Category: Jewish Denominations


To a great extent, not much changed from earlier decades in the Reform synagogue during the 1950s and well into the 1960s, though, by the late 1960s, as we will see, the synagogue had become a very different place from what it was in the 1940s and 1950s. Rabbi Joseph Narot came to Miami’s Temple Israel in 1950, eliminated head covering and prayer shawls, and frowned upon the bar mitzvah ceremony. At Pittsburgh’s Rodef Shalom, Rabbi Solomon B. Freehof put the normative position of the early postwar period well: “We believe that the essential of the worship of God is the ethical mandate and that the ceremonial is incidental, if anything. That is our principle…. We shall never make a religion for us out of all these observances. . . . No rabbi will ever try to persuade you that God commanded you to light lights on Friday night.” The Sabbath-morning service at Temple Beth-El in Providence began at 11 A.M., ended at noon, and included a bar mitzvah! While not every Reform synagogue, by any means, fit the description of “classical” Reform—there are examples of retrieval of tradition and of restoring customs and observances absent from Reform services for decades (e.g., the sanctification of the wine, the wearing of the head covering and the prayer shawl, the use of a wedding canopy, and the construction of a sukkah)—the patterns of synagogue worship, religious school, adult education, youth groups, social activity, and social action had much in common around the country….

Marc Lee Raphael, The Synagogue in America: A Short History (New York & London: New York University Press, 2011), 132-133.

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…the content of American-educated Orthodox rabbis’ English-language sermons was dramatically different from that of the (mostly) Yiddish-language sermons of an earlier generation. This was particularly true between the World Wars in New York City, where Leo Jung on the West Side and Joseph Lookstein on the East Side—self-proclaimed ‘modern Orthodox” rabbis—drew upon the works of Carlyle, Dickens, Freud, Goethe, Ibsen, William James, Macaulay, Shaw, Tennyson, and Whitman, as well as on the vast body of rabbinic literature, to craft sermons much like those of American-born Reform and Conservative colleagues. Keeping in mind the warning of a contemporary Conservative rabbi, Israel Herbert Levinthal, that his printed sermons were often delivered ‘extemporaneously” and written “out a long time after their delivery,” the historian looks for typescript sermons or sermons reprinted in synagogue bulletins and the Jewish press immediately after delivery. They are abundant, and, by the 1930s, Orthodox rabbis in various places turned a Latin phrase, digested a German book on philosophy or literature, or followed the scientific arguments of the leading writers of their time as easily as they could quote from the Talmud.

Marc Lee Raphael, The Synagogue in America: A Short History (New York & London: New York University Press, 2011), 89-90.

The denominations, and the seminaries where they train their rabbis, will have to recognize this and take a more holistic view of their role in Jewish life. Rabbis need to see themselves as teaching Judaism, not as upholding the tenets of a particular movement. …
What’s more, the denominations, themselves, are no longer the most relevant force in shaping our synagogues. Instead of the large denominational divisions, imagine an entrepreneurial approach to synagogue life, one that encourages the growth of vibrant communities….

Edgar M. Bronfman and Beth Zasloff, Hope, Not Fear: A Path to Jewish Renaissance (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2008), 169.

The “sacred core” of the Reform Movement is personal sovereignty. In defining Judaism as a set of options from which Reform Jews are free to draw selectively, its adherents are ruled by what Rabbi Heschel called the “tyranny of the ego.” The center of religion becomes not G-d, but man. As we gyrate around ourselves, we cry, Vox populi vox dei.

The relativizing of the absolute is absolute in the Reform movement. Many Reform Jews think that G-d endorses what they do so long as it is “nice.” The response to intermarriage is, “It is not of great importance who they marry as long as the kids are happy.” The zone of self-regard has expanded so far as to crowd out G-d.

Rabbi Mark S. Miller, “Reform Judaism and Audacious Superficiality“, Times of Israel (7 February 2014)

Rather than seeing Orthodoxy as a more or less fixed entity, with “modern” and “ultra” flavors, I suggest we look at it as a cluster of processes, enacted across a range of what I call “Modernizing Orthodoxies,” by which I mean a group of religious movements bearing a familial resemblance, based on some core features, through which each works and reworks in its engagements with modernity.

Yehudah Mirsky, “Modernizing Orthodoxies: The Case of Feminism”, in To Be a Jewish Woman: Proceedings of the Fourth International Conference: Woman and Her Judaism, June 2005, ed. Tovah Cohen (Jerusalem: Kolech – Religious Women’s Forum, 2007), 37.

At the Reform Movement’s November 2005 biennial convention, the president of the Movement, Rabbi Eric Yoffe, said that “by making non-Jews feel comfortable and accepted in our congregations, we have sent the message that we do not care if they convert. But that is not our message.” He continued by saying that “the time has come to reverse direction by returning to public conversions and doing all the other things that encourage conversion in our synagogues.” The same reasoning could be used with respect to patrilineal descent. By telling Jewish fathers that their children are Jewish, the Reform Movement gives the impression that it sanctions intermarriage by continuing to tolerate clergy who officiate at intermarriages. By reconsidering the policy of patrilineal descent and enforcing the Reform Movement’s stated opposition to intermarriage, the Reform Movement will clarify boundaries for itself and heal the rifts between itself and all of klal Yisrael.

Scott A. Shay, Getting Our Groove Back: How to Energize American Jewry, 2nd ed. (Jerusalem & New York: Devora Publishing, 2008),

Little Zionist activity graced Reform congregations of the 1920s and 1930s, as classical Reform was generally anti-Zionist or non-Zionist, opposed vigorously to the idea of a Jewish state in Palestine or indifferent (“neutral,” many rabbis called this position, insisting that Reform Jews should not speak or teach about Zionism or anti-Zionism) to this fundamental idea. For them, as Rabbi Lazaron put it, “America is our home, and we do not [support] a philosophy or program which will jeopardize our position here.” Anti-Zionist rabbis (of varying degrees) were everywhere, including Samuel Goldenson and Jonah Wise in New York City, Lazaron and William Rosenau in Baltimore, Louis Wolsey and William Fineshriber in Philadelphia, Abram Simon and Norman Gerstenfeld in Washington, D.C., Calisch in Richmond, Leo Franklin in Detroit, Sidney Lefkowitz in Dallas, Harry Ettelson in Memphis, Louis Mann in Chicago, Solomon Foster in Newark, Ephraim Frisch in San Antonio, Morris New-field in Birmingham, Samuel Koch in Seattle, and the president of the Reform seminary, Julian Morgenstern. None went as far as Houston’s Beth Israel in 1943-1944, where a full-scale attack on Zionism was launched (“Basic Principles,” adopted in November 1943) and congregants agreed that a loyalty oath to America was required for membership. Beth Israel was but a bump in the road toward an acceptance of Palestine and Israel; what Zionist Reform rabbis of this period called the great folk movement of the Palestinian Jews was slowly entering the fabric of some of the congregations. Conservative synagogues virtually everywhere identified strongly with Zion, whereas Reform synagogues looked askance at this enthusiasm. This made it much harder, until Reform temple leaders changed their attitudes in the 1940s, for Reform congregations to attract the children and grandchildren of those east European immigrants who were moving away from orthodoxy In 1930, only half the members of Reform synagogues had family origins in eastern Europe.

A significant minority of Reform rabbis vigorously supported Zionism throughout this period, not just the rabbis with national Zionist credentials, such as Barnett Buckner, Max Heller, Abba Hillel Silver, and Stephen S. Wise, but the rank and file everywhere. Support for the Balfour Declaration and the Mandate given to Britain by the League of Nations, horror at the civil strife in Palestine, Palestine as a hope for German Jewry, and the World Zionist Organization biennial congresses and the British commissions in Palestine and American Zionist activity during World War II were regular sermon topics across the land in many Reform congregations. And another sizeable group of rabbis, while not activists in their commitment to Zionism, introduced a wide variety of programs about Palestine into the synagogue. These included art, dance, drama, literature, music, and philanthropy, and, though an emphasis on the Hebrew language in worship might have been missing, activities of all sorts revolving around Palestine filled the synagogue bulletins.

Marc Lee Raphael, The Synagogue in America: A Short History (New York & London: New York University Press, 2011), 107-109.

What is growing today is “nondenominationalism”, the increasing number of Jews who call themselves seculars, cultural Jews, or “just Jewish”. Just as significant numbers of those raised as Catholics and Protestants now define themselves as seculars and an increasing number of voters call themselves “Independents”, so, too, the number of Jews raised in one of the four branches, but not identifying with any of them, is increasing. The number of adult Jews who would not identify themselves with one of the sectors increased from 20 to 27 percent from 1990 to 2000, and the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life survey of 2007 found that the number of Jews following the practice continued to grow. Thus, many worry that Jews, especially those of Generation X, have abandoned community for a host of more individual alternatives. These alternatives have, in common, a profound interest in the self and its redemption and in one’s own spiritual journey and personal fulfillment.

Marc Lee Raphael, The Synagogue in America: A Short History (New York & London: New York University Press, 2011), 204-205.

What has changed with Orthodox women in the last two decades in reality is astounding. Some of the initiatives started by JOFA and other forward-thinking organizations took hold. Some didn’t. Some failed miserably. But some of the vision “leaked” out to other communities and organizations, and change happened where we least expected it.

We started noticing that the haredi communities that denounce feminism had their own feminist issues: women were standing up to their leadership about domestic violence and sexual abuse and even agitating in order to get into Hatzolah, the volunteer ambulance corps. Places that 20 years ago would not have considered celebrating a bat mitzvah or a girl’s birth were regularly holding those celebrations. Women’s tefillah (prayer groups), which had been seen as crazy and “out there,” became the more conservative bat mitzvah alternative to partnership minyanim (where women lead parts of the service).

In Israeli newspapers after Simchat Torah, observers were struck at seeing women dancing with Torahs in places you’d never think possible. And no one batted an eye. And even on the issue of agunot, or women unable to get Jewish divorces from recalcitrant husbands, which is seen by so many as the big failure because we have yet to develop a systemic solution, the Orthodox community has made incredible strides. It sits front and center on the communal agenda, and different rabbinic courts and organizations are using their clout to try to solve the problem case by case.

The seismic change in the community has been women’s learning. Twenty years ago there were a handful of women learning torah sheba’al peh (the Oral Law). Today there are dozens of women’s programs that teach Mishnah and Talmud. No one seems to think twice about it.

Bat Sheva Marcus, “How Change Happens”, The Jewish Week (6 December 2013), 23.

First developed in the 1990s in an attempt to protect women from becoming agunot, halachic prenuptial agreements stipulate that the couple in a dissolving marriage must come before a predetermined court of Jewish law. If the man refuses to provide the get, he must continue to support her, typically in the range of $150 per day — an agreement enforceable in civil court.

Yet while halachic prenuptial agreements have been touted as a solution to the agunah problem, they have hardly been a panacea — because many are reluctant to sign them in the first place.

“Those who are most likely to need to use it are least likely to sign it,” said Rabbi Jeremy Stern, director of the Organization for the Resolution of Agunot, or ORA, which says it deals with more than 150 cases of agunot per year.

The problem is unique to the Orthodox world, because non-Orthodox movements have rejected or found ways around traditional rules that give husbands practically all the leverage. And, frustratingly for advocates on behalf of agunot, most Orthodox couples hail from segments of the community that aren’t interested in halachic prenups.

“The problem is in the black-hat and haredi community, where they don’t have prenups or rabbis don’t agree to enforce the idea of having a prenup,” said Stanley Goodman, director of an organization known as GET – Getting Equal Treatment.

Talia Lavin, “‘The Prenup is Not Foolproof’”, The Jewish Week (6 December 2013), 14.