In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Reform Judaism

  • Introduction
  • Histories of the Movement
  • Reference Works
  • Periodicals
  • Anthologies of Primary Sources
  • Liturgy
  • Women and Gender
  • Zionism

Jewish Studies Reform Judaism
Michael A. Meyer
  • LAST REVIEWED: 31 August 2015
  • LAST MODIFIED: 31 August 2015
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199840731-0007


Reform Judaism is one of the three major Jewish religious denominations. Also known as Liberal or Progressive Judaism, it arose in the first decades of the 19th century, mainly in Germany, but it has flourished especially in the United States, where about 750,000 Jews are affiliated with it. Today it is larger in America than Orthodox and Conservative Judaism. Beginning as a movement for religious reform that was intended to encompass all Jews, the Reform movement coalesced into a particular outlook on Jewish belief and practice that stressed ethical monotheism, drew especially upon the biblical prophetic literature, and made ritual practice subservient to subjective theological and ethical meaning. It retained the concept of Jewish chosenness but directed it outward toward the mission of bringing its redemptive message to humanity as a whole. It set as its goal not the return to Zion, the rebuilding of the ancient temple, and the reinstitution of sacrificial service, but rather the messianic vision of a peaceful, united world. Unlike Jewish Orthodoxy, it has generally not regarded the Torah (the Five Books of Moses) as representing a literal revelation, but rather as an illumination of the spirit that is subject to correction and development in the course of history. It has seen the Talmud and rabbinic literature as possessing only a limited authority that can be overridden by considerations of conscience. Over the course of some two hundred years, the Reform movement has undergone significant changes. Initially opposed to a national expression of Judaism, it became increasingly Zionist in the course of the 20th century. Whereas during its classical period (c. 1880–1930), it eschewed most ritual practice and chose the vernacular over Hebrew in its liturgy, recent decades have witnessed the reincorporation of traditional passages in its prayer books. Reform Judaism has pioneered full religious equality for women and GLBT persons and has recognized as Jewish committed individuals who have only a father who is Jewish. Its Religious Action Center in Washington, DC, and an equivalent in Israel engage in lobbying for legislation regarded as having social justice impact. Today, Reform congregations in North America, South America, Europe, Australia, and Israel are united internationally under the aegis of the World Union for Progressive Judaism.

Histories of the Movement

Remarkably few works have attempted to deal with the Reform movement as a whole in all the locations in which it developed and in consideration of its various aspects: liturgy, ritual, theology, social composition, and political ideology. For the most part, these works have been written either by opponents of Reform Judaism or by its advocates. Ritter 1858–1902 is associated with the most radical branch of the movement in Germany, which colors the author’s four volumes. Moreover, his work is limited to the early German period. Emanuel Schreiber (Schreiber 1892), a German immigrant rabbi active in the state of Washington, employed a strictly biographical approach to his subject, choosing nine figures from the cradle of reform in Germany. At the beginning of the 20th century the first inimical account of the movement appeared. Simon Bernfeld (Bernfeld 1923), as a Jewish nationalist, was hostile to the Reform Judaism of his time due to its anti-Zionism. Shortly after the appearance of the original edition of Bernfeld’s Hebrew volume in 1900, Philipson 1967, written by a Cincinnati Reform rabbi originally in 1907, presented a sympathetic, comprehensive work, but one that was still very much focused on Europe. Whereas Philipson focused on religious controversies, Seligmann 1922 looks more at general trends, and Wiener 1933 stresses the intellectual issues. All the general historians of the Jews have paid some attention to the Reform movement, but, of these, only Raphael Mahler (Mahler 1954) devotes independent research to it. Meyer 1988 represents the most comprehensive study of its subject. A Hebrew volume (Rosenak 2014), containing twenty-four articles, looks at trends in contemporary Reform Judaism.

  • Bernfeld, Simon. Toledot ha-Reformatsyon ha-Datit be-Yisra’el. Warsaw, Poland: Ahi’asaf, 1923.

    Bernfeld admitted that the subject was “odious” in his eyes, arguing that Reform Judaism was basically an attempt to “ease the yoke of religion.” Nonetheless, he did examine sources anew, and his work, reprinted in 1923 in the slightly expanded edition noted here, long remained influential among Hebrew readers.

  • Mahler, Raphael. Divre Yeme Yisra’el Dorot Aharonim. Vol. 2. Merhavya, Israel: Ha-Kibbutz ha-Artsi, 1954.

    See pp. 160–171. As a Marxist and Zionist, Mahler displays clear animosity to Reform Judaism. However, his treatment does contain some new material. Also see Raphael Mahler, Divre Yeme Yisra’el Dorot Aharonim, Vol. 7 (Tel Aviv: Ha-Kibbutz ha-Me’uhad, 1980), pp. 115–186.

  • Meyer, Michael A. Response to Modernity: A History of the Reform Movement in Judaism. New York: Oxford University Press, 1988.

    With translations into German and Hebrew, this fully annotated book continues to be the standard historical work in the field, although it does not cover the period after 1975.

  • Philipson, David. The Reform Movement in Judaism. New York: Macmillan, 1967.

    Originally published in 1907 and reprinted in 1931 and again in 1967 (the latter with a brief critical introduction by Solomon Freehof), Philipson’s pro-Reform work remained standard for most of the 20th century. Because of its extensive translations from German sources, it is still valuable for readers who do not know German.

  • Ritter, Immanuel Heinrich. Geschichte der jüdischen Reformation. 4 vols. Berlin: Steinthal, 1858–1902.

    Ritter’s four volumes deal, respectively, with selected figures in the early movement and with an organizational history of his own Reform Congregation in Berlin. His work makes the radical branch of the movement questionably central. However, he makes a valuable insight in recognizing that the non-Jew Gotthold Ephraim Lessing had more influence on the movement than the Jew Moses Mendelssohn.

  • Rosenak, Avinoam. Ha-Yahadut ha-Reformit: Hagut, Tarbut ve-Hevrah. Tel Aviv: Ha-Kibbutz ha-Me’uhad, 2014.

    This collective volume contains sections on Jewish thought, Jewish law, liturgy and the relation of Reform Judaism to competing religious trends. It includes critical analysis as well as exposition.

  • Schreiber, Emanuel. Reformed Judaism and Its Pioneers: A Contribution to Its History. Spokane, WA: Spokane Printing, 1892.

    Nine chapters each deal with one of the European reformers. Although polemical, this small book has importance as the first to delineate the history of the movement by period. Schreiber divided it into humanistic, aesthetic-homiletic, and historical-critical periods.

  • Seligmann, Caesar. Geschichte der jüdischen Reformbewegung von Mendelssohn bis zur Gegenwart. Frankfurt: J. Kaufmann, 1922.

    Seligman, a rabbi of the Liberal community in Frankfurt am Main, Germany, moved the focus away from events and personalities to note subtle changes in idea and sentiment.

  • Wiener, Max. Jüdische Religion im Zeitalter der Emanzipation. Berlin: Philo Verlag, 1933.

    A rabbi and scholar of modern Jewish thought, Wiener devoted about a quarter of this more general volume to the Reform movement. He was the first to appreciate the significance of external as well as internal developments on the movement.

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