Reform Judaism Is Abandoning Its Universalist Roots and Embracing Jewish Nationalism

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Reform Judaism Is Abandoning Its Universalist Roots and Embracing Jewish Nationalism

In recent years, American Reform Judaism has moved dramatically away from its roots in universalism and has reversed its traditional position of opposition to Jewish nationalism, or Zionism. It has moved, in addition, away from its classical religious formulation and in the direction of the very Orthodoxy the original reformers rejected.

In May 1999, by an overwhelming margin, the rabbinical leadership of Reform Judaism approved guiding principles that, The New York Times reported on May 27, "for the first time encourage observances of traditional rituals like wearing skullcaps, keeping kosher, and the wide use of Hebrew that were set aside at the movement's founding."

The statement of principles encourages Reform Jews to "make aliyah," or emigrate permanently to Israel. It discards the philosophy of the 1885 Pittsburgh Platform of Reform Judaism that rejected Jewish nationalism and declared that Judaism was a religion of universal values and that Jews were at home in America.

To understand how far Reform Judaism has gone in reversing the tradition of its founders it is important to understand the philosophy enunciated by the original reformers of the 19th century, both in Europe and in the United States.

The first Reform temple was founded in Hamburg in 1818. The number of prayers recited in German was increased and all prayers referring to the coming of the Messiah or the Return to Zion were omitted. By the 1830s, a new generation of university-educated rabbis arose in Germany and they were increasingly committed to the reformation of Judaism. The most important of these was Abraham Geiger (1810-74).

H.H. Ben-Sasson writes in A History Of The Jewish People that, in Geiger's view, "the essence of Judaism was the religious universal element. All the remainder was the fruit of historical conditions."

A major reformation of Judaism began to occur in the United States, as well, in the early years of the 19th century. In 1824, Isaac Harby, a journalist and playwright, and 46 of his fellow Jews petitioned the board of Congregation Beth Elohim in Charleston, South Carolina: "As members of the great family of Israel, [we] cannot consent to place before [our] children examples which are only calculated to darken the mind, and withold from the rising generation the more rational means of worshipping the true God.... We wish not to overthrow, but to rebuild; we wish not to destroy...but to reform and revise the evils complained of; we wish not to abandon the institutions of Moses, but to observe and understand them."

Reform Jews in America rejected Zionism long before the appearance of Theodor Herzl's Der Judenstaat in 1896. In 1841, at the temple dedication ceremony of that same Beth Elohim congretation in Charleston, Rabbi Gustav Posnanski declared that "this country is our Palestine, this city our Jerusalem, this house of God our Temple."

The most important advocate and organizer of the American Reform movement was Isaac Mayer Wise (1819-1900). In 1873, he founded the Union of American Hebrew Congregations, a body which by 1880 was, according to Nathan Glazer in American Judaism, "closer to being the dominant organization in American Jewish life than any other organization has ever been." Wise was the leading force behind the founding in 1875 of Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati, and he served as its president until his death.

THE PROPHETIC TRADITION

"Reform Judaism," writes Rabbi Elmer Berger, "was designed to strip from Judaism those secondary characteristics which served the separatistic idea of `Jewish peoplehood.' It was also to emphasize the universalities of the Prophetic tradition. Reform Judaism attempted to strengthen and focalize devotion to those universal, spiritual essentials which were, at once, Isaiah's `holiness' of God and Jeremiah's profoundly intimate `burning fire within. …