Friday, 28 September 2012

Reform Judaism in the 19th Century

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The most extreme precursor to the Reform movement was a man by

the name of Samuel Holdheim. He was born in 1806 in Kempo in the

province of Posen. At a young age he studied at a yeshiva and received

a Talmudic education. He began to study German and secular subjects

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after his marriage to a woman with a modern education. After their

divorce several years later, he began studying at the University of

Prague and Berlin and received a doctorate from the University of

Leipzig. Following service in Frankfurt -Am-Oder he became a

Landesrabbiner or chief Rabbi of Mecklenberg-Schewerin. In the year

1847 he became the rabbinate of a reform congregation in Berlin . At

this point he already disapproved of most liberal Rabbis and came to

be known as the most exemplar of reform Rabbis in all of Europe ( 41)

The question comes to mind as to what exactly triggered this

different belief in Judaism which differed significantly from previous

tenents. It started during the time of the French revolution, a time

when European Jews were (for the first time) recognized as citizens of

the countries in which they lived in. Ghettos were being abolished,

special badges were no longer required and Jews could dress the way

they wanted, settle were they pleased and work the occupations they


Many Jews settled outside of Jewish districts, and began to

live like their neighbors and speak the language of the land. They

went to public schools and began to neglect Jewish Studies and forget

about he Shulchan Aruch.

In 1815, after Napoleons defeat, Jews lost the rights of

citizenship in many countries. Many Jews converted to Christianity in

order to retain those rights. Many thoughtful Jews were concerned

about this. They realized that many of these changes took place not

because of a dislike for Judaism, but in order to obtain better

treatment. Many rabbis believed that the way to address this was to

force Jews to give up public schools and universities. This didnt


Rabbis suggested that observance might have to be changed in

order to appeal to the Jew living the modern world. They realized that

every now and then old practices and new ones were introduced,

resulting in a different lifestyle then 4000 or even 000 years

previously. They fathomed that these changes often made life easier

for the Jew. They concluded that in order to make Judaism attractive

to all Jews this change had to continue. A group of Rabbis assembled

in Germany, and changes began, thus developed the start of Reform

Judaism. Holdheim a reform Rabbi himself felt that the Jews living

during his time period should change the laws given to them at Mt.

Sinai and the halacha that the Talmud and Mishna state. Holdheim

believed that the laws of the Torah and the Talmud that were in effect

when the Jews had their own country and government have lost their

legitimacy. Judaism now had to be in accord with both the letter and

the spirit of laws of the nations they were living among. Even the

laws of the Torah whose source was God had to be regarded as valid for

certain times and places as he said with the change of the

circumezces and conditions of life for which God once gave those

laws , the laws themselves cease to be operative, that they shall be

observed no longer because they no longer can be observed. Thus ,

Holdheim said that the biblical and Talmudic laws concerning marriage,

divorce and personal status are no longer relevant and the Jews in

these cases should be ruled by the state government (Sasson 85). He

concluded that laws between man and man should be left to the rule

of the state they lived in but questions of prayer and religious

institutions should be left to the Rabbis because prayer was the

most important part of religious life.

Holdheim denied the authority of the Talmudic dicta, the oral

law. He says that it was written by the hand of man but was divinely

inspired. His conclusion was that Jewish life should be based on

spiritual and ethical guidance of the Torah. Even though he didnt

reject the Talmud and Mishna one-hundred percent for him they were no

longer used for Jewish law but storehouses of wisdom and ethics (Gay

155). Illustrations of commandments that he rejected during this time

period were the celebration of Shabbat on Saturday. The reason for

this was there was normal school on Saturdays and the Jews felt school

was more important than observing the word of God (Gay 155). Holdheim

also went a little far fetched and said that he couldnt find anything

wrong with intermarriage , even though the Torah clearly states it. He

also stated in 1844 that circumcision wasnt required even though he

had absolutely no reason for this( 4). Other important beliefs of

Holdheim were anti-Zionism, the observance of only one day festivals

and that men and women should be treated equally in terms of mitzvot

(Gay 155). Most of these changes in the religion were so that the Jews

should adapt with the nation they were living in. Since they

themselves didnt constitute a nation and these laws were prerogatives

of the state the Jews should abide by the law of the land (Sasson


Reform Judaism wasnt the only way of belief during this time

period. Others like Samson Raphael Hirsch went in the totally

opposite direction of Holdheim. Hirsch felt that Judaism had to be

observed the way we were told to under almost any and every

circumezce(Gay 154). If Hirsch wouldnt have taken this different

ezd a true Jewish nation wouldnt exist today. Holdheim didnt

realize that he was weakening the nation and could have ultimately led

to the extinction of the Jewish people

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