Two hundred years ago, in the small Westphalian town of Seesen, the latter-day court Jew Israel Jacobson built a small synagogue intended mainly for the impoverished boys in the vocational school he had founded there. What made the “Jacobstempel,” as it became known, unusual was that it contained an organ; the bimah was at the front of the sanctuary, rather than in the traditional center; and, along with edifying sermons from the pulpit, vernacular hymns were sung during services conducted in an atmosphere of worshipful decorum.
Jacobson was not a conscious “reformer” of Judaism; he merely wanted to bring its externals up to date. Yet the July 1810 dedication ceremony of that temple is now being celebrated as Reform Judaism’s starting point. Reform Jews around the world are referring to this year as their movement’s bicentennial.
Some might see a certain irony at work here. In recent years, after all, the Reform movement has become ever more traditional in its worship style, reversing some of the reforms advanced by its founders and extended by proponents of so-called Classical Reform. So how can the Reform movement claim the establishment of the Seesen temple as its genesis moment even as it backs away from some of Jacobson’s innovations?
Perhaps we can find an answer to this question by examining a second significant bicentennial that Reform Jews have reason to celebrate this year: the 200th anniversary of the birth of Abraham Geiger, the rabbi and scholar from Frankfurt who gave intellectual substance to Jewish religious reform a generation after Jacobson.
A brilliant scholar of Judaism in the new critical vein known as Wissenschaft des Judentums (the scientific study of Judaism), Geiger anchored Judaism firmly within history. Judaism, he argued, had developed from stage to historical stage: Rabbinic Judaism differed from biblical, medieval from rabbinic. Each new phase represented religious and moral progress, each an adjustment to the changing conditions of Jewish life.
Based on this historical understanding of Judaism, Geiger could argue that adaptation in the past justified adaptation in the present. Religious reform was not an aberration but tied to the main line of Judaism’s religious history.
Although his basic conceptions lent themselves to radical implications, Geiger was himself an observant Jew whose prayer book retained traditional elements such as resurrection of the dead and whose congregants sat in synagogue separated by gender. His “Liberal Judaism,” an approach somewhere between American Reform and Conservative Judaism, became dominant in a German Jewry that sought to maintain maximal communal unity.
It was primarily in America, toward the end of the 19th century, that Reform Judaism took on the radical character that we today call Classical Reform. It drew on both the aesthetic sensibilities that received early expression in the Seesen temple and the ideology of Abraham Geiger and other German rabbis.
Classical Reform attracted German-Jewish immigrants who sought a universalistic faith even as, socially, discrimination kept them apart from non-Jews. America was their Zion. They believed that excessive ritual was likely to detract from a proper expression of a Judaism that consisted of prayers, almost entirely in the English language, and sermons — generally half an hour or more in duration — intended to teach and edify. Their reason for remaining Jewish had nothing to do with ethnic identity, but rather with a “mission” to propagate an ethical monotheism that, religiously and morally, stood prior to and above all other faiths.
By the 1930s, with the influx of a bit of Eastern European yiddishkeit and a darkening situation for Jews in Europe, Reform Judaism started to reverse course. By 1937 the movement had officially endorsed Zionism, and shortly thereafter it began gravitating toward increasing traditionalization of the Reform prayer book and of the ambience of the Reform synagogue.
Today, even as these trends continue, a reevaluation of the Classical heritage has begun to take place. In a recent sermon, the Union for Reform Judaism’s president, Rabbi Eric Yoffie — himself a proponent of the turn toward greater emphasis on Jewish tradition — called favorable attention to the early reformers’ intellectual rigor, universalistic ethics, compelling sermons and majestic music.
But for the most part, Reform Judaism, 200 years after its symbolic origins, is a quite different entity. In some respects it has become more radical than its earlier historical manifestations, with its complete religious equality for women and gay, lesbian and transgender Jews; its full-throated embrace of patrilineal descent; and its greater willingness to include within the Reform community non-Jews who are committed to raising their children as Jews. Yet in most respects it is far more traditional than in its Classical days.
What, then, is the scarlet thread that binds Classical and contemporary Reform Judaism together? One can glimpse it in Geiger’s principle that Judaism is a historical entity, that change is endemic to its character and essential for its survival. Sometimes that change has been in the direction of tradition and sometimes toward novelty. Seen in retrospect, Reform has always been a matter of harmonizing Torah with contemporary life. Over the course of two centuries, all that have changed are the points along the spectrum between tradition and modernity where that harmonization takes place.
Michael A. Meyer is the Adolph S. Ochs Professor of Jewish History Emeritus at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion in Cincinnati. He is the author of “Response to Modernity: A History of the Reform Movement in Judaism” (Oxford University Press, 1988).