason was only one more step in the development of that disclosure. Ultimately, the nature of God would be totally revealed. The Messianic age of peace and love would follow. And the Jews could retire from their age-old job.

The Reform overhaul of the meaning and value of Jewish identity was bold and clear. Its only problem was that it was ludicrous. Why are Jewish monotheists more divinely appointed than Muslim monotheists? It would seem that it is the job of every sincere monotheist to be a missionary for the cause. How can any people designate themselves as ethical role models without ceasing to be exactly what they want to be? Self-righteousness is morally offensive. In what way does Jewish history reveal the existence of a nice single God? Jewish suffering suggests that he is either not so nice or that he is nice but limited. But, above all, what does ethical monotheism have to do with the age of reason or the Secular Revolution? The modern urban industrial world is hardly the setting for divine enthusiasts among the educated elite. Why would a bunch of Jewish “not-quite agnostics,” with a perfunctory formal belief in a perfunctory God, be chosen for such a missionary task? Yahveh must be as confused as his army of converters.

The one positive aspect of this theological travesty was that Reform Jews never took this formal ideology seriously. Like the Conservatives, they just limped along on the inertia of old identities. And like the Conservatives, they preferred the consolation of traditional endorsement. They really wanted “kosherizing” by the Bible. But which part? Their nonobservance made the endorsement of most of it very difficult.

Enter Prophetic Judaism. Many of the Reform leaders latched on to the Yahveh prophets who are praised by the editors of the Bible. Elijah, Amos, Hosea, Isaiah, Jeremiah, and Micah suddenly emerged as Reform heroes. The new scientific criticism of the Bible indicated that it was more complex and less unified than faith and tradition had described it. It had different authors from the writers the rabbis had designated. There were many internal contradictions. Individual books were patchwork creations from many separate documents. And much of the prophetic message was older than the Torah and was distorted by it.

The prophets became the comfortable heroes of the Reform layperson. Since they were old, traditional, and biblical, they were more understandable than Geiger’s “spirit of the age.” No matter that the prophets were devotees of ecstatic visions and supernatural intrusion. No matter that they were profoundly opposed to urbanization and the breakdown of the shepherd economy. No matter that their devotion to Yahveh was accompanied by a violent hostility to the worshipers of other gods. No matter that they were absolutely certain of the truth of their own personal revelation and intensely intolerant of disagreement. No matter that their love of the “good” and their hatred of “evil” did not mean a society of dignity and personal freedom. They had become the unlikely heroes of the age of reason. Yahveh would have had a fit.

The Reform Movement ended with slogans. Its formal ideology and its informal heroes had very little to do with Reform behavior. For a while, its Protestant format and its hostility to Jewish nationalism gave its adherents a form of social security. But they did not do very much to make Jewish identity interesting or worthwhile.