Liberal Judaism

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Interior view of the Central Synagogue, New York City Reformist Church, one of the most important centers of liberal Judaism in the city

The liberal Jewry (also Progressive Jewry or, particularly in North America , reform Jewry is) a flow inside the Jewish religion. Its origins lie primarily in 19th century Germany and can be traced back to the ideas and principles of Rabbis Abraham Geiger , Samuel Holdheim , David Einhorn and others.

The synagogue on Pestalozzistraße in Berlin-Charlottenburg has been the most important congregation of liberal Judaism in Germany since 1947

Liberal Judaism is one of four main currents ( denominations ) of contemporary Judaism ( orthodox , conservative , liberal, reconstructionist ), to which around 1,750,000 of the approximately 14 million Jews belong in all its forms. The various reform and liberal groups around the world are all members of the World Union for Progressive Judaism , along with the Reconstructionists. In the United States , the current has been the most important and largest community since the 1980s, while its influence in Europe first declined after 1945, but has now also gained in importance again since the 1990s.


The Rabbi Abraham Geiger

Decisive for this direction is the division of the Jewish commandments into ethical and ritual laws as well as the view that the ethical laws are timeless and immutable, whereas the ritual laws can be changed in order to adapt them to the respective living environment. In contrast to Orthodox Judaism , Reform Judaism is based on a progressive revelation of God in history. Revelation is understood as a dynamic and progressive ("progressive") process that originates from God and is mediated by humans and not as a one-off act in which Moses literally reads the Torah ("written teaching") and all interpretations ("oral Doctrine ”, later written down in the Talmud and Rabbinic Literature ). From this the obligation to preserve the Jewish tradition, but also to its constant renewal, is derived. The texts of the Tanach are not withdrawn from historical-critical research . Instead of waiting for the coming of a personal messiah, one hopes for the dawn of a messianic time.

In Germany until the Shoah, liberal Judaism formed the majority within the “ unified communities ”. Today, liberal Judaism (called Reform Judaism in the US) is the direction with the most members. The Jewish, reform-oriented, liberal and progressive communities are organized in the World Union for Progressive Judaism , which was founded in 1926 with the significant participation of Rabbi Leo Baeck , a leader in German Jewry. Its national branch in Germany is the Union of Progressive Jews in Germany , to which around 20 liberal Jewish communities, some organizations and the Rabbinical Abraham Geiger College belong. There are also German-speaking liberal communities in Austria ( Vienna ) and Switzerland ( Basel and Zurich ).

Significant differences between liberal Judaism (compared to Orthodox Judaism and others) are:

  • special emphasis on the ethical aspects of Judaism (at the expense of strict adherence to formal commandments)
  • Liturgy in both Hebrew and the local language.
  • Use of musical instruments in the liturgy.
  • Avoidance of prayers the content of which the person praying may no longer share (for example, the request for the reintroduction of the animal sacrifice, as existed in the temple in Jerusalem), and a shortening of the worship service.
  • Equal rights for women and men in all religious matters, including the ordination of women to rabbis. Equal rights for all people regardless of their marital status or sexual orientation.
  • Commitment to democracy and social justice inside and outside the Jewish community.
  • The meaning of the content of the commandments ( mitzvot ) takes precedence over their binding definition as a “ceremonial law”. For example, Shabbat should be celebrated as a day of rest; writing or driving to the synagogue (which, according to the Orthodox view, are both prohibited on Shabbat) are not considered to be a desecration of the holiday. The commandments are not canceled, but observing them is left to the decision of the individual.
  • An open attitude towards non-Jewish society, active participation in interreligious and intercultural dialogue .
  • In the US, officially recognized Jewish ancestry by father or mother if only one parent is Jewish.


The emancipation of the Jews in Germany and Europe opened up new opportunities for the Jewish citizens, and with it began the Jewish Enlightenment - the Haskala . The breakthrough into majority society, however, also meant that Jews now stood between Jewish tradition and an adapted life in society. Uncertainty set in and, as a result, there was also a widespread willingness to disobey Jewish traditions. On the other hand, there were also people who wanted to reconcile their Jewish heritage with the new living conditions. They adapted traditional Judaism to their living conditions. From these individual efforts a whole movement grew.

Beginning in the early 19th century

Israel Jacobson

The first reforms aimed at the external form of the rite: the liturgy was shortened, a sermon was introduced in the national language, additional prayers were spoken in the national language and musical instruments, e.g. B. organs and mixed choirs are permitted. The prayers should both be anchored in Judaism and given a worthy face for the non-Jewish environment. Occasionally the bar mitzvah was replaced by a kind of confirmation based on the Protestant model. The world's first reform synagogue that met these requirements was built in Seesen in 1810 ( Jacob's temple ). The initiative for this went back to Israel Jacobson . The banker was president of the Israelite consistory in the short-lived Kingdom of Westphalia , in which the Jews had equal citizenship from 1808 to 1813. Jacobson's religious beliefs were essentially traditional. What was most important to him was a redesign of the external forms of Jewish worship in order to take away from it the element of alienation which it possessed in the eyes of most Christians. He campaigned for a dialogue between Jews and non-Jews and took Christian students into his reform school in Seesen. His efforts to hold religious services according to the Reformed rite in Berlin after 1815 were opposed by the Jewish Orthodoxy (although the new Orthodox accepted his ritual reforms) and stopped by the Prussian state government in 1823 .

Eduard Kley , one of the preachers in Jacobson's Reform Temple in Berlin, was one of the initiators of the liberal New Israelite Temple Association , which later served as a model for reform communities in the USA. The Hamburger Tempelverein, founded in December 1817 by 65 Jewish housefathers, built a first temporary synagogue in the southern Neustadt in 1818. He entered completely new territory with his prayer and hymn book: texts from the traditional liturgy were changed, shortened or omitted entirely, such as the prayers for a return to Israel, for the reintroduction of the temple service or the rebuilding of the temple in Jerusalem. The prayer book published by Abraham Geiger in 1854 should be a lot more traditional than its predecessor. The number of temple visitors in Hamburg grew and so in 1844 the New Israelite Temple was inaugurated in Poolstrasse . Up until the 1860s, two services were held there on Friday evening. The first was the usual "Kabbalat Shabbat" at nightfall. The second, on the other hand, was given as a concession to businessmen for a late evening hour.

In Leipzig, where Jews from Germany and Austria met at the time of the masses, members of the Temple Association organized a service based on the Hamburg model in 1820. Many of his visitors took the idea of ​​the Reform Service with them to their home communities. So in 1821 a congregation based on the Hamburg model was formed in Vienna, in which the Hamburg prayer and hymn book was introduced. Their rabbi was Isaak Noah Mannheimer . Born in Copenhagen in 1793, he introduced confirmation there. He knew the private reform group in Berlin, the Hamburg temple and the Leipzig synagogue and was convinced that far-reaching reforms were only possible if the established communities could be won over. In the temple in Vienna, which opened in 1826, the liturgy had therefore been changed less radically, but it provided for services of no more than two hours on Sabbaths and feast days, a German sermon and confirmation instead of the bar mitzvah. The wearing of the death robe on New Year's and Atonement Day was restricted to those who took on functions within the service.

The Rabbinical Conferences

Abraham Geiger , who first became rabbi in Wiesbaden in 1832 and in Wroclaw in 1839, became the decisive pioneer of the reform movement . Unlike Israel Jacobson, he was concerned not only with a reorganization of the rite and liturgy, but also with a reform of Jewish theology that was to be based on both tradition and a critical study of the scriptures. Geiger had already called for the establishment of a Jewish theological faculty at a university in 1836. He was one of the initiators of the Jewish Theological Seminary in Breslau in 1854 and one of the founders of the College for the Science of Judaism in Berlin in 1872 .

Decisive impulses for the further development of Reform Judaism came from a first rabbinical assembly called by Geiger in Wiesbaden in 1837 and from the rabbinical conferences that took place in Braunschweig in 1844, in Frankfurt am Main in 1845 and in Breslau in 1846. There, reform-oriented rabbis from all over Europe laid down the principles of the reform Jewish self-image, in some cases amid heated debates. Abraham Geiger spoke to himself e.g. B. against the circumcision of Jewish boys. With the exception of the reform groups in Berlin and Frankfurt, however, most municipalities did not follow such radical approaches. Since many reform-oriented rabbis were active in “unified congregations”, they could not push through every change. In addition, tensions arose within the reform movement. In 1845 Rabbi Zacharias Frankel left the conference in protest against the use of the Hebrew language in church services. Frankel later became one of the co-founders of the conservative current. After the rabbinical assemblies of 1844–1846, the title “Reform” was only used for radicals, such as the “Reformfreunde” in Frankfurt am Main and Breslau and Samuel Holdheim's Berlin Reform Congregation , which had made more extensive changes to the liturgy. Otherwise, the Jewish communities that belong to this direction of Judaism in German-speaking countries describe themselves as “liberal” in order to emphasize their more moderate character.

The Emanuel Temple in San Francisco , near Presidio Terrace

Reform movement in the USA

With Jewish emigrants, the core ideas of the reform movement reached the USA as early as the first half of the 19th century. However, they developed completely differently there, since the situation of the Jews in America was fundamentally different from that in Europe. In the USA there was no unified church whose existence was supported or demanded by the state. The assimilation pressure was also lower than in Europe. According to researchers such as Karlheinz Schneider, American Jews took German Reform Judaism as a model and founded the new congregations using the ideas they had brought with them from Central Europe. As early as 1824, a first reform church was founded in the USA. On November 21, 1824, former members of the Beth Elohim Congregation in Charleston, South Carolina, founded their own congregation that followed the new rite, the Reformed Society of Israelites. This also published the first reform prayer book in the USA, "The Sabbath Service and Miscellaneous Prayers Adopted by the Reformed Society of Israelites". In 1833 one of the spokesmen of the group died and so the other parishioners rejoined the "Beth Elohim" parish and implemented many of the changes they had propagated here. In the 1830s, more and more German-speaking Jews emigrated to the USA, where they encountered open conditions for the development of their religious views. Further large church plantings followed: in 1842 the temple "Har Sinai" in Baltimore (today in the suburb of Owings Mills), which was based on the Hamburg Temple Association, in 1845 the Temple Emanu-El in New York City and in 1858 as the third American reform church the " Sinai Congregation ”in Chicago .

In the USA, too, rabbis of the reform movement set up regular rabbinical conferences. At the Philadelphia meeting in 1869, the pioneers of American Reform Judaism - David Einhorn , Samuel Hirsch and others - first formulated their principles. Since this resolution was soon felt to be insufficient, a conference in Pittsburgh ( "Pittsburgh Platform" ) in 1885 led to another, even more influential declaration. In addition, American Reform Judaism was also shaped by rationalist influences, including z. B. the "Ethical Culture" founded by Felix Adler . The organizations that established the strength of the reform movement included the Union of American Hebrew Congregations (since 1873), the Reform Union College / Jewish Institute of Religion (since 1875) and the Central Conference of American Rabbis (since 1889 ). The reform movement found a public forum in the weekly magazine "The Israelite" founded by Isaac Mayer Wise in Cincinnati in 1854 , which soon appeared under the new title "The American Israelite" . Reform Judaism was further developed later by personalities such as B. Judah Leon Magnes and Emil Gustav Hirsch .

From a social point of view, one of the major achievements of Reform Judaism in the USA was the extensive alignment of Jewish everyday life and even the liturgy with non-Jewish - especially Protestant - customs. The chances of American Jews for social integration increased dramatically.

While Reform Judaism in the 19th century, and especially in the USA also in the 20th century, abolished many of the traditions of Judaism, changed them radically or made them a matter of individual decision-making, many of these traditions are being taken up again today. As in Germany, a conservative Judaism emerged later in the USA , a current that occupies a middle position between Orthodoxy and Reform Judaism.


As of 2012, non-Orthodox heads of Jewish communities will also be recognized as rabbis in Israel. 15 “Rabbis of a non-Orthodox community” receive their wages from the Ministry of Culture. Marriages, abdications and teaching decisions about the Torah are reserved for the approximately 4,000 Orthodox rabbis. There are no registry offices in Israel.

See also


Web links

Commons : Reform Judaism  - collection of pictures, videos and audio files

Individual evidence

  1. History | Union of Progressive Jews. Retrieved March 30, 2020 .
  2. Hans-Christoph Goßmann: "... because salvation comes from the Jews" (Joh 4, 22). Christian approaches to Judaism and to Christian-Jewish dialogue . Waxmann , Münster 2005, ISBN 3-8309-1489-X , p. 52 .
  3. ^ Joseph Leon Blau (ed.): Reform Judaism: a historical perspective: essays from the Yearbook of the Central Conference of American Rabbis . KTAV Publishing House, New York 1973, OCLC 610499937 (English).
  4. Michael. Silver. Orthodoxy , YIVO Encyclopedia of Jews in Eastern Europe .
  5. ^ Ruben Malachi: The synagogues in Hamburg . In: Association of Former Breslauer and Silesians in Israel (ed.): Messages from the Association of former Breslauer and Silesians in Israel e. V. No. 46-47 . Ramat Gan May 1980, p. 41–44 ( [accessed on November 12, 2018]).
  6. ^ Michael Meyer: German-Jewish history in modern times . Ed .: Steven M. Lowenstein, Paul Mendes-Flohr, Peter Pulzer, Monika Richarz. tape 3 . CH Beck, 1997, p. 100-110 .
  7. ^ Karlheinz Schneider: Judaism and modernization. A German-American comparison 1870–1920 . Campus, Frankfurt 2005, ISBN 3-593-37386-6 , pp. 111 .
  8. Michael A. Meyer: Response to modernity. A history of the Reform Movement in Judaism . Wayne State Univ. Press, Detroit 1998, ISBN 0-8143-2555-6 .
  9. ^ Reform Judaism: Declaration of Principles: 1869 Philadelphia Conference. In: Retrieved November 12, 2018 .
  10. ^ Declaration of Principles: 1885 Pittsburgh Conference. In: Retrieved November 12, 2018 .
  11. ^ The Union of American Hebrew Congregations. In: Retrieved November 12, 2018 .
  12. ^ The American Israelite. In: Retrieved November 12, 2018 .
  13. ^ Nathan Glazer: American Judaism . The University of Chicago Press, Chicago 1957, OCLC 930453194 , p. 46 .
  14. ^ Peter Schmid: Religious Diversity in Israel - Success for Reform Jews. In: livenet .ch. May 31, 2012, accessed October 14, 2018 .