Commentary Magazine

The Rise of Reform Judaism, by W. Gunther Plaut

Assimilating the Law

The Rise of Reform Judaism: A Sourcebook Of Its European Origins.
by W. Gunther Plaut.
World Union for Progressive Judaism, Ltd. 288 pp. $6.00.

This valuable collection of source materials is designed to acquaint the reader with the primary forces in the development of Reform Judaism in Europe. From a wide range of essays, articles, speeches, and other writings, Dr. Plaut judiciously selects those that best represent the thinking of the leaders as well as of the lesser, more obscure figures of the Reform movement. The book begins with excerpts from Moses Mendelssohn and Naphtali Herz Wessely, who are viewed as precursors of the movement, and ends with documents from the latter part of the 19th century (except for incidental references, it does not deal with Reform Judaism in America). Wisely, Dr. Plaut keeps his own notes and comments to a minimum, allowing the documents, whenever possible, to speak for themselves. The result is a coherent picture of the issues and controversies out of which Reform Judaism was born and through which it developed.

The most striking aspect of this picture is the almost complete absence of any serious concern for theology. Revelation is for the most part taken for granted, as is the existence of God, and questions of speculative theology are more or less left at that. Judging from the present collection, at least, Reform Judaism did not arise in response to widespread religious skepticism nor did it seek to reconcile the Jewish tradition with the intellectual standards of the secular Enlightenment. Instead, it was mainly concerned with such matters as ritual observance, forms of worship, organization of the synagogue and community, and so forth. The great pronouncements that came out of the major conferences and synods were not revised creeds or articles of faith, but proposals for revisions of Jewish religious practice. In this respect the situation among European Jews during the 19th century closely resembles that of contemporary American Jews.

We also learn from these documents that, contrary to widespread opinion, Reform Judaism in Europe was not motivated primarily by a desire for assimilation. There were, to be sure, a few ardent assimilationists associated with the movement, but according to Dr. Plaut, they were a distinct minority; most of these early Reformers were consistently motivated by their identity as Jews and saw themselves as struggling to stem the tide of assimilation and escapism. Their reforms were intended to restore the advanced intellectuals to Judaism and the Jewish community. Moritz Stern wrote in 1843 to Gabriel Risser:

I am concerned that Judaism will come to a deplorable end if, as up to now, we remain as spectators, witnessing the decay of its religious conditions. . . . I am afraid that the more intelligent group, disgusted with extinct, oppressive rites, will be unable to resist the luring voices of Christianity for long. I feel that it is our duty to counteract this. . . . This is the core of our reformatory efforts.



Yet for all their concern with saving Jews from assimilation there is a good deal of ambiguity about Christianity among the early Reformers. On the one hand, we find Leopold Stein, in 1872, rejecting Christianity as “a large step backward” to “an outdated viewpoint,” and asserting that “Judaism has the right and the obligation to reject as false the new concepts of the Christian teaching. . . . .” But on the other hand, there is Sigismund Stern, one of the most radical of the Reformers, maintaining that it was essential for Judaism to recognize “Christianity as a religion which has its necessary and historically valid existence outside of Judaism . . . . Christianity is not an apostasy from original Judaism, but rather a development. . . .” (Similar sentiments have recently been echoed by some contemporary leaders of Reform Judaism, sentiments which must now, as then, lead inevitably, I believe, to the loss of Jewish identity. East European Bundists may have rejected Jewish religion and Jewish nationhood, but they never took the penultimate step in Jewish self-destruction of flirting openly with Christianity, as did these spokesmen for Jewish religion.) But in general the anti-assimilationist tendency of early Reform Judaism expressed the desire to remain part of, and faithful to, Jewish tradition.

According to Dr. Plaut, “Reform had its greatest problem when it dealt with the nature of halakhah, the binding nature of law and tradition,” a problem that is very evident in the documents he has collected. On the one hand, there is a desire to find legal grounds for proposed changes in the patterns of worship and religious practice; on the other, an unwillingness to submit to the prescriptions of rabbinic law. The struggle was not primarily between two different groups, the one urging a stricter, and the other a more lenient, interpretation of the law, but rather part of the general difficulty of finding a formula which would make it possible to recognize the authority of the law while leaving room for adjustments that seemed to be demanded by social and economic changes. Thus, attempts were made to differentiate between the superior authority of Biblical laws and the inferior claim of laws that were post-Biblical, or to determine the precise degree of authority of the various types of Talmudic law. None of these adjudications was fully conistent and none was ever completely successful, for in the end the Reformers were motivated less by the desire to learn what the law required, than by the need to find “legal” justification for what was felt to be a practical necessity.

The dilemma of wanting to make halakhic norms both binding and not binding at the same time produced a deep tension within the Reform movement and no little anguish in the minds of its more reflective members, who were aware that revising the Law, even when it was confined to the most necessary cases, would inevitably undermine the entire legal structure of Jewish tradition. Thus, there is a moving pathos in the thoughts of Rabbi Samuel Adler concerning the Sabbath. After a Talmudic analysis of the prohibition of labor on that day, the future rabbi of Temple Emanu-El in New York is unbending in requiring complete observance, but notes that it is “in severe conflict with the irresistible demands of our time,” which require concessions. Adler is willing to make concessions, though he can find no legal grounds for them, if only because “a part of the strict demands of the Sabbath must be sacrificed in order to save the Sabbath itself.” However, he recognizes bitterly that “our age will not be served with such concessions . . . . It wants the entire Sabbath open to all manner of business—and that we cannot, that we must never, admit.”



Inevitably, the force of the Reform position proved stronger than the retrenchments of men like Adler. Once the legal protection of the Sabbath was breached, its demise was assured. As we see today, only where the Law has been kept intact does the ancient Jewish Sabbath still exist. And what is true of the Sabbath is true of the dietary laws, daily prayer, and all the other areas of Jewish observance. Whatever the intentions of the early Reformers, the Law lost out in every conflict with practical life and their revisions of it only contributed to the destruction of what they claimed to hold sacred.

Perhaps it is the recognition of this remorseless logic that explains the renewed concern with the Law in contemporary Reform Judaism. Rabbi Solomon B. Freehof, Chairman of the Responsa Committee of the Central Conference of American Rabbis, reports that in the past his committee received an average of ten to twenty questions a year, but during the last decade they have answered over two hundred questions annually. Apparently present-day Reform rabbis, who inherited a religious code from which the last vestiges of the Law had been excised, have begun to feel a need, like their European predecessors of a century ago, to re-establish ties with the normative Jewish tradition. Sadly enough, they also seem to be following the same pattern as the early Reformers, having learned little from their own history. For example, Rabbi Freehof’s own responsa which he has recently published,1 explicate the Law with a considerable display of rabbinic learning (apart from some incredible lapses of scholarship), but the explication is followed all too often by the proviso that under present social conditions the law in question is not binding.

It might be argued that the issue is of no great importance, since Reform Judaism is primarily concerned with moral excellence rather than with the Law. Indeed, in his introduction, Dr. Plaut stresses this point, explaining that the founders of Reform Judaism saw the Bible “as their primary source of authority; however, their emphasis was not on the halakhah of the Torah. They stressed the ethical mitzvot of the Prophets.” A curious dichotomy, this, between the Torah and the Prophets, between prophetic and rabbinic Judaism, as if the Torah were without ethical prescriptions and the prophets had abandoned the ritual law! Of course, the Torah is replete with ethical mitzvot—the last six of the Ten Commandments and the Golden Rule of Leviticus 19:18, being only among the most familiar examples. And the prophets did not reject or lessen the force of the ritual law, as we are reminded by Isaiah, Ch. 58, where a call to ethical sensitivity is climaxed with a forceful appeal for the observance of the Sabbath.

Any distinction between the claims of ritual and ethical commandments has no basis in the Torah or in rabbinic literature. The passage which contains the Golden Rule contains ritual precepts as well, just as the sublime chapter from Isaiah noted above combines concern for the poor with careful observance of the Sabbath. To separate Jewish observances from morality is to yield, however unintentionally, to a Christian reading of sacred scripture. The logic of such a separation leads either to liberal Christianity or to some neutral form of ethical culture.



Traditional Judaism taught that the religious dimension encompasses both man’s relationship to God and to his fellow man. In their effort to find a viable form of ritual, the early Reformers seem to have clearly understood this teaching; otherwise they would have stressed moral rather than ritual matters. (It is significant that though the present collection of source materials examines matters of ritual observance exhaustively—there are sections on revision of the prayer-book, use of the organ in religious services, the covering of the head, Sabbath observance, circumcision, the dietary laws, etc.—there is no attempt to deal with ethical questions as such. Apparently, early Reform found nothing to alter in the traditional moral ideals and the ethical commandments of Judaism.) However, while the Reformers were carrying on their intense debates over ritual problems, the people were slowly abandoning most religious observance. The final stage of the process was reached by the American version of Reform Judaism which, in the “Pittsburgh Platform” of 1885, declared itself entirely free of the ritual injunctions of the Mosiac Law. “Today we accept as binding only its moral laws, and maintain only such ceremonies as elevate and sanctify our lives, but reject all such as are not adapted to the views and habits of modern civilization.” Most of the early European Reformers were aware of the danger in such an approach, one which many contemporary Reform thinkers in America are today struggling to face honestly.

Jewish law is a single unified structure. Orthodoxy has refused in principle to yield any portion of the Law, because it sees it all as divine teaching. Reform has yet to solve the problem which has plagued it from the beginning: how to retain the idea and force of Jewish law, while choosing among individual laws on the basis of principles which stand outside the Law itself.


* See Recent Reform Responsa, published by the Hebrew Union College Press and distributed by University Publishers, 244 pp., $6.00.

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