Judaism’s Reform movement originated in nineteenth century Germany, as Jews sought to adapt their religious practices in ways that would bring them into conformity with those of a then-welcoming European society. From there it moved to the United States, where Isaac Mayer Wise, the movement’s most prominent leader, created three major institutions—a coalition of synagogues (Union of American Hebrew Congregations, 1873), a seminary (Hebrew Union College, 1875), and a rabbinical organization (Central Conference of American Rabbis, 1889). Although Wise had hoped that these would serve the entire American Jewish community, they soon became denominational centers. Each organization has only limited authority over its respective members; to this day, individual congregations are governed by autonomous boards of laypeople, just as members of the Central Conference of American Rabbis (CCAR) are not bound by its positions. This decentralization makes it difficult to define any specifically Reform modes of interpretation, much less ones that enjoy universal assent. Instead, individual constituencies can and have moved in very different and sometimes opposite directions. For example, in 1984 the CCAR published a translation of the Five Scrolls and ten years later the Union of American Hebrew Congregations (UAHC) produced a Haftarah commentary, both of which used the movement’s own translations, even though members of the Hebrew Union College faculty had played a leadership role in producing a trans-denominational version that was published by the Jewish Publication Society of America and endorsed by the UAHC. More recently, the Women of Reform Judaism sponsored a women’s commentary on the Torah in 2008, just three years after the Union of Reform Judaism published a revised version of its own Torah commentary. Moreover, both included voices from outside the Reform movement and even outside the Jewish community.

Because of this intentionally non-authoritarian approach, the Reform movement’s treatment of the Bible must be gathered from several disparate sources, such as (1) doctrinal pronouncements, (2) publications, (3) seminary curriculum and faculty research, and (4) denominational stances. Viewed collectively, these show that the movement’s positions have varied depending on circumstance, constituency, and the concerns of the time. This is most vividly evident in Reform Judaism’s view of its relationship with the larger Jewish community and its treatment of nonbiblical Jewish tradition, especially those rabbinic teachings which are collectively called the “Oral Torah.”


Following the model of their Protestant predecessors, the Jewish reformers justified their proposed changes by appealing to the Bible, which Central and East European Jewry had largely neglected in favor of rabbinic teachings. Thus, in 1842, Frankfort’s J üdischen Reformfreunde asserted that “the collection called the Talmud, as well as all the rabbinic writings and statutes which rest upon it, possess no binding force for us either in dogma or in practice.” This attitude was expressed in ways that sometimes parallel earlier Christian critiques of Judaism. For example, the nineteenth century American rabbi David Einhorn argued that the Talmud’s “morals are narrow; the exalted universal spirit of the Bible is strange to it; the letter into which [it] forces everything is its be-all and end-all.”

The Reform rabbinate formalized this position when it resolved that “our relations in all religious matters are in no way authoritatively and finally determined by any portion of our Post-Biblical and Patristic literature.” Instead, its 1885 Pittsburgh Platform characterized the Bible as “the record of the consecration of the Jewish people to its mission as the priest of the one God, and…the most potent instrument of religious and moral instruction.” That stance provided the ideological justification for eliminating various traditional ideas, such as the belief in resurrection, and practices, like observing holidays for two days, on the basis that they are not found in the Bible. As a result, Reform Judaism has sometimes been equated with Karaism, a movement that originated in the Middle East during the eighth and ninth centuries and challenged the authority of rabbinic tradition. However, this approach created exegetical problems for deeply embedded practices, such as the holiday of Hanukkah, which commemorates events that took place after the time when Jewish tradition regards revelation as having come to an end. Several Reform communities addressed this by consolidating the blessings over the Hanukkah candles in a way that avoided attributing observance of this postbiblical holiday to a divine command.

Emphasizing that the Bible carried other risks, especially as nineteenth and early twentieth century scholarship raised ever more questions as to its accuracy and authenticity, many of these questions centered on the Pentateuch (Torah), which Judaism has traditionally regarded as the most important part of the Bible. Although Isaac Mayer Wise had defended the Mosaic authorship of the Pentateuch from what he called “Negative Criticism,” insisting that “there is no Judaism without the Torah and Revelation,” Reform leaders and institutions have typically been more open to both textual and historical criticism than their Conservative (Jewish Theological Seminary) and Orthodox (Rabbi Isaac Elhanan Theological Seminary) counterparts. The Pittsburgh Platform acknowledges that recognition in its assertion that the Bible reflects “the primitive ideas of its own age…at times clothing its conception of divine providence and justice dealing with man in miraculous narratives.” Prominent synagogues in Chicago and Cleveland went so far as to remove the Torah scrolls from their sanctuaries, albeit in one case replacing them with an English Bible. More often, Reform thinkers adopted the Haskalah (Jewish Enlightenment) distinction between the Bible’s ethical teachings and its ceremonial laws. Thus, the Pittsburgh Platform rejected “all such Mosaic and rabbinical laws as regulate diet, priestly purity, and dress,” accepting “as binding only the moral laws, and…only such ceremonies as elevate and sanctify our lives.”

Whereas Judaism had historically focused on the Pentateuch and especially its religious regulations, the reformers emphasized ethics, monotheism, and the biblical prophets, in accordance with the spirit of nineteenth century Protestant biblical scholarship. They linked these elements under the rubric “prophetic Judaism.” Thus, Rabbi Stephen S. Wise, founder of New York’s Jewish Institute of Religion, which merged with the Hebrew Union College in 1948, spoke of “the authority of the content of the Bible,” specifying the Ten Commandments (Exod 20), the ethical precepts in Leviticus 19, prophetic passages which stress social justice (Mic 6 and Amos 5), and the theological themes found in Psalms 23 and 51. In accordance with this understanding, the UAHC’s Commission on Jewish Education inaugurated a series of commentaries on biblical books in 1930. Over the next four decades, it published seven volumes, all of which dealt with poetic and prophetic books. Another series of commentaries was produced by the UAHC, now renamed the Union for Reform Judaism, from 2002–2010, with volumes on Proverbs, Jonah, and the Five Scrolls.

The movement’s rabbinic curriculum has mirrored its religious pronouncements, with the Bible occupying a central place at the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion (HUC-JIR) in contrast to traditional Judaism’s emphasis on talmudic law. Two of the College’s first four presidents (Julian Morgenstern and Nelson Glueck) were Bible scholars, and a third (Kaufmann Kohler) wrote his PhD dissertation on the Bible (all three studied at German universities), as did Jacob Marcus, though he later became a specialist in American Jewish history.

The HUC-JIR faculty has included several prominent biblical scholars. Max Margolis, Sheldon Blank, Samuel Sandmel, and Harry Orlinsky all served as presidents of the Society of Biblical Literature (in 1923, 1952, 1961, and 1970 respectively). Margolis and Orlinsky, both of whom made major contributions to the study of the Septuagint, also played pivotal roles in the Jewish Publication Society’s 1917 and 1985 Bible translations; Orlinsky, who was instrumental in securing the first of the Dead Sea Scrolls for Israel, also served on the committee that produced the (Protestant) Revised Standard Version. Others, such as Julius Lewy, Matitiahu Tsevat, and Stanley Gevirtz, specialized in the ancient Near East, a prominent focus of both American and Israeli biblical scholarship. In 1963, President Nelson Glueck, a renowned archaeologist, dedicated HUC-JIR’s Biblical and Archaeological School in Jerusalem; it has supported important and productive excavations, most notably at ancient Gezer and Dan. The College-Institute also established a doctoral program, which has trained numerous Christian Bible scholars, and its Hebrew Union College Annual has published many important works of biblical scholarship. In keeping with broader academic trends, the focus has recently shifted to literary approaches as well as the homiletical interpretation of biblical texts.

Return to Tradition.

As the movement became increasingly Americanized, it restored many elements that had earlier been rejected, most notably the rabbinic tradition that is embodied in the Talmud. Thus, the CCAR’s 1937 Columbus Platform acknowledged that “the Torah, both written and oral, enshrines Israel’s ever-growing consciousness of God and of the moral law [even though] certain of its laws have lost their binding force with the passing of the conditions that called them forth.” By the end of the twentieth century, doctrinal statements no longer used the word “Bible” at all, or even “the Torah.” Instead, the Conference’s 1999 “Statement of Principles” spoke of “Torah” generically as “God’s ongoing revelation to our people and the record of our people’s ongoing relationship with God,” thereby announcing Reform’s embrace of the Oral Tradition it had once rejected. To be sure, the movement has continued its appeals to “prophetic Judaism,” as when the CCAR devoted its 2011 convention to the theme “Prophetic Voice in the 21st Century”; however, these are accompanied by frequent references to “tikkun olam” (lit. “repair of the world”), a rabbinic phrase that played a major role in medieval Jewish mysticism.


This return to Jewish tradition is also evident in the movement’s commentaries. Whereas the initial series focused on the Bible’s poetic and prophetic books, in 1974 the UAHC produced a commentary on the Pentateuch that was designed for use during synagogue worship and not just classroom study. It presented traditional Jewish interpretations alongside those of modern scholarship, drawing on thinkers from the entire breadth of the Jewish world and even some non-Jews, though Reform leaders seldom cite Christian tradition when dealing with practical issues. Reflecting the movement’s ambivalence toward traditional practice, the accent marks that indicate the melody by which the Torah is chanted during worship were left out, the text divided into logical units rather than according to the weekly portions (parashot) assigned by Jewish tradition, and the prophetic selections (haftarot) that accompany the reading during Sabbath worship relegated to the back of the book. However, the cantillation marks were inserted in a second printing seven years later; and the traditional divisions restored and each followed by its prophetic reading in a new edition that was produced in 2005, thereby bringing the commentary into alignment with those produced by the other, more traditional American Jewish movements as well as earlier Jewish commentaries. In addition, the UAHC website continues to provide discussions of the Pentateuch’s weekly lections, some of which have been published in Living Torah, Selections from Seven Years of Torat Chayim. Movement leaders have also produced several other Torah commentaries, including a feminist commentary edited by a female Reform rabbi in 2000 and supplemented by a volume on the haftarot (2004), a commentary for Jewish men, edited by a male Reform rabbi in 2009, and another feminist commentary (2008), which was initiated by the Women of Reform Judaism under the editorship of a member of the seminary faculty. Tellingly, all three include contributions from authors who are not connected with the Reform movement, demonstrating its growing linkage to the larger Jewish community. That dynamic is also evident in the movement’s seminary, which has long included biblical scholars with backgrounds outside the movement on its faculty.

Social Issues and Tradition.

The movement’s focus on social issues, coupled with Judaism’s longstanding emphasis on behavioral norms rather than doctrine, led Solomon Schechter, a prominent Jewish scholar and chancellor of the Conservative movement’s Jewish Theological Seminary at the turn of the twentieth century, to observe that the “Reform movement was not always a very trustworthy ally” of Jewish learning. Many of its commentaries have been written by practicing rabbis rather than academics, accounting for their pastoral, homiletical, and didactic elements. That orientation is also evident in the movement’s treatment of social issues, where its commitment to liberal values can be at odds with its attachment to the Bible. Official stands are, therefore, frequently taken without reference to any Jewish source, even on issues that the Bible does address, such as abortion and economic justice. Appeals to tradition often take the form of citing biblical slogans, such as the book of Genesis’s reference to humans as being in the image of God (Gen 1:27) or the prophetic call to be a light to the nations (Isa 42:6; 49:6; 51:4; cf. 60:3), an understanding of the prophet’s message that was disputed by one of the movement’s own Bible scholars. However, such phrases are drawn from rabbinic tradition as often as from the Bible. When traditional sources seem to diverge from the movement’s liberal stance, they are sometimes contextualized, frequently on the basis of Reform’s understanding of revelation, which the Columbus Platform described as “a continuous process, confined to no one group and to no one age.” That approach allows for the citation of postbiblical sources, such as the Talmud or medieval philosophers. However, movement leaders occasionally reject biblical authority altogether. For example, some of those who found Lev 18:22 and 20:13 to be insurmountable obstacles to their inclusive position on issues relating to homosexuality justified their stance by comparing the Bible’s statements on the subject to its inclusion of what they described as outdated ceremonial and even ethical provisions.

Similarly, the movement’s recent efforts to encourage various traditional practices have been inconsistent as to whether the dietary laws (kashrut), for example, should be restored in their traditional form, reinterpreted as requiring healthy eating practices, applied to the treatment of farm animals and slaughterhouse employees, or rejected as outmoded ceremonial regulations. The persistence of these patterns of debate demonstrates the movement’s diffuse authority structure, lack of an accepted hermeneutical process, and vacillation between its historical reliance on the Bible and its acceptance of the modernist understanding of the Bible’s ancient and human origin.





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Frederick E. Greenspahn