When traditional Judaism confronted modernity – specifically, the Enlightenment that swept across Europe in the 18th and 19th centuries – what emerged was Reform Judaism.
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That is a highly simplified formulation, of course, but in very broad terms, it does describe what happened as the political, scientific and philosophical revolutions of modernity in the West made it possible for Jews to come out of the ghetto and to become participating members of the larger society.
The opportunity to integrate, if not to assimilate, forced Jews to examine their beliefs and also their practices.
The discoveries yielded by science forced them to reconcile the teachings of Judaism’s foundational texts with what was being learned about, for example, the history of life on earth. The desire to participate in modern society, culture and business, among other things, forced them to reconsider their dress, their dietary laws, their previously sacrosanct obligation to marry within the faith.
Reform was the most radical response to modernity that still called itself Jewish. It rejected the idea of the Torah (meaning, Jewish law) being divinely written, but rather saw it as being composed by a variety of different sources over time. It also rejected the binding nature of halakha (religious law), and dispensed with practices that did not seem to embody ethical values and teachings.
In its most provocative forms, Reform has had synagogues that celebrated the Sabbath on Sunday, so that members would have Saturday free for work or other pursuits. Not only were the dietary laws (the laws of kashrut) declared irrelevant, but there were periods, in the history of American Reform, during which pork products and shellfish would be provocatively served at official functions of the movement.
Today, Reform is the largest denomination in the United States, and internationally, under the rubric of Progressive Judaism, it claims some 1.7 million members.
In recent years, many Reform synagogues have moved back to embrace traditions, even if the ideology remains the same – that is, certain practices were re-adopted because of their inherent value, not because of a return to the belief that these practices were commanded by God when he spoke to Moses the Lawgiver at Mount Sinai.
The movement is egalitarian,and in many countries sanctifies same-sex unions, and it gives members the maximum freedom to decide on their own level of observance.
Probably the most far-reaching innovation of American Reform Judaism was the decision, in 1983, to recognize patrilineal lineage in additional to matrilineal. This means that the movement accepts as Jewish anyone with either a Jewish mother or father.
Since this contradicts Jewish religious law, which also forbids intermarriage, it runs the risk of creating a class of people who define themselves as Jewish but who are not seen as such by the majority of the world’s observant Jews (and certainly not by the Chief Rabbinate in Israel).