Tradition and Change

Response to Modernity: A History of the Reform Movement in Judaism.
by Michael A. Meyer.
Oxford University Press. 494 pp. $39.95.

In The Origins of the Modern Jew (1967), Michael Meyer deftly described the initial encounter of European Jews with modern secular society. In his new book, a study of the quintessential modern movement within Jewish life, he shows us what that encounter has meant over the long haul.

Meyer is associated with Reform Judaism as a faculty member at Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati, but his book bears none of the marks of a potted institutional history. He presents the Reform movement in all its diversity and complexity, paying particular attention to the intellectual element without, however, slighting the institutional side. Meyer also consistently underscores the larger historical context in which Reform developed, pointing up the interplay with concurrent trends in both Jewish and general society. Finally, and most importantly, Meyer shows eminent good sense in his judgments, readily acknowledging the achievements of Reform but also facing up to its more problematic aspects. All in all, he has produced an important work of historical synthesis, one that will be cited for years to come.

Response to Modernity is organized along chronological lines, but with special emphasis on European origins. Reform Judaism had its first flowering in early 19th-century Germany, and Meyer points to several factors in accounting for this. One was that German Jews, caught up in an accelerating process of acculturation, felt “an incongruity between the world of their origins and the modern German and European world with which they identified and in which they longed to participate.” Then again, the fact that German Jews were “neither wholly denied civil rights nor granted them completely” served as a spur to religious reform.

Still another important stimulus to the growth of Reform Judaism in Germany was the impact of the Protestant environment. Protestantism, Meyer notes,

provided a model for theological . . . reformation, for the rejection of an old hierarchy, and for liturgy in the vernacular. Protestantism placed the sermon at the center of the service; it focused on words spoken and sung, not physical ritual acts; and as a religion which had itself revolted and developed further, it raised the hope that, in its liberal formulations, it would go far toward meeting Judaism on common religious ground.

Finally, Meyer points to the rise among German Jews of a “new religious leadership,” a “sizable cadre of . . . secularly trained” rabbis conversant with modern critical scholarship. These men, unable to obtain academic positions in the larger society, turned to the Jewish community as a sphere for acting out their “conflicting intellectual and communal commitments.”

But if Germany was the scene of Reform’s first growth, the United States from the mid-19th century and onward was to be the place of its fullest development. Today, close to 30 percent of all American Jews identify as Reform, and over the past two decades Reform has been the fastest growing Jewish denomination.

As Meyer puts it in accounting for this success, the United States “lacked the obstacles that had lain in the path of European Reform while providing an environment which could scarcely have been more conducive.” Most important in this context, of course, was the religious freedom that America accorded its citizens. In addition, Reform Judaism in America did not carry a stigma of “rebellion against long-established traditions and against an entrenched rabbinical leadership,” since traditional Judaism was barely in evidence in the United States when Reform arrived on the scene. Indeed, among the early Jewish settlers in America, “disregard for Jewish observance was rampant and mixed marriage not infrequent.” On the positive side, Meyer points out, the Reform movement’s emphasis on “individual authority in religious matters” fitted in well with the individualistic strain of the American ethos. Moreover, Reform’s sense of mission—the obligation to spread ethical monotheism—was quite compatible with the open-ended view of American destiny that was characteristic of the United States in the 19th century.

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Response to Modernity is extremely useful in exploding a number of negative myths that still cling to Reform. Thus, Meyer makes it clear that the early Reform rabbis did not cause the initial rupture between Jews and traditional Judaism. On the contrary, it was because that rupture had already occurred—with sizable groups of Central and West European Jews moving away from traditional patterns of religious observance and belief—that early Reform was able to find an audience. Moreover, Meyer indicates, calls for religious change had less to do with a conscious pandering to Gentile opinion—although this sometimes entered the picture—than with the fact that European Jews had begun to internalize the religious and cultural values of the larger society.

Still another myth is the notion that Reform Judaism in Germany was particularly “un-Jewish.” In truth, Meyer shows, German Reform was far more respectful of Jewish tradition than was its American counterpart; it was in the United States that “radical” Reform came into its own. Finally, with regard to the American Reform movement itself, Meyer disposes of the idea that it was consistently anti-Zionist prior to the creation of the state of Israel. By 1935, Reform in America had moved to a position of official neutrality on Zionism, with a pro-Zionist majority increasingly holding sway.

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What makes Reform the paradigmatic modern Jewish movement is its attempt to have Jews live simultaneously in two cultures. This is, indeed, the master theme of modern Jewish history, but it was first introduced into Jewish life by Reform, a movement which from its very inception was committed, in Meyer’s words, to an “ideology of integrating tradition with a changing modern life.” The concluding words of Response to Modernity underscore the same point:

The German Reformers spoke repeatedly of integrating two elements: Lehre und Leben, the teaching (Torah) and the life led in the modern world. Individual Reformers and Reform communities have differed—and continue to differ—on the relative weight to be assigned each of these elements. . . . Yet the reestablishment of the scale’s fulcrum in every generation, in every individual religious conscience, and in the collective life, has been an enduring characteristic of Reform. Perhaps it is the ongoing and common task of creating ever anew that shifting and delicate balance between Torah and modernity—and of relating the two to each other—that in the broadest sense best defines the Reform movement.

It is precisely here that one wishes Meyer had gone further by directly confronting the question: can Jewish tradition and modernity be integrated? Are the two really compatible? Most modern Jews—the ultra-Orthodox being an exception—have taken it for granted that the answer is an emphatic yes. But the evidence is hardly one-sided. Modernity has proved an extremely demanding taskmaster, allowing little room for other loyalties. While many modern Jews talk bravely about maintaining a full Jewish life, they have had great difficulty in sustaining even a partial one. Certainly it is no accident that modern Jewish history is filled with intimations of “crisis”: the crisis of belief; the assimilation crisis; the crisis of indifference; the intermarriage crisis; and so forth. Clearly, unless some limit is set to the claims of modernity, Jews appear destined to be swept up into the larger forces of secular society, and in the process to lose their separate group identity.

These reflections are particularly pertinent to a discussion of Reform Judaism, whose embrace of modernity has been especially wholehearted. The Reform movement has kept its promise to be genuinely open to the modern experience—by comparison, Conservatism and Orthodoxy are rather timid affairs. But by the same token it has encountered enormous difficulty in establishing a Jewish center of gravity within the modern context. Thus, Reform’s rejection of the binding nature of Jewish ceremonial law has robbed it of a crucial element making for a richly textured and highly particularistic Jewish way of life. Reform’s emphasis on personal autonomy, on individual conscience, has left it without a clear-cut authority structure. Reform’s unqualified acceptance of the findings of modern critical scholarship has led to the desacralization of the religious realm, to a religious environment lacking in poetry and mystery. Finally, and perhaps most importantly, the Reform movement has, in Meyer’s own words, “legitimated a reduced role for specifically Jewish activities in the life of individual Jews in order to make room for non-Jewish ones.” And all this has come about as a direct “response to modernity.”

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Looking at Reform Judaism today one sees a movement still struggling to find a Jewish anchor in the modern world. To be sure, there are some hopeful signs, and it is these that Meyer chooses to emphasize in the closing section of his book, pointing to a growing traditionalism, to an increased adoption of a survivalist and pro-Israel stance, a quest for quality Jewish education, for religious intensity, and even for religious authority. The question, however, is whether this is sufficient, or whether it is a case of too little, too late.

One who takes the latter view is Meyer’s colleague at Hebrew Union College, Jakob J. Petuchowski, himself a leading Reform thinker. Petuchowski has stated bluntly that Reform is in a process of “self-dissolution,” that it is going to “vanish from the Jewish scene.” The picture he draws is bleak in the extreme:

[I]n the 19th century, Reform divested itself of ritual obligations while affirming Ethical Monotheism as that part of Judaism which really mattered. The theistic component of Ethical Monotheism began to be problematic in the 20th century. . . . As a result, efforts were made to accommodate atheists and agnostics within the ranks of Reform Judaism. What was left of the Reform past consisted of the emphasis on morality and ethics, or what, in Reform Jewish parlance, is usually called “Prophetic Religion.” The most recent stage of American Reform Jewish development has seen the onslaught even on biblical morality. What is now championed as “Prophetic Religion” is more likely to be the program of the political Left than something that speaks to us from the pages of Holy Writ.

As between Petuchowski’s view and Meyer’s, history will have to render the final verdict. But there is much more at stake in that verdict than the fate of one particular denomination. The overwhelming majority of contemporary Jews are unreservedly committed to being modern—no matter what. If Reform cannot provide a successful model for integrating Jewish tradition and modernity, why should we assume that in the long run its competitors will do any better?

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