American Reform Judaism: An Introduction

American Reform Judaism: An Introduction

American Reform Judaism: An Introduction

American Reform Judaism: An Introduction


The only comprehensive and up-to-date look at Reform Judaism, this book analyzes the forces currently challenging the Reform movement, now the largest Jewish denomination in the United States.

To distinguish itself from Orthodox and Conservative Judaism, the Reform movement tries to be an egalitarian, open, and innovative version of the faith true to the spirit of the tradition but nonetheless fully compatible with modern secular life. Promoting itself in this way, Reform Judaism has been tremendously successful in recruiting a variety of people--intermarried families, feminists, gays and lesbians, and interracial families among others--who resist more traditional forms of worship.

As an unintended result of this success, the movement now struggles with an identity crisis brought on by its liberal theology, which teaches that each Jew is free to practice Judaism more or less as he or she pleases. In the absence of the authority that comes from a theology based on a commanding, all-powerful God, can Reform Judaism continue to thrive? Can it be broadly inclusive and still be uniquely and authentically Jewish?

Taking this question as his point of departure, Dana Evan Kaplan provides a broad overview of the American Reform movement and its history, theology, and politics. He then takes a hard look at the challenges the movement faces as it attempts to reinvent itself in the new millennium. In so doing, Kaplan gives the reader a sense of where Reform Judaism has come from, where it stands on the major issues, and where it may be going.

Addressing the issues that have confronted the movement--including the ordination of women, acceptance of homosexuality, the problem of assimilation, the question of rabbinic officiation at intermarriages, the struggle for acceptance in Israel, and Jewish education and others--Kaplan sheds light on the connection between Reform ideology and cultural realities. He unflinchingly, yet optimistically, assesses the movement's future and cautions that stormy weather may be ahead.


I write this book as a scholar working out of a university, but it would be disingenuous to claim that I come to it from a detached, neutral perspective. I grew up in the Reform movement and feel a strong sense of attachment to it. I studied at the Hebrew Union College–Jewish Institute of Religion (HUC-JIR) in Jerusalem and have served as a Reform rabbi in Georgia, Missouri, Wisconsin, and Michigan in the United States as well as in South Africa, Australia, and Israel.

Even before I was born, my family was connected to the Reform movement. Rabbi Edward Klein at the Stephen Wise Free Synagogue in New York married my parents in 1958. After we moved farther uptown, we joined Congregation Rodeph Sholom on West Eightythird Street. At the same time, there were substantial traditionalist influences on me as well. My mother’s parents were traditional eastern European Jews, although by the time I got to know them toward the end of their lives, they had become less observant. My parents sent me to Ramaz School, an Orthodox Zionist day school on the Upper East Side. Even as a young child, there were aspects of Reform Judaism that I was very attracted to and others that I found less appealing. the astute reader may see some of these prejudices in the manuscript. I can only say that I have tried to be objective. I believe that the manuscript highlights not only the difficulties but also the rewards of trying to pioneer a Jewish liberal religious movement within contemporary American society in a global age.

I thank the Jacob Rader Marcus Center of the American Jewish Archives and its director, Gary Zola, for awarding me an Ethel Marcus Memorial Fellowship, which enabled me to spend a month doing . . .

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