Non-Orthodox Judaism ‎

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			Prevailing wisdom has it that Judaism was always exclusively Orthodox until reform came ‎along and upset the apple cart. Well, it turns out that it isn’t true at all. Schismatic movements ‎have been part of Judaism since it began. Even the Torah records one such case – the rebellion ‎of Korach and his followers. Throughout the Biblical period we have almost no indication as ‎to how uniform religious practice was or even if there was a set religious practice outside of ‎the temple. During second temple times we know that there were different sects that differed ‎radically on theology and practice. There were the Pharisees and Sadducees, the Essenes and ‎the Samaritans, all of whom claimed that their interpretation of Judaism was Orthodox and ‎the others were aberrations. ‎
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Things became more uniform during the times of the Mishna, but we cannot be sure that the ‎uniformity imposed by the rabbis extended any further than the rabbinic institutions. During ‎the times of the Gaonim (500-1000) we know that a major sect called the Karaites lived side ‎by side with the ‘rabbinic’ Jews, though each group considered the other to be heretical. The ‎Karaites rejected the rabbinic interpretation of the Oral Law. ‎
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During Medieval times, rabbinic Judaism was more or less universal, with the Karaites ‎declining in influence. But we still don’t know how strong the allegiance of the common Jew ‎was to rabbinic law and custom. The large numbers of conversos in Spain may indicate that ‎religious conviction was superficial among many Jews. The Sabbatean movement during the ‎‎17th century was as schismatic as they come. The truth is that up until the 19th century it really ‎isn’t all that clear if all Jews were indeed equally observant, or if they were just as loaded ‎with factionalism as they would become in the future. ‎
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The major difference that took place with the Reform Movement of the early 19th century was ‎the institutionalizing of an openly non-Orthodox segment of Judaism. Previously, it was ‎either individuals, or groups who claimed to be the true heirs of the Mosaic faith. Reform ‎made no such claims. They openly admitted that the changes they were introducing were ‎simply ways of conforming to modernity. Reform leaders may have genuinely believed that ‎their reforms were necessary for the early-19th century German Jew to fit into the early-‎‎19th century German world while remaining Jewish, but they never claimed that they were ‎recreating some ancient Biblical or rabbinic form of Judaism. ‎
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To be totally honest, Reform was not really the first reform movement in Judaism. That honor ‎belongs to the rabbis of the Mishna and the Talmud, or perhaps their predecessors, the ‎Pharisees. While the Oral Law, their primary contribution to Judaism, is traditionally linked to ‎Chumash, most of it is pure rabbinic enactments, extensions, elaborations, or explanations. ‎These ancient rabbis, in creating what would become Orthodox Judaism, considered their ‎work to be an updating of an even more ancient religious system to fit into contemporary ‎times. They really began (or continued) the more than 2,000 year long process of discovering ‎ways in which the Torah can answer the great riddles of life as they applied to the Jews. ‎
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The question is whether the same could be said about the Reform Movement of early ‎‎19th century Germany. This movement had its roots in 18th century enlightenment (Haskalah in ‎Hebrew) Germany. The so-called ‘Father of Reform’ (perhaps ‘Grandfather’ is a more ‎appropriate term) was the enlightenment scholar Moses Mendelssohn (1729-1786). ‎Mendelssohn was thoroughly Orthodox in his practice but extremely open-minded in his ‎beliefs. In fact, this split between practice and belief (deed vs. creed) became the central idea ‎that future generations remember him by, and a crucial steppingstone for the development of ‎Reform. ‎
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Mendelssohn immersed himself in enlightenment ideas. At the same time, he was a staunch ‎defender of his faith, even in the face of serious challenges from Christian acquaintances. One ‎of his major works, entitled ‘Jerusalem’, is a response to this very challenge. In it, he takes the ‎reader on a whirlwind tour of belief, reason, Jewish history, and interfaith relations, all within ‎the blazing light of Haskalah thought. His final conclusions are to maintain a steady Jewish ‎faith, staunchly keeping to its rules, while constantly reflecting on how Judaism guides its ‎faithful through life. He held that a person’s beliefs belonged to the individual and that ‎religion should not, and in the case of Judaism, did not, dictate any mandatory articles of ‎faith.  Mendelssohn was no Reformer, but he certainly planted the seeds from which it ‎sprang. ‎
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The first serious attempts at Reform took place in Germany at the beginning of the ‎‎19th century with the first synagogue appearing in 1810. It is clear that the leaders of the ‎movement had no intention of breaking away completely from traditional Judaism. Their ‎intention was nothing other than to update German Judaism to fit the early 19th century ‎norms. The primary focus of their changes was within the realm of synagogue decorum. The ‎sermon was to be said in proper German. The rabbi dressed like a dignified German ‎clergyman. There were proper German tunes to accompany the liturgy. Ceremonies were no ‎longer to be the haphazard affairs of the past. They were choreographed and given an air of ‎dignity. Even though certain traditions were deemed expendable, Halacha itself was by and ‎large respected. ‎
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But once the genie was let out of the bottle, there was no putting it back in. Even if the rabbis ‎respected Halacha, the laity didn’t necessarily share the sentiment. Their real agenda was to ‎not look different from their gentile neighbors, so if Jewish custom got in the way it would ‎have to go.  Prayers were cut out, or recited in German. Certain leaders expressed ideas that ‎would have put Mendelssohn to shame, including the radical notion that the commandments ‎themselves and the teachings of the Torah could change with time. ‎
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By the 1840’s, lay members in Berlin and Frankfurt had formed synagogues that established ‎Reform as a separate branch of Judaism. Though nothing really came of this movement in ‎Germany, in other countries it flourished. In America in particular, Reform laid the ‎groundwork for many Jewish communities. There was little or no Orthodox to speak of, so ‎Reform called all the shots. The American Reform movement was not a separate branch from ‎the mainstream - it was the mainstream. It had little concern for breaking with tradition and ‎making up their own rules as they went along. Ironically, American Reform leaders ‎introduced a system that was the opposite of what Mendelssohn advocated – that Judaism ‎had no code of action, just a code of beliefs. A Jew need only believe. There was no ‎requirement to do or not do anything. The Pittsburgh Platform of 1885, an official statement ‎of doctrine for Reform Judaism, explicitly eliminated the need for ritual requirements. ‎Reform Judaism was from then on defined by morality and ethics. It was only a matter of ‎time before the ‘belief’ requirement was also dropped. ‎
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Needless to say, such leanings had their consequences. Not all Reform leaders agreed with ‎these radical departures from tradition. In 1883, at a banquet in Cincinnati (at the time the ‎location of Reform headquarters) for the first graduating class of the Reform rabbinical ‎school, the Hebrew Union College, shrimp and shellfish were served. This event has passed ‎into legend as the ‘Treifa Banquet’, and is now looked as a watershed event in American ‎Jewish history. It gave birth to the American Conservative movement. ‎
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Conservative Judaism has its theoretical roots in 19th century Germany. One reaction to the ‎open-ended doctrines of Reform was to ‘conserve’ traditional Jewish beliefs even while ‎attempting to bring Judaism in line with modern thinking. Such a reaction did occur in ‎Germany but the movement never grew there. In America, following the Treifa Banquet, it ‎began and it flourished. Conservative Judaism officially broke off from Reform in 1886 with ‎the creation of the Jewish Theological Seminary (JTS), a rabbinic school located in ‎Manhattan. By 1910 the seminary was well on its way as a first-rate academic institution, ‎with a top notch faculty culled from new immigrants from Eastern Europe with solid ‎Orthodox rabbinic training. ‎
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The growth of Conservative Judaism throughout much of the 20th century is nothing short of ‎remarkable. From its almost ex nihilo beginning to dominating the American Jewish landscape ‎by World War II, it seemed to be experiencing an ever-expanding network of synagogues, ‎teaching institutions, and rabbinic organizations. The faculty at JTS constantly grew both in ‎number and in stature. For a time, it primarily consisted of Orthodox-trained scholars, but ‎eventually ‘homegrown’ rabbis entered its ranks. It became the only source for conservative ‎rabbis in America, though for the first few decades of the 20th century many came from ‎Orthodox rabbinic schools. Up until the 1980’s, things looked like they could only get better. ‎
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However, dissent was in the works. Judaism has a long history of extremism, and an equally ‎long history of trying to maintain a middle path. The first split was within its own seminar. A ‎long-standing and highly respected but controversial faculty member named Mordechai ‎Kaplan broke ranks in 1963 to form his own group which he called Reconstructionist ‎Judaism. Kaplan had been formulating his own ideas about what Judaism should be over his ‎several decades teaching at JTS. The more conservative members of the faculty intensely ‎disagreed with him over many points of belief and practice. Essentially, Reconstructionist ‎Judaism was the reverse of the Conservative break with Reform. The earlier split was a ‎reaction to too much abandoning of tradition, whereas the latter split was a reaction to too ‎much tradition. Kaplan was probably the first rabbinic leader to openly advocate non-belief in ‎the God of the Bible. ‎
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The current situation has Reform as the largest single denomination in North America, with ‎the shrinking Conservative denomination and the rapidly growing Orthodox about even. ‎When the entire world is included in the survey, it is likely that Orthodox is the largest group, ‎and by far the fastest growing. There are other groups, mostly in North America. Progressive ‎Judaism, Jewish Renewal, Humanistic Judaism, and others can be found if one looks hard ‎enough. However, what is by far the largest group, both in North America and in Israel, is the ‎unaffiliated. Current estimates put the unaffiliated at well over 50% in North America and ‎about 75% in Israel. Judaism and religion in general are non-starters for them. It gives them ‎nothing and demands quite a bit. ‎
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What is in store for non-Orthodox Judaism? Conservative leaders openly bemoan their own ‎demise in the 21st century. The smaller groups hardly have a more promising future. Reform ‎still looks strong, at least as far as the numbers go, but its inability to generate interest among ‎Israelis does not auger well for its long term future. With 20-20 hindsight and a murky crystal ‎ball it certainly looks as though the two winners are going to be unaffiliated and Orthodox. It ‎seems as though religion needs to have tradition in order to function. It also needs a healthy ‎dose of irrationality and faith, to say nothing of serious scholarship and a strong birthrate. The ‎best advice, it would seem, for the survival of non-Orthodox Judaism, is to look to the ‎Orthodox for ideas and to work them into the program, or to go the way of Sadducees, ‎Samaritans, and Sabbateans. ‎



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