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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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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