Reform Judaism

What is Reform Judaism?

Reform Judaism is a modern Jewish movement which seeks to combine the best elements of Jewish traditions with the best elements of the modern world.

While this modern style of Judaism is most commonly referred to as Reform Judaism, it is sometimes also called Progressive Judaism and, in some countries, Liberal Judaism.

In this country, there are two progressive Jewish movements: Reform Judaism and Liberal Judaism each with around 40 affiliated communities. They work closely together and have formed the Alliance for Progressive Judaism to develop co-operation in areas of common concern.

A Little History

Reform Judaism has been around for over 200 years and is the largest Jewish ‘denomination’ worldwide with over 1,200 affiliated communities in dozens of countries.

The first ‘Reform’ institution to be created was not a synagogue but a school. It opened in Seesen in Germany in 1802. In 1810 a small synagogue was built in Seesen, though it was only with the opening of a Reform Synagogue in the much larger city of Hamburg in 1818 that Reform Judaism began to grow significantly.

Throughout the 19th century Reform Judaism developed in Germany and in the United States. The first Reform Synagogue in Great Britain was the West London Synagogue of British Jews, founded in London in 1840.

Interior of the West London (Reform) Synagogue, built 1870 in the Moorish style.

Owing to the very relaxed attitude of British Orthodox synagogues towards personal religious observance—a stance much criticized by Jews in other countries—Reform Judaism grew only slowly until the middle of the 20th century. In the decades since then Reform Judaism has flourished. Together with its Liberal partners, Reform Judaism represents 25 per cent of synagogue members in the UK.

What is Distinctive about Reform Judaism?

Key features of Reform Judaism include:

An insistence on equality for all Jews in all matters of religious practice and status. Regardless of gender or sexual orientation, all people are able to partake fully and without discrimination in all areas of Jewish life. Our Rabbis reflect this acceptance of diversity. In religious services there is no gender separation in the synagogue, all members of families sit together.

Reform Judaism takes full account of modern knowledge in areas such as the physical and social sciences, historical research and the insights of philosophy and psychology. Our cultural and religious inheritance is appreciated for what it really is, rather than what may have been claimed by some in the past. Truth must be our guide when considering our traditions.

Reform Judaism prioritises morality and ethical behaviour over ritual. While ritual has its proper place in our activities, unless it is underpinned by moral conduct it is of limited value. Concern for social justice and a fair society are hallmarks of Reform Judaism.

There is an old saying along the lines of ‘an ignorant Jew cannot be a good Jew’. Reform Judaism encourages Jewish learning for everyone in the community. To facilitate understanding, our prayer books include modern English translations of Hebrew prayers and helpful explanations of the history and meaning of the prayers. Some prayers are recited in English during our services.

Reform Judaism and the Modern World

Although Reform Judaism emerged just over 200 years ago, it is firmly rooted in the historic Jewish culture which stretches back for thousands of years. Reform Judaism is a ‘response to modernity’. It is the reshaping of our ancient culture by our leaders and Rabbis in keeping with the best ideas of the modern western world. Clearly, there are aspects of modern life which we cannot view positively, such as excessive materialism or exploitation of our world’s natural resources solely to satisfy our greed. Yet, there are also some aspects of the modern world which we recognise as very beneficial. These include modern political democracy, extended opportunities for education, the promotion of universal human rights, cultural pluralism, and scientific, technological and medical advances. All of these have a positive impact on the quality of human life.

Reform Judaism believes that it is important that we live as active participants in our wider societies. We value our difference and distinctiveness as Jews but do not wish to preserve that identity at the cost of separating ourselves from the wider community.

As for our outlook on the world, Reform Jews understand that Truth has many dimensions. No single expression of Judaism, or of any religion, possesses the entire truth about human life and our place in the universe. No religion or philosophy can legitimately claim a monopoly on truth. In the light of this, we recognise the autonomy of the individual and that it is inevitable and right that people will think for themselves.

Reform Judaism recognises that all human beings have the potential to contribute to society. Within our Reform Jewish communities we strive to remove obstacles to full and equal participation in community life and activities and to eliminate unjustifiable discrimination. We try to see the uniqueness of each person and to avoid thinking in stereotypes or categories which have disadvantaged people, such as gender or sexuality.

Reform Judaism recognises that a significant degree of religious doubt is endemic to modern thinking. The quest for religious insight and meaning has a long history. The emphasis on the shared search is more important than dogmatic insistence that we have indisputable answers to the big questions of life. The doubts which are a prominent feature of contemporary life are a reality. We accept that for many of us the apparent certainties of previous generations cannot be sustained. Religious fundamentalism is neither intellectually honest nor a healthy frame of mind.

However, Judaism has never imposed a rigid creed on its adherents and the wisdom of such an approach is cleared than ever today. Reform Judaism is committed to freedom of thought and to a broad vision of religious progress. We recognise that it is a good thing to be critical in our thinking and to respect those who take a different view. We should concern ourselves with the welfare of others without attempting to influence their beliefs by inappropriate means.