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American Reform Judaism

American Reform Judaism: An Introduction

Copyright Date: 2003
Published by: Rutgers University Press
Pages: 320
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    American Reform Judaism
    Book Description:

    The only comprehensive and up-to-date look at Reform Judaism, this book analyzes the forces currently challenging the Reform movement, now the largest Jewish denomination in the United States.To distinguish itself from Orthodox and Conservative Judaism, the Reform movement tries to be an egalitarian, open, and innovative version of the faith true to the spirit of the tradition but nonetheless fully compatible with modern secular life. Promoting itself in this way, Reform Judaism has been tremendously successful in recruiting a variety of people-intermarried families, feminists, gays and lesbians, and interracial families among others-who resist more traditional forms of worship.As an unintended result of this success, the movement now struggles with an identity crisis brought on by its liberal theology, which teaches that each Jew is free to practice Judaism more or less as he or she pleases. In the absence of the authority that comes from a theology based on a commanding, all-powerful God, can Reform Judaism continue to thrive? Can it be broadly inclusive and still be uniquely and authentically Jewish?Taking this question as his point of departure, Dana Evan Kaplan provides a broad overview of the American Reform movement and its history, theology, and politics. He then takes a hard look at the challenges the movement faces as it attempts to reinvent itself in the new millennium. In so doing, Kaplan gives the reader a sense of where Reform Judaism has come from, where it stands on the major issues, and where it may be going.Addressing the issues that have confronted the movement-including the ordination of women, acceptance of homosexuality, the problem of assimilation, the question of rabbinic officiation at intermarriages, the struggle for acceptance in Israel, and Jewish education and others-Kaplan sheds light on the connection between Reform ideology and cultural realities. He unflinchingly, yet optimistically, assesses the movement's future and cautions that stormy weather may be ahead.

    eISBN: 978-0-8135-4248-5
    Subjects: Sociology

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-iv)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. v-vi)
  3. Foreword
    (pp. vii-viii)
    Arthur Hertzberg

    Let me confess at the very outset of this foreword to Dana Evan Kaplan’s excellent book that I resisted writing this essay. I was eventually persuaded that I should by my respect for the author’s clearheaded understanding of the contemporary situation of Reform Judaism. He knows all the nuances of the problems that liberal Jewish religion must face and he understands the positions of all the major participants in the various debates. Dana Evan Kaplan, the scholar, has done an admirable and even exemplary job of leading the reader through this piece of uncharted territory of contemporary religious history of...

  4. Preface
    (pp. ix-xiv)
  5. Introduction
    (pp. 1-5)

    This book is designed to accomplish three goals. First, I hope to provide a general introduction to the American Reform movement for readers coming from different backgrounds. Many non-Jews as well as Jews who have seen passing references to Reform Judaism may have been unable to put these stray facts into context. This volume is intended to provide that context. I have tried both to give enough background to familiarize the reader with historical events and to keep the focus primarily on contemporary developments.

    A second goal is to describe the social and religious dynamics that impact Reform Judaism. On...

  6. Chapter 1 A Historical Overview
    (pp. 6-26)

    The reform movement was a bold historical response to the dramatic events of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries in Europe. Despite the frequent claim that pluralism has always been a central feature of Jewish life, the idea that Jews could practice their faith according to the moral precepts of Judaism but without complete adherence to the code of Jewish law was a radical one. Jews had been a persecuted minority in Christian Europe for hundreds of years. Despite or perhaps because of this, they developed a thriving spiritual and religious life inside their own community. But the increasing political centralization...

  7. Chapter 2 An Introduction to Reform Jewish Belief
    (pp. 27-43)

    From all over the world and with many different backgrounds, most Jews—at least until recently—believed and believe in Judaism as a religion.¹ So while Judaism is not the religion of a single ethnic or racial group, the Jews are a people who have one religion, and that is Judaism. Until the dawn of the modern era, that Judaism was defined in rigid terms that corresponded to the medieval attitudes of the dominant Christians or Muslims, depending on where a Jew lived. Medieval Judaism accepted Jewish law as binding because God had given both the written and oral Torah...

  8. Chapter 3 The Evolution of American Reform Theology
    (pp. 44-63)

    Once a reform rabbinic leadership developed by the 1840s, these men—and for most of the first two hundred years, males led the movement—felt they must justify their religious positions theologically. The more intellectually oriented Reform rabbis believed that religious reflection was a process as well as a product. If they could convince their lay people to put time and energy into theological contemplation, the Reform movement could live up to its potential. Precisely because that theology was complex, they needed congregants who could connect with the religious ideas on a cerebral level. As a result, the leading rabbis...

  9. Chapter 4 The Reform Revolution of the 1990s
    (pp. 64-78)

    In light of the Reform movement’s failure to develop a coherent theology, that the movement is undergoing a transformation and revitalization may seem surprising. Yet, this is precisely why Reform temples have been able to reinvent themselves to meet the needs of a new generation. During the 1990s, Reform Jews struggled with a variety of social issues, such as how to respond to the increasing numbers of interfaith couples and whether rabbis should officiate at the wedding ceremonies of gays and lesbians. Each debate strengthened the movement by suggesting ways congregations could reach out to new groups and at the...

  10. Chapter 5 The Worship Revolution in the Synagogue
    (pp. 79-112)

    The most concrete indication of a Reform revolution is the dramatic transformation of the worship service. The twice-a-year High Holy Day Jew cannot help but notice the substantial increase of Hebrew in the service over the past few decades. Even more noticeable to the casual observer is the use ofkippot(head coverings),tallitot(prayer shawls), and other ritual items in services. The trend toward traditionalism was rather brusquely pushed front and center whenReform Judaism, the Reform movement’s official magazine, featured on the winter 1998 cover a photo of Rabbi Richard Levy, whose beard and yarmulke were reminders of...

  11. Chapter 6 The Struggle for Recognition in the State of Israel
    (pp. 113-131)

    It is easy to forget that while Reform Judaism is most influential in the United States, it exists in many other parts of the world, including Israel. The international umbrella organization for Reform, Liberal, and Progressive Jews is the World Union for Progressive Judaism (WUPJ), founded in London in 1926 to maintain and strengthen existing Progressive movements and to initiate efforts to build new ones whenever possible. The WUPJ currently has affiliates in about forty countries on six continents, including North America; the Union of American Hebrew Congregations is by far the largest of about forty constituent groups. Although the...

  12. Chapter 7 New Challenges in Reform Jewish Education
    (pp. 132-154)

    In the post–World War II period, Emanuel Gamoran served as director of the Reform movement’s Joint Commission on Jewish Education and is credited with transforming the approach of the Union of American Hebrew Congregations (UAHC) to teaching Judaism in religious schools. Shocked that tots were being taught abstract theological principles they had no hope of understanding, he urged the movement to focus on concrete expressions of Jewishness that could create tangible memories of religious living. He believed that learning must be based on experience. In 1952, Gamoran summarized what he saw as the most important goals of Jewish education:...

  13. Chapter 8 The Outreach Campaign
    (pp. 155-185)

    In the Old World, intermarriage was the least of the problems Jews faced. In countries such as Poland, Lithuania, and Romania, Christian hostility toward Jews was felt as ever present. The romantic liaisons that occurred were rare, and even in the United States in the early decades of the twentieth century, were seen as curiosities more than anything else. As late as the early 1960s, most American Jewish communities had extremely low intermarriage rates.

    In 1977, the warning bells went off when Harvard demographer Elihu Bergman extrapolated in an article inMidstreamthat, based on available data and likely trends,...

  14. Chapter 9 The Struggle for Women’s Equality
    (pp. 186-208)

    The reform movement set out to offer liberal Jews a modernized form of Jewish religious belief and ritual practice that would emphasize personal faith and ethical behavior. The movement declared that while it would draw on the traditional rabbinic literature for wisdom and inspiration, it was not obligated by the halacha. This made it easy for Reform to adapt to modern sensitivities and sensibilities, and it did so. One area immediately reformed was the religious roles of men and women. Religious education was now an obligation equally incumbent on both sexes, and the confirmation service that marked the formal entrance...

  15. Chapter 10 The Acceptance of Gays and Lesbians
    (pp. 209-232)

    The reform movement has been a relatively tolerant place for gays and lesbians for many years. Most Reform Jews are liberal, not just religiously but socially and politically as well. Tolerant, pluralistic, and open to new ideas, Reform Jews accepted woman as equal in religious terms and were among the leaders in the national struggle for civil rights. Open to changing conceptions of society and new approaches to psychology, most Reform Jews were already sympathetic when the issue of gay and lesbian rights was first discussed.

    While it is certain that there were homosexuals involved in the Reform movement in...

  16. Chapter 11 The Battle over the Future of Reform Judaism
    (pp. 233-253)

    When the 110th annual Central Conference of American Rabbis (CCAR) convention in Pittsburgh passed a new set of principles in May 1999, the vote represented the culmination of eighteen months of debate over a Reform platform, the latest clash between two very different approaches to Reform Judaism. The Classical Reformers have vigorously objected to the many changes the neo-Reformers have instituted. The neo-Reformers have looked with disdain on the Classical style of worship as sterile and lifeless. The debate over the platform reflects how the interaction between the two groups is working and where the struggle for the soul of...

  17. Chapter 12 Where Do We Go from Here?
    (pp. 254-258)

    Conflicting—one might almost say contradictory—strands run through contemporary Reform Judaism. The movement is rushing to embrace more of what used to be regarded as traditional Judaism, while eagerly accepting social innovations that even today strike many as on the left fringe. It has begun to use the word “mitzvah,” which means commandment, while insisting on its commitment to personal autonomy. It seems eager to reaffirm and even reinforce its historical links with the Jewish people around the world and in particular with the State of Israel but takes measures that seem to diminish or even destroy the possibility...

  18. Afterword
    (pp. 259-262)
    Eric H. Yoffie

    A modern American religious movement, particularly if it is progressive in orientation, is certain to be a messy affair. The United States is a diverse country with a stubbornly individualistic population and a multiplicity of belief systems. When Americans come together to form a religious movement, they refuse to leave their proud individualism behind, especially if their religious group is a liberal one that lacks a precisely defined and authoritative theology. Thus, large American religious movements of the liberal sort are always contentious and pluralistic and caught in a constant struggle between autonomy and authority.

    American Reform Judaism fits this...

  19. Notes
    (pp. 263-284)
  20. Index
    (pp. 285-298)
  21. Back Matter
    (pp. 299-299)