The Reform Judaism movement has its roots in certain events in 18th and 19th century Europe. It is particularly influenced by the philosophical views of the Enlightenment, which emerged in such a way that was at odds with many traditional Jewish beliefs and practices.
The effect was that many traditional beliefs and practices of Judaism were eroded, and there emerged a “Reform” group of Judaism that adapted to new social and political norms. Tradition for the sake of tradition was discarded, although this group still considered themselves “Jewish,” and part of a distinct denomination.
Reform Judaism stresses individual human autonomy. It should therefore come as no surprise that it is a highly adaptive and amorphous tradition, manifesting itself in different ways in different regions. The Reform Jews were particularly interested in adapting Judaism to prevailing cultural norms in such a way that would attract Jews who had drifted from traditional Judaism but did not want to become Christians.
Some preached in the vernacular rather than Hebrew, shortened the liturty, used a choir that combined both sexes, prayed in German rather than only in Hebrew, used modern dress, and so on.
The 1840s had seen an especially important surge in Reform Judaism. The movement was defended especially by Abraham Geiger, whose work became the archetypal defense of 19th century European Reform Judaism. Rabbinical conferences teaching Reform Judaism sprung up in Brunswick in 1844, and a year later in Frankfurt. 1846 likewise saw the rise of a Reform rabbinical conference in Beslau.
Theh debate concerning the use of Hebrew in Sabbath services was particularly controversial. In one debate, Zacharias Frankel, whose position anticipated that of modern Conservative Judaism, walked out of a 1845 conference. He saw Judaism as adaptive to a degree, but wanted to preserve certain “positive” elements of Jewish tradition.
Samuel Holdheim, a more radical reformer, rejected circumcision as “barbaric,” although his views were unusually extreme. Most German Reform rabbis were more traditional in their practices, however, even if their beliefs had departed from traditional Judaism.
Eventually, the Reform tradition reached the United States. It was quite different from that which could be found in Europe, however. It tended to deviate more radically from orthodoxy than those Reform groups in Europe, and was more pluralistic. Like European Reform Judaism, it exhibits a great deal of variety.
Reform Judaism officially entered America in 1824, when a Reform congregation sprang up in Charleston, South Carolina. This took place when 47 individuals in a congregation known as Congregation Beth Elohim requested ritual reforms. This involved the controversial move of requesting English prayers during service.
The request was rejected by the congregation board, so a new congregation, based on Enlightenment ideals, was founded. This was the beginning of “liberal” Judaism. It began in November 21, 1824, with the advent of the Reformed Society of Israelites, leading to the publication of the first American Reform Prayer book. It was called “The Sabbath Service and Miscellaneous Prayers Adopted by the Reformed Society of Israelites.” The group lasted about 9 years before its dissolution, following the death of one of its more important leaders.
While the Charleston Reform was an important event in the history of Reform Judaism, particularly in America, the arrival of a large influx of Central European Jews in the 1830s really kickstarted the movement, increasing the U.S. population’s Jewish population form 3,000 in 1820 to 15,000 in 1840, and then to 150,000 in 1860.
As Jewish immigrants came to America and established synagogues and social and religious communities, they decided to adapt to U.S. cultural norms, conducting services in English. They wanted to integrate into the American culture while still retaining their distinct Jewish identity. It took on a more ideological and intellectually cohesive form in 1842, with the formation of the Har Sinai Verein, a group which formed to discuss theology and conduct religious services.
Another one of these groups sprang up in 1845 in New York City, eventually becoming the largest Reform congregation in the U.S. What distinguished this group was their intellectual preoccupation with theological discussion, rather than with purely practical adaptation of Jewish rituals to American society.