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German Reform movement (Judaism)

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Title: German Reform movement (Judaism)  
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Subject: Reform Judaism, Conservative Judaism, Leopold Zunz, Claude Montefiore, Progressive Judaism (Germany)
Collection: Jewish History, Jews and Judaism in Germany, Reform Judaism
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German Reform movement (Judaism)

The German Reform movement in Judaism identifies a period of disputes and innovation during the first two thirds of the 19th century. The ideas, practices, and debates of this period lead to the current denominational structure of Judaism.[1]


  • The Stirrings of Change 1
    • Secular origins 1.1
    • Philosophical reflection 1.2
    • Moral suasion 1.3
    • Change by edict 1.4
    • Early temple movement 1.5
  • Development of the Historical-Critical School 2
  • Liturgical Reform 3
  • Organizational activity 4
  • Orthodox opposition 5
  • Footnotes 6
  • Bibliography 7

The Stirrings of Change

The roots of the 19th-century German reform movement lie in the increasing secularization of Europe, the Haskalah (Jewish Enlightenment) movement, and the disarray created by the Sabbateans. As a result of these forces many Jews had minimal Jewish education; respect for rabbinic authority had been undermined; and the social extremes (very rich and very poor) had moved further and further towards assimilation.[2]

In response to this situation, Jewish educators, scholars, and rabbis began to see the need to reform Judaism. The religious push for reforms took a number of different forms: philosophical reflection, moral suasion, educational initiatives, edicts from above, and separatism.

Secular origins

It was in this environment of increasing Jewish disarray that Moses Mendelssohn (1729-1786) proposed and instigated a campaign of reform. He sought to improve the quality of Jewish education. He believed Jewish observance was compatible with current non-Jewish trends in philosophy. By stressing Judaism's rationality he hoped to gain renewed respect for Judaism both within and without the Jewish community. Although Moses Mendelssohn is often viewed as the first Reform Jew, his attitude towards the relationship between philosophy and religious change was closer to today's Modern Orthodoxy. He lacked one essential element of the modern progressive perspective: a developmental view of religion.[3]

The Haskalah also introduced ideas that would later become important in the debates of this reform period:[4]

  • a belief that the goal of religion was personal spiritual fulfillment
  • a move away from law and obedience to love and community as the defining features of religion
  • a move away from the talmud towards the bible as a focal religious document
  • an increased concern with the aesthetics of worship
  • a distrust of superstitions
  • the idea that the fundamental purpose of prayers was communication with God

Philosophical reflection

Moses Maimonides and John Locke, Schnaber argued that the mitzvot of believing in God was immutable, but all other mitzvot could change over time because they developed from human belief in God.[6][7][8]

Moral suasion

Starting in 1806, the journal Sulamith provided a forum for Jewish educators to discuss their vision of religious reform. The journal was started by two teachers of Judaism in Dessau, David Frankel and Joseph Wolf. Articles in the journal presented ideas that often repeated in the discussions of the first and second generation reformers:[9]

  • an appreciation for Kantian universalism as a universal religion
  • the belief that Judaism represented the highest form of morality but was backwards in other ways
  • a distinction between ceremony and "true religion"
  • envisioning reform as a separation of the wheat from the chaff
  • concern that traditional Jewish customs made Jews too different from their neighbors

Change by edict

Sulamith discussed ideas and tried to stimulate change through discussion. But there were also attempts to force changes by edict. Shortly after the Treaty of Tilsit was signed in 1807, Israel Jacobson convinced Jerome, the king of the newly formed kingdom of Westphalia to convene a central authority that would regulate religious life in Westphalia. The commission, called the Royal Westphalian Consistory of the Israelites (1808-1813), issued a series of edicts on synagogue ritual and the duties of rabbis. The consistory was also responsible for appointing rabbis, cantors, and support personal.[10]

The committee was selected and led by Israel Jacobson, who, in addition to being a successful businessman and court Jew, was also a Baal tefilla (leader of prayer services) and Darshan (preacher).[11] The members consisted of a mix of rabbis and laymen: The three rabbis served: Rabbi Lob Mayer Berlin, the chief rabbi of Cassel; Rabbi Simeon Isaac Kalkar from Stockholm; Rabbi Menaham Mendel Steinhardt, chief rabbi of Hildesheim. Issacson, David Frankel (editor of Sulamith), and Jeremiah Heinemann provided the lay membership.[12]

The consistory instituted a number of reforms, intended to improve the religious quality of life and reduce disorder during synagogue services:[13]

  • rabbis were expected to present sermons and talks at least twice a year, preferably in the vernacular
  • weddings must take place in a synagogue under a chuppah placed in front of the ark - the tradition of outside weddings was forbidden
  • only the appointed cantor was allowed to read from the Torah, even at Bar Mitzvahs
  • the number of piyyutim used in the liturgy was reduced

But attempts at change by edict were not lasting. Communities resisted the taxes charged by the consistory to support the rabbis and by 1812 the consistory was finding itself in financial difficulties. An edict permitting kitniyot to Ashkenazi soldiers and poor arose international opposition. Opposition to reforms spurred the creation of informal minyanim. Initially Jerome outlawed these and let the consistory levy heavy fines on the participants to such gatherings.[14] However, by 1812 when the consistory complained about on-going passive resistance, Jerome made it clear that he was uncomfortable with the sectarianism the consistory seemed to be creating.[15] The consistory was disbanded in 1813 when the Kingdom of Westphalia collapsed.

Early temple movement

Former Temple of Reform Judaism in Hamburg, built 1844.
New Temple Oberstraße (1931-1938)
Berlin Tempel 1815 - 1817

Society of Friends, the bar mitzvah of Israel Jacobson's son, Jacob Herz Beer, Ruben Samuel Gumpertz, Leopold Zunz, Eduard Kley, Carl Sigfried Günsburg

Hamburg Temple (Hamburg temple prayerbook) 1817 - 1938

Temple rabbis: Eduard Kley, Gotthold Salomon, Naphtali Frankfurter, Hermann Jonas, Max Sänger, David Leimdörfer, Caesar Seligman, Paul Rieger, Jacob Sonderling, Schlomo Rülf, Bruno Italiener

Temple hazzan:David Meldola, Joseph Piza, Ignaz Mandl, Moritz Henle, Leon Kornitzer

Development of the Historical-Critical School

Liturgical Reform

Organizational activity

In the first half of the 19th century, reform-minded Jews in Germany identified with the name "Reform". Early rabbinic reformers, such as Abraham Geiger, had no desire to start a separate movement. They identified with the term "reform" and periodically met in synods, but did not formally organize into an independent denomination or rabbinic association.

The laity was more impatient with the process of reform. When the German government authorized the establishment of officially recognized separatist congregations, radical lay people in Frankfurt and Berlin formed their own congregations. In 1842 a radical group of lay people in Frankfurt formed the ReformFreunde (Friends of Reform).[16] In the summer of 1845, a group of lay people in Berlin, led by Sigmund Stern formed the Association for Reform in Judaism and held High Holiday services using a liturgy designed by the association. In 1850 the association renamed itself the Jewish Reform Congregation of Berlin.[17] This attempt at congregational separatism, however, failed to flourish. No other official congregations were established[18] and prominent reformers, such as Abraham Geiger, refused to serve them.[19]

Orthodox opposition

Traditionalists expressed vocal criticism of the reformers and refused to attend their synods. In areas where reformers were chief rabbis or controlled the official positions, more traditional rabbis formed break-away congregations.

One of the intellectual leaders of the opposition to reformers was the German Orthodox Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch. Although a friend of Abraham Geiger, he criticized the Reform movement thus:

"It is foolish to believe that it is the wording of a prayer, the notes of a synagogue tune, or the order of a special service, which form the abyss between [Reform and Orthodoxy]... It is not the so-called Divine Service which separates us, [rather it] is the theory - the principle [of faithfulness to Jewish law]... if the Torah is to you the Law of God how dare you place another law above it and go along with God and His Law only as long as you thereby "progress" in other respects at the same time?" [20]


  1. ^ Louis Jacobs, Modernization and its discontents: the Jewish Enlightenment and the emergence of the Reform movement from The Jewish Religion: A Companion, Oxford University Press, 1995. ISBN 0-19-826463-1
  2. ^ Michael Meyer, Response to Modernity:A History of the Reform Movement in Judaism (New York: Oxford University Press, 1988) 10-13
  3. ^ Meyer, Response to Modernity, 13-16.
  4. ^ Meyer, Response to Moderity, 18-25
  5. ^ Philosophische Buecherei - Philosophen und Philosophinnen
  6. ^ Meyer, Response to Modernity, 19
  7. ^ Moshe Pelli, "Mordechai Gumpel Schnaber: The First Religious Reform Theoretician of the Hebrew Haskalah in Germany" in The Jewish Quarterly Review, New Ser., Vol. 64, No. 4 (Apr., 1974), pp. 289-313 (JSTOR: accessed November 5, 2007).
  8. ^ The Impact of Early Modern Jewish Thought on the Eighteenth Century: A Challenge to the Notion of the Sephardi MystiqueDavid B. Ruderman. (Accessed November 5, 2007) 14
  9. ^ Meyer, Response to Modernity, 29
  10. ^ Meyer, Response to Modernity, 34
  11. ^ Meyer, Response to Modernity, 32-33
  12. ^ Meyer, Response to Modernity, 33
  13. ^ Meyer, Response to Modernity, 34-37
  14. ^ Meyer, Response to Modernity, 36
  15. ^ Meyer, Response to Modernity, 43
  16. ^ Meyer, Response to Modernity, 122
  17. ^ Meyer, Response to Modernity, 128-131
  18. ^ David Philipson, The Reform Movement in Judaism (USA:KTAV, 1967 (originally released in 1930), 257.
  19. ^ Philipson, The Reform Movement in Judaism, 268
  20. ^ Samson Raphael Hirsch, Religion Allied to Progress


  • W. Gunther Plaut. The rise of Reform Judaism. New York: World Union for Progressive Judaism, 1963.[1]
  • Jacob S. Raisin. Reform Judaism prior to Abraham Geiger. Charlevoix, Mich.: 1910.
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