The Reform Movement in the United States
Several European Reformers moved to America, helping to create a new movement that quickly became dominant. The early American movement toward Reform, however, was led by Americans and was concurrent with, but not led by, German Reform.
Beth Elohim—The first American Reform Congregation
In December, 1824, Isaac Harby led a group of forty-six members of Kahal Kadosh Beth Elohim (Holy Congregation House of God) of Charleston, South Carolina, who petitioned the board for changes in the Sabbath service. Beth Elohim was founded in 1749 as a traditional congregation following the Spanish-Portuguese minhag, or custom. The innovations requested by the petitioners were, in fact, very modest, and none involved a clear violation of traditional Jewish law—that the Hebrew prayers be followed by English translations, that new prayers regarding life in America be added, and that the Rabbi offer a sermon in English.
When the board rejected the petition, though, Harby's group departed radically—from both the congregation and the tradition. They created a “Reformed Society of Israelites” that wrote its own prayer book, introduced music into the service, and worshiped without head coverings.
After the famous Charleston fire of 1838, the Reformers petitioned for the inclusion of an organ in the rebuilt house of worship, “to assist in the vocal part of the service.” This new proposal again fractured the congregation, but this time a two-thirds majority of the congregants approved the decision (the traditionalists left to create Congregation Shearith Israel, “the Remnant of Israel”). In 1841, Beth Elohim officially became the first Reform congregation in the United States.
Isaac M. Wise
Isaac Wise was born in Steingrub, Bohemia, in 1819, and was educated there by his father, a schoolteacher named Leo Weiss, before continuing his studies in Prague. Ordained as a Rabbi, he served for two years in Radnitz before moving to the United States in 1846 and changing his last name to Wise. He was appointed Rabbi of Congregation Beth-El (House of God) of Albany, New York, where he soon instituted reforms in the service, such as mixed seating, a mixed choir, and a confirmation service.
In 1850, on the eve of Rosh HaShanah, the Jewish New Year, the board of directors of Beth-El reacted to these reforms by firing Rabbi Wise. This caused a split in the congregation; his supporters created a new Reform Temple called Anshe Emet, where he served until 1854. Then, however, he moved to Cincinnati, Ohio, where he again took the helm of an Orthodox congregation and led its conversion to Reform. He would serve there until his death in 1900.
Hebrew Union College
The unification of American Jewry in a single national mold was to be Isaac Wise's lifelong goal. In 1847, he wrote a prayer book and called it Minhag America, intending it to be used by all congregations nationwide.
Unity was so important to Wise that when the Central Conference of American Rabbis published the Union Prayer Book in 1894, he removed his Minhag America prayer book from his own congregation.
His efforts to unify American congregations led to the founding of the Union of American Hebrew Congregations (UAHC) in 1873, in Cincinnati, in order to establish a Hebrew Theological Institute. Two years later, the Union created the Hebrew Union College (HUC) to train American Rabbis to serve American congregations, speaking in English. It was another eight years before the College would ordain its first Rabbis, in 1883.
It must be emphasized that the name Union of American Hebrew Congregations represented no arrogance on the part of Wise and the other Reformers—they considered the small number of traditional congregations a dying vestige. In November of 2003, the UAHC was renamed the Union for Reform Judaism.
It was then that Wise's dream, of an American Judaism united under the Reform banner, shattered at the moment of its culmination. At the first graduation banquet, the College served clams, crabs, shrimp, and frog's legs, plus beef and ice cream. A number of Rabbis, appalled by this Epicurean feast of Treifah (non-Kosher) foods, fled the room, never to return. The “Treifah Banquet” led directly to the establishment of the Jewish Theological Seminary three years later, and the development of the Conservative movement.
Out … and Back
Following the creation of the UAHC and Hebrew Union College, Reform Rabbis assembled in Pittsburgh in 1885 and agreed upon a joint Declaration of Principles, similar to those adopted in Frankfurt forty years earlier. The Pittsburgh Platform, as it came to be known, declared the Bible the product of “the primitive ideas of its own age,” and said, “We accept as binding only its moral laws.” It rejected “all such Mosaic and rabbinical laws as regulate diet, priestly purity, and dress … their observance in our days is apt rather to obstruct than to further modern spiritual elevation.” The assembled stated that they considered themselves “no longer a nation, but a religious community,” and no longer desired a return to Palestine. In 1889, the Central Conference of American Rabbis (CCAR) was formed as the organized Rabbinate of Reform Judaism, and they continued to meet periodically.
By 1937, however, the passionate rejection of a unique Jewish people, a Jewish country, and unique Jewish practices had all been re-evaluated. The Columbus Platform, produced by the CCAR in convention there in Ohio, recognized a “Jewish People,” as well as “the group loyalty of Jews [including those] who have become estranged from our religious tradition.” Concerning “the rehabilitation of Palestine,” they affirmed “the obligation of all Jewry to aid in its upbuilding as a Jewish homeland.”
One reason for the 1937 reversals was a change in Jewish American demographics. Whereas the early immigrants were German Jews influenced by the early, fiery Reformers, by the twentieth century they were overwhelmed by new waves of immigrants from Eastern Europe. The Eastern European Jews were far more attached to, rather than dismissive of, Torah beliefs and practices.
Most profound of all was the rapid change in attitude toward Jewish ritual. “Judaism as a way of life requires in addition to its moral and spiritual demands,” they wrote, “the preservation of the Sabbath, festivals and Holy Days, the retention and development of such customs, symbols and ceremonies as possess inspirational value, the cultivation of distinctive forms of religious art and music and the use of Hebrew, together with the vernacular, in our worship and instruction.”
An earlier bit of history reveals how dramatic this reversal was. In 1845, Rabbi Zecharias Frankel—considered the ideological father of Conservative Judaism, as you will read below—left the Reform conference in Frankfort. He published a journal article detailing his reason: that the Rabbis had insisted upon declaring the Hebrew language unnecessary for public worship. Just ninety years later, Reform Rabbis adopted the very position that they had previously scorned over Frankel's objection.
By 1976, the original Pittsburgh Platform had been reduced to history. Meeting in San Francisco in commemoration of the centenaries of the UAHC and HUC, the Rabbis designated “the People Israel,” “the State of Israel,” and “Religious Practice” central elements of the platform itself. “Born as Hebrews in the ancient Near East, we are bound together like all ethnic groups by language, land, history, culture, and institutions,” they said. Concerning “the newly reborn State of Israel,” they acknowledged that “we are bound to that land.” And concerning the same rituals that the Pittsburgh Rabbis warned were likely “to obstruct … modern spiritual elevation,” the group in San Francisco insisted that “Judaism emphasizes action rather than creed as the primary expression of a religious life.”
Today, the Reform movement has a large presence in America and Europe, and a modest but active group in Israel. It believes that Judaism is a religion in constant flux, able to change based upon the demands of the laity—and as it subscribes to a doctrine of individual autonomy, change is the one constant.
Often, the movement rejects elements of Jewish tradition in compliance with changing Western values. Reform was the first to abolish the idea of separation between the genders, and ordained the first woman Rabbi in 1972. In 1983, Reform leaders announced that they would accept patrilineal descent—meaning children of a Jewish father—as sufficient for children to be Jewish. At its 1996 convention in Philadelphia, the Central Conference of American Rabbis announced its support for civil marriage between homosexual partners; the Conference fully supports those member Rabbis who conduct religious marriages for these couples as well.
Yet at the same time, the movement embraces tradition as never before. Today, it is common for Rabbis and congregants to wear the traditional Kipah and Tallis during services. In 1999, the Union adopted a new platform, this time back in Pittsburgh. It called for lifelong study of Hebrew and Torah, “renewed attention” to the “whole array of mitzvot,” and emphasis of the Sabbath as a day of “kedushah, holiness, menuchah, rest and oneg, joy.”
An earlier draft of the 1999 platform was even more emphatic. It said, “Standing at Sinai, the Jewish people heard God reveal the Torah”—and made many other statements indistinguishable from the beliefs of the Torah-observant. That draft was not adopted, following a backlash from those who favored Classical Reform.