Classical Reform Judaism:
A Concise Profile
Rabbi Howard A. Berman
Rabbinic Director, The Society for Classical Reform Judaism
Like all religious groups, today’s Reform Judaism embraces a broad spectrum of interpretation, belief, and practice. A diverse range of philosophies and worship styles are reflected in this spectrum, appropriate to a liberal religious movement that affirms individual and congregational freedom and autonomy. “Mainstream” Reform in contemporary America, reflects the widespread embrace of traditional Jewish ritual and observance that has characterized the movement’s theological perspectives, liturgies, and approach to observance over the past forty years. These trends are primarily reflected in the 1975 Prayer Book of the Central Conference of American Rabbis, Gates of Prayer, and, to an even greater extent in its new liturgy, Mishkan T’filah.
The term “Classical Reform” is the most commonly used expression to denote the historic expression of Reform Judaism, as it developed in the 19th and early 20th centuries. The use of the term “Classical” is admittedly problematic, and it raises the danger of viewing a vital, dynamic expression of religious commitment as antiquarian, or bound to a particular historical period. It also has been used to narrowly define and limit the timeless and enduring teachings of authentic Reform to a particular period in its development. Other terms associated with this interpretation are “Prophetic Judaism,” referring to the centrality of the ethical ideals of the Biblical Prophets, and “Progressive Reform,” reflecting both the dynamic element of change, as well as a spiritual and social liberalism. Whichever term is used, the particular ideals and expressions embraced by Classical Reform are clearly distinctive in the contemporary Reform spectrum.
In essence, this tradition embodies the liberal spiritual ideals, rich intellectual foundations and broad universal vision of the early pioneers of Jewish Reform, initially in Germany, but primarily in the United States. Theologically, Classical Reform was grounded in the Biblical tradition of the Hebrew Prophets, interpreted as the emphasis on ethical action and social justice, rather than on ritual observance or ceremonial law. Intellectually, it was an outgrowth of the modern academic, scientific study of Jewish history and philosophy that emerged in Germany in the early decades of the 19th century; culturally, it reflected the transformation of Jewish communal life at that time, in response to the Emancipation of European Jewry from the social isolation of the ghetto. In America, the early Reform Movement embraced the pluralistic culture of American democracy and developed a liturgy and rationale reflecting the unique experience of Judaism in the free and open society of the United States. It taught that Judaism had always developed new responses to the challenges of each generation, and had historically engaged in a creative encounter and synthesis with many cultures throughout the ages – affirming that modern Jews had the right and responsibility to continue this dynamic process for a new chapter in Jewish history. American Reform’s intellectual approach to Biblical interpretation and authority, as well as its progressive response to social issues, also reflected the influence of the development of liberal religion generally in the United States in the 19th century.
The Classical Reform tradition is rooted in the legacy of the “radical” wing of the early movement, which sought a substantial revision of both synagogue worship and theological principles. Its leading rabbinic advocates were David Einhorn, Emil G. Hirsch and Kaufmann Kohler, as well as the more “moderate” Isaac Mayer Wise, the consensus-building founder of the central institutions of the American movement. The first major statement of principles of Reform Judaism known as the “Pittsburgh Platform,” adopted by both viewpoints in 1885, remains a formative expression of historic Reform teaching. In particular, its interpretation of the primarily religious nature of Jewish identity, and its emphasis on the ethical and spiritual, rather than the ritual nature of Judaism, continue to influence many Classical Reform Jews today. The subsequent formulation of the Movement’s ideals, known as “The Guiding Principles” was ratified by the Central Conference of American Rabbis in Columbus, Ohio in 1937. This document represented a significantly different focus in its affirmation of Jewish “peoplehood,” and reflected the trend toward a reclamation of traditional ritual. While the different points on the Reform spectrum were clearly emerging by that time, it is important to realize that what is now understood as “Classical” was, in fact, the dominant perspective and style that emerged from the “union” of these two historic positions – embodied in the integration of their respective prayer books into the historic common liturgy of American Reform, the Union Prayer Book. Indeed, despite the debates on the role of Zionism that divided the two ends of the Reform spectrum in the 1940’s and 1950’s, what is now called “Classical” in fact remained the broader Movement’s predominant worship style and synagogue culture, until the significant shifts that influenced a major neo-traditionalist trend in the 1960’s. Much of this redirection of American Reform Judaism was a response to the tragedy of the Holocaust and to the new dynamic of Jewish identity engendered by the birth of the State of Israel in 1948. These trends were further reflected in the two subsequent formulations of theology and practice by the CCAR over the past forty years – the “Centenary Perspectives” of 1975, and the new “Statement of Principles” adopted in Pittsburgh in 1999. These platforms represented the continuing emphasis on ritual observance and the centrality of the State of Israel for Jewish identity. Classical Reformers fully embrace the strong expressions of commitment to social justice and inclusive community that distinguish these documents. However, we continue to affirm the validity and viability of the movement’s historic liberal principles and worship traditions as an alternative context for understanding both of these issues, as well as our response to the transforming events of our time.
A consideration of the historical context of the early development of Reform Judaism, and its subsequent “Classical” interpretation, raises the common question – and often the critique – of the dynamic of “assimilation” as a factor in this process. We understand this dynamic as a positive embrace of progressive, pluralistic American culture and democratic values by German Jewish immigrants in the 19th century and by the Reform movement generally as time went on. Instead of viewing this as a desire for social acceptance, it can also be seen in the broader context of the continuum of Jewish social history. That experience has always reflected a conscious encounter and creative synthesis of Judaism’s distinctive values and traditions with the broader cultural environments in which we have lived and entered into as fully as circumstances permitted. The influence of American religious aesthetics, particularly those of liberal Protestantism, on Reform worship styles, can also be interpreted in this light. This dynamic was identical to the blend of Jewish religious observance and folkways with the broader culture of medieval Russia and Poland or the Islamic world, which shaped the Orthodox Hasidic and Sephardic traditions. Reform Jews in America were engaged in a positive, creative process of acculturation that had always been at work in every period and place in Jewish history. In the free open, pluralistic society of the United States, this reflected a deep and faithful commitment to Judaism and the Jewish future. There were many, easier paths to true “assimilation,” than the painstaking rabbinic scholarship and spiritual creativity that shaped Classical Reform in Europe and America.
The fundamental principle of Classical Reform is that the eternal Jewish Covenant with God is at the heart of our identity and history as Jews. While our faith engenders and empowers many different understandings and interpretations of the Divine, it is the religious quest for faith and meaning that is at the core of our Jewish identity. We believe that Judaism is primarily a universal religious faith, rather than an ethnic, cultural or nationalist identity. As a spiritual community, we cherish the unique ties of history and destiny that link us to our fellow Jews throughout the ages and around the world today. We understand the Jewish People as a community of faith, bound together by our shared experience, and grounded in the distinctive teachings of the Jewish Religion. The rich and varied ethnic and cultural traditions of the Jewish experience throughout the ages offer meaningful dimensions for our religious identity, but our faith is timeless and universal in its aspirations.
We uphold the historic Reform concept, linked to our emphasis on the ethical and moral vision of our Hebrew Prophets, of the “Mission of Israel.” This belief holds that as Jews, we are called to be witnesses to the Unity of God and the unity of all humanity, and that we must work as individuals and as a community to bring justice and peace to the world. The leaders of the Classical Reform tradition have always been in the forefront of these efforts and challenges, addressing the great social issues of American history with prophetic courage and action. We affirm this broad, universalistic and humanistic spiritual vision.
We cherish the distinctive worship traditions of historic Reform – a meaningful, participatory liturgy that appeals to both mind and heart. This commitment has always embraced a primarily English language worship Service, enriched by the timeless elements of Hebrew texts and song that symbolically link us to our past and to our fellow Jews throughout the world. And yet, we would insist that what makes a worship experience truly “Jewish” is not its degree of Hebrew usage, but rather the ideals and values it reflects. Classical Reform worship also embraces the role of inspiring choral and instrumental music that elevates the spirit and reflects the highest artistic standards; drawing on both the great historic musical traditions that have been the distinctive heritage of the Reform synagogue, as well as the compositions of contemporary creativity. Yet another dimension of historic Reform worship is the importance of intellectually challenging preaching that offers the wisdom of our Jewish tradition in addressing both the pressing moral and social issues of our day, as well as our personal spiritual growth and the deeper meaning of our human experience. We believe that these characteristic qualities of Classical Reform worship Services, which for many of us are most meaningfully embodied in the historic liturgy of the Union Prayer Book, continue to offer a vital, creative option for many Jews today. This includes not only the many members of our congregations who were raised in and cherish this tradition, but also countless younger people – who are searching for a meaningful and accessible form of Jewish identity and worship, based not on nostalgia nor ethnicity, but rather rooted in the realities of their experience in our contemporary, pluralistic society.
We particularly affirm and celebrate the unique experience and heritage of the Jewish experience in America. Our Torah’s principles of liberty, justice, and the equality of all people, have shaped American democracy from its earliest colonial beginnings. Inspired by the promise of the American values of freedom and opportunity, Jews have played a vital role in the founding and building of this nation. Classical Reform Judaism has always cherished this noble heritage and has remained committed to the nurturing of a distinctly American expression of Jewish worship, life, and culture, which reflect the best of our nation’s democratic ideals. We are proud citizens of this country, fully embracing our rights and obligations to the United States. These obligations include prophetic dissent, expressed in the democratic process, as well as full civic engagement in our society. We believe that the major setting for the continued dynamic development, influence and mission of Judaism in the future, will lie here in a vital and spiritually renewed American Jewish community.
The question of our relationship as American Jews to the State of Israel, is one of great importance and has a complex history in the development of the Classical Reform perspective, which embraces a broad diversity of opinion. However, there are a number of perspectives that many of us would share. The historic Reform position has always held that the national period in the early history of our people was an important formative chapter – creating the shared sense of experience and fostering the spiritual and ethical values that it was our destiny to proclaim and share with all humanity. While this dynamic view of Jewish history rejects the concept that we who live throughout the world today are in “exile,” we affirm that our link to the land of Israel is a deep and historic one and that the State of Israel has profound significance for the Jewish experience. We share with all Jews – and with many other people of good will – the hope and prayer for a secure, prosperous Israel, living in peace and justice with its neighbors.
We celebrate the rich diversity within today’s changing Jewish community. We are particularly committed to offering a warm, loving and unconditional welcome to the ever-increasing number of interfaith and multicultural families in our midst. We believe that we must support our young people and their partners and spouses with “open hearts and open doors” – celebrating their weddings and offering them a spiritual community that respects both of their identities and integrity. We believe that Classical Reform Judaism’s broad, universal message and embracing, accessible worship have a unique role to play in reaching out to our young people in interfaith relationships, empowering them to find a meaningful setting for sharing their experience of Jewish tradition together.
Our contemporary Reform movement includes a broad diversity of interpretations and styles. Our hope and commitment is that the historic tradition of Classical Reform, which embodies its own integrity and enduring significance in the midst of the many rich streams of Jewish experience through the ages, is recognized and honored for its continuing vitality and potential to speak to a new generation of Jews today.