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Frequently Asked Questions and Answers

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< Q18.2.1 TOC Q18.2.3 >

Question 18.2.2:
History: Why did Reform Judaism start?


To answer this question, one must look at the environment in which Reform was born. This was 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. Ghettos were being abolished, special badges were no more, people could settle where they pleased, dress as they liked, and follow the occupations that they wanted.

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 univeristies, and began to neglect Jewish studies and to disregard the Shulchan Aruch.

In 1815, after Napolean's defeat, Jews lost the rights of citizenship in many countries. Many Jews became Christian in order to retain those rights. Many thoughtful Jews were concerned about this. They relized that many of these changes took place not because of a dislike of Judaism, but in order to obtain better treatment. Many rabbis believed that the way to address this was to force Jews to keep away from Christians and give up public schools and universities. This didn't work.

Leopold Zunz proposed something else. He suggested that Jews study their history, and learn of the great achievements of the past. At the same time as Zunz was implementing his ideas, a movement began to make religious services better understood, by incorporating music and the local language. However, these changes had to battle the local Rabbis, who urged the government to close the test synagogue.

Shortly after the closing, Rabbi Abraham Geiger suggested that observance might also be changed to appeal to modern people. Geiger, a skilled scholar in both Tanach and German studies, investigated Jewish history. He discovered that Jewish life had continually changed. Every now and then, old practices were changed and new ones introduced, resulting in a Jewish life that was quite different than that lived 4000 or even 2000 years before. He noticed that these changes often made it easier for Jews to live in accordance with Judaism.

Geiger concluded that this process of change needed to continue in order to make Judaism attractive to all Jews. He met with other Rabbis in Germany, and changes began as described in Section 18.2.1.

The FAQ is a collection of documents that is an attempt to answer questions that are continually asked on the soc.culture.jewish family of newsgroups. It was written by cooperating laypeople from the various Judaic movements. You should not make any assumption as to accuracy and/or authoritativeness of the answers provided herein. In all cases, it is always best to consult a competent authority--your local rabbi is a good place to start.

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© (c) 1993-2002 Daniel P. Faigin <>