Sectors of American Judaism: Reform, Orthodoxy, Conservatism, and Reconstructionism

By Jacob Neusner | Go to book overview

14
THE REFORM MOVEMENT

JACOB B. AGUS

Of the four sectors of American Judaism, Reform is oldest and best organized. Of special interest are the fundamental theological convictions of Reform Judaism. These are stated with the authority of a rabbinical conference, first in 1885, at Pittsburgh, second in 1937, at Columbus. The analysis of these two platforms provides a convenient entry into the intellectual substance of Reform Judaism, its primary beliefs and affirmations. Rabbi Agus traces these principles and analyzes their contents, the role of tradition, the conviction that Judaism indeed has an "essence" which can be defined and preserved amid change. Reform intended at the outset to revise matters of ritual, but it effected a considerable change in more substantive issues as well. The tension in Orthodoxy between the traditional modes of learning and the contemporary intellectual world has a striking counterpart in Reform. There the poles are, on the one side, Jewish particularism and nationalism, and, on the other, the world-mission of Judaism. The Pittsburgh platform affirmed the latter; at Columbus the Reform rabbinate swung toward the former. Rabbi Agus's systematic account of the primary issues of Reform Judaism thus presents a curious parallel to what we have already discerned in Orthodoxy. In differing ways, both groups debate a single issue, one facing American Judaism in all its forms.

Unlike Orthodoxy, the Reform movement has by now acquired a definitely American cast. At the turn of the century, Reform was powerfully entrenched in all the major communities of America, enjoying the overwhelming support of the German-Jewish population. While some few German Jews remained staunchly Orthodox, the majority drifted into the Reform camp, so that the differences of ideology were added to the then existing chasm between the American German Jews and their East European brethren. The residual Orthodox and Conservative German Jews of every community were generally forced to choose between loyalty to their social class and faithfulness to their religious convictions. Except in such big centers as New York, Phila

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