Abandoning Its Opposition to Jewish Nationalism, Reform Judaism Adopting a Zionist Worldview

By Brownfeld, Allan C. | Washington Report on Middle East Affairs, March 2008 | Go to article overview

Abandoning Its Opposition to Jewish Nationalism, Reform Judaism Adopting a Zionist Worldview


Brownfeld, Allan C., Washington Report on Middle East Affairs


The Reform Jewish movement is now in the process of abandoning its traditional opposition to Jewish nationalism and adopting a Zionist worldview-going so far as to encourage American Jews to emigrate to Israel which, in the view of today's Reform leaders, is "central" to Judaism and is, in fact, the only place where a "full Jewish life" can be led.

This represents an almost complete reversal of the philosophy embraced by those who created Reform Judaism in the U.S. in the 19th century. The Pittsburgh Platform of 1885, the basic statement of Reform principles, defined Jews as a purely religious community and rejected the idea that they constituted a nation.

As Prof. Thomas Kolsky has pointed out, "The Pittsburgh Platform, the classical expression of American Reform Judaism, represented the fundamental beliefs of most American Jews at the time of its formulation. Late in the 19th century, American Jews no longer considered themselves a nation or a nationality. Comfortable in the United States, they felt integrated into America and defined themselves as a religious community. The theology of Reform Judaism accurately reflected their thinking. They believed that Judaism was a religion with a universal message. Their faith was founded on optimism, on minimizing the importance of anti-Semitism, and on an almost religious love for America as the promised land. Confident about their future in the United States, they objected to efforts to revive Jewish nationalism."

Indeed, as early as 1841, at the dedication ceremony of Temple Beth Olohim in Charleston, South Carolina, Rabbi Gustav Posnanski declared: "This country is our Palestine, this city our Jerusalem, this house of God our Temple."

The distinguished German Reform rabbi and scholar Abraham Geiger (1810-1874) argued that Judaism developed through an evolutionary process that had begun with God's revelation to the Hebrew prophets. That revelation was progressive; new truth became available to every generation. The underlying and unchangeable essence of Judaism was its morality. The core of Judaism was ethical monotheism. The Jewish people, he declared, were a religious community, destined to carry on the mission to "serve as a light to the nations," to bear witness to God and his moral law. The dispersion of the Jews was not a punishment for their sins, but a part of God's plan whereby they were to disseminate the universal message of ethical monotheism throughout the world. Geiger deleted all prayers about the return to Zion in a Reform prayerbook that he edited in 1854.

"Reform Judaism is spiritual. Zionism is political."

On March 4, 1919, Julius Kahn, a Jewish congressman from San Fransisco, delivered to President Woodrow Wilson a statement endorsed by 299 prominent Jewish Americans denouncing the Zionists for attempting to segregate Jews and reverse the historic trend toward emancipation. It objected to the creation of a distinctly Jewish state in Palestine because such a political entity would be contrary "to the principles of democracy." On April 20, 1922, Rabbi David Philipson testified before the House Foreign Affairs Committee and rejected the characterization of Palestine "as the national home of the Jewish people." He insisted that, "No land can be spoken of as the national home of the Jewish people, as Jews are nationals of many lands."

In a speech 20 years later, Rabbi Philipson declared that Reform Judaism and Zionism were incompatible: "Reform Judaism is spiritual. Zionism is political. The outlook of Reform Judaism is the world. The outlook of Zionism is a corner of eastern Asia."

Slowly, beginning with the adoption of the Columbus Platform in 1937, Reform Judaism began to accept the notion that Jews are a people and a nation as well as a religious group. More recently, the Reform ritual incorporated increasing numbers of traditional practices which the original Reformers rejected, such as the use of yarmulkes, the observance of the second day of Rosh Hashanah and even the wearing of tefillin (phylacteries, or boxes containing biblical passages). …

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