The Jewish Reform Movement

Although the Reform, Conservative, and Orthodox divisions of Judaism are currently used to describe Jews in Israel as well as in the U.S., the terms originated as a result of American reforms. Jewish reformers led by Rabbi Isaac Wise stressed worship over theology and rejected long-held traditions such as dietary laws. In contrast, Orthodox and Conservative Jews continued traditional practices, but Conservatives allowed some traditions to change after a while. American Jews like Isaac Wise wanted to stop the anti-Jewish sentiment in society and also to emphasize their similarities with Protestant and Enlightment ideas. Out of these efforts grew a reform movement with a special American identity.

Historically, Jews experienced discrimination in mainstream American society regardless of their contributions. In the novel Son of a Smaller Hero, storeowner Samuel Panofsky describes the past relationship between Jews and Anglos. “We [Jews] discovered cures and it didn’t help and we made for them philosophies and they chased us away and we invented so they’d take the invention and deport the inventor…” American Jewish reformers realized that Jews were making the difficulties they encountered in the dominant society worse by clinging to outdated traditions. The Jewish reform movement was partly an attempt to give Jewish people more acceptance into mainstream society. Reform Jewish worship services began to copy those of Protestants. English (rather than Hebrew) and music were introduced and sometimes services were held on Sunday instead of Saturday, the traditional Jewish Sabbath. By no longer insisting on some of the traditions that made their religion stand out from Protestantism, Jewish reformers hoped to lessen anti-Jewish feelings.

Protestants and Jews clearly shared more beliefs than, for example, Muslims and Protestants shared. Although Jews did not accept the New Testament as God’s word or Jesus as the son of God like Protestants did, the two religions had much in common. Both accepted the Old Testament as the word of the same God and sought to live by the Ten Commandments. The Jewish reform movement was based on the shared beliefs of both religions. Their relation with American Protestants helped Reform Jews to create a uniquely American movement.

In addition to sharing certain religious beliefs, Protestants and Jews also adopted nineteenth century Enlightenment ideas. Protestants valued reason and so did Jews. The equal rights promised by Enlightenment thinker Thomas Jefferson were especially significant for Jews who had a history of persecution. By using reason, reform Jews changed religious laws and rituals that were outdated. Thanks to Enlightenment concepts, Jewish reformers could assure themselves that even religion could be changed.



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