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Was Reform Judaism the Price of Political Acceptance?

In explaining the reason for the emergence of Reform Judaism in 19th-century Germany, some scholars have argued, falsely, that abandoning traditional Judaism was the price Jews reluctantly paid for their political and social acceptance.

While it is true that nearly all German Jews sought political equality (except for a few ultra-Orthodox who feared that civic participation would induce religious neglect), religious reform was not the way for Jews to gain full rights in German society. On the contrary, German opponents of Jewish emancipation believed that Jews who differed least in their appearance and religious practice were the greatest insidious threat to a state based on Christian principles. If a German Jew wanted to attain a position in government service or in the higher ranks of the military, the only promising path was baptism. The vast majority of German Jews chose Judaism over a prestigious career. Whether they expressed their faith in traditional or modern forms, they were making a statement of opposition: “We reject the pressure to convert; we will stick with our beliefs.”

Statements made by leading German Reformers demonstrate the depth of this feeling. Gabriel Riesser, whose periodical, Der Jude (The Jew), was dedicated to Jewish emancipation in Germany, and who also served as a member of the governing body of the (Reform) Hamburg temple, consistently opposed the notion that only those Jews who had abandoned “religious prejudices” should be entitled to political equality. Another communally active liberal Jew, Carl Weil, wrote similarly in Der Jude in 1831 that religious reform must be made from within Judaism, and not for any ulterior motives. “Reform must flow out of the hearts of its adherents,” he insisted, “if religious salvation is not to be huckstered away for worldly justice.”

Reform rabbis were even more vehement in their refusal to pay a religious price for political emancipation. Samuel Holdheim, rabbi of the Reform Congregation of Berlin, for example, firmly believed in the state’s right to take over functions that had previously been governed by Jewish law, such as divorce—not because of religious submission, but because he believed in the separation of church and state. But in matters of conscience, when the state demanded relinquishing any aspect of Judaism, including Orthodox beliefs and practices, as a condition for equality, he became as resistant to civil interference as any Orthodox Jew. Jewish emancipation could be gained, he argued, only when German states were established upon a “solid foundation of justice,” and not by religious concessions. In his view, Judaism had to possess its own integrity if it were to fulfill its mission of spreading the message of Judaism—monotheism and universal morality—among the nations. “Those commandments on account of which Jews were ready to become martyrs have preserved Judaism in their midst,” he wrote. “When [despite antisemitic opposition] we pursue our religious strivings with fervor and sacrifice, we give testimony before God and the world that it is not earthly but divine considerations that drive us to our goal.”

Rabbi Abraham Geiger, the best known of the Jewish religious reformers in Germany and the ideological founder of Reform Judaism, likewise argued that the opposition to political equality which Jews faced was not a challenge to be overcome by changing their faith, but rather a crucial test of German political liberalism. Would Christian Germany be able to develop into a pluralistic society in which Jews could feel that they too had an equal share? German conservatives, who regarded Judaism as incompatible with Germanism, had rejected that vision repeatedly in German parliaments, while liberals had proven to be false to their own principles of equality on one issue: the German Jews. Like Holdheim and other Reform rabbis, Geiger was convinced that Jewish emancipation would come not when Judaism itself had changed, but when a victorious political liberalism would rise to a genuine acceptance of its own ideology.

Today, Jews enjoy political equality almost everywhere in the world, yet the canard that Reform Judaism is less than a genuine faith persists. And nowadays our detractors no longer accuse Reform Judaism of relinquishing religious faith for political gain, but of abandoning religious practice for the ease of social intercourse and a more secular lifestyle. While these factors may play some role in the choice of Reform over Orthodoxy, to claim that for Reform Jews religion matters less than the material goods of life is to engage in the reductionism that opponents of Reform Judaism have propagated since our Movement’s origins in 19th-century Germany. One need but enter a Reform synagogue and there find a genuinely religious community devoted to its particular form of Judaism to refute the myth that today’s religious reform is a price reluctantly paid.

Reform Judaism, then and now, is a faith freely chosen for its own sake; it is an end in itself

Michael A. Meyer is Adolph S. Ochs Profesor Emeritus of Jewish History on the Cincinnati campus of theHebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion. Among his published writings is Response to Modernity: A History of the Reform Movement in Judaism (1988).