Reform Judaism Overview

March 17, 2015 · updated February 15, 2022

Reform Judaism is the most liberal expression of modern Judaism. In America, Reform Judaism is organized under the Union for Reform Judaism (formerly known as the Union of American Hebrew Congregations), whose mission is "to create and sustain vibrant Jewish congregations wherever Reform Jews live." About 1.5 million Jews in 900 synagogues are members of the Union for Reform Judaism. According to 1990 survey, 42 percent of American Jews regard themselves as Reform. {1}

Reform Judaism arose in Germany in the early 1800s both as a reaction against the perceived rigidity of Orthodox Judaism and as a response to Germany's increasingly liberal political climate. Among the changes made in 19th-century Reform congregations were a de-emphasis on Jews as a united people, discontinuation of prayers for a return to Palestine, prayers and sermons recited in German instead of Hebrew, the addition of organ music to the synagogue service, and a lack of observance of the dietary laws.

Some Reform rabbis advocated the abolition of circumcision and the Reform congregation in Berlin shifted the Sabbath to Sundays to be more like their Christian neighbors. Early Reform Judaism retained traditional Jewish monotheism, but emphasized ethical behavior almost to the exclusion of ritual. The Talmud was mostly rejected, with Reform rabbis preferring the ethical teachings of the Prophets. {2}

Modern Reform Judaism, however, has restored some of the aspects of Judaism that their 19th-century predecessors abandoned, including the sense of Jewish peoplehoood and the practice of religious rituals. {2} Today, Reform Jews affirm the central tenets of Judaism - God, Torah, and Israel - while acknowledging a great diversity in Reform Jewish beliefs and practices. Reform Jews are more inclusive than other Jewish movements: women may be rabbis, cantors, and synagogue presidents; interfaith families are accepted; and Reform Jews are "committed to the full participation of gays and lesbians in synagogue life as well as society at large." {3}

References and Sources

  • "About the Union for Reform Judaism." Union for Reform Judaism official site.
  • Rabbi Joseph Telushkin, "Reform Judaism." Jewish Literacy (William Morrow and Company, 2001), 241-43.
  • "What is Reform Judaism?" Union for Reform Judaism official site.
  • George Robinson, Essential Judaism (Pocket Books, 2000).

External Links on Reform Judaism - Official Site of Union of Reform Judaism

  • Reform Judaism
  • Women of Reform Judaism
  • Reform Judaism - PBS Religion & Ethics Newsweekly story, May 21, 1999.