Original Reform Judaism

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We don't identify as reform Jews ourselves, and yet we recommend all our guests to dedicate some time to Berlin's importance for Jewish history not just in terms of Antisemitism and the Holocaust, but also in terms of its impact on Jewish thought in general - and in particular, Jewish thought on what Jews are. To put it differently: Since the 16th century, all Christians, even devout Catholics, should know about Martin Luther - maybe devout Catholics more so than others, if they are to understand what made Catholicism what it now is. 

Berlin features important locations in terms of Reform Judaism, which began in the 19th century in the "German Federation", as this conglomerate of different kingdoms was called at the time. To avoid any misunderstandings, we're talking here about the original reform - and not about Reform Judaism nowadays, two centuries later.

Not the only and definitely not the first, Abraham Geiger (pictured above) was one of the rabbis who made it happen. In a sense, he made it into "it" - the other, older rabbis did not know at first they were "reforming Judaism". To be precise: Not just the term "reform", but also the term "Judaism" had hardly been in use by Jews. Yes, "Judaism" is, in itself, virtually a new idea.

How did Jews think of themselves before? Well, to begin with, they were not doing that in the Latin alphabet. The language reform was one of the changes introduced by avantgarde rabbis and the key for Abraham Geiger's reform. At the rabbinical conference of 1845, Geiger eloquently phrased his position against Hebrew and for a new Jewish identity he called "Judaism". Addressing the other rabbis in what will now become a movement, he summarized his ideology the following way (we added our own commentary in brackets):

"If Hebrew were to be pictured as an essential element of Judaism [and therefore kept in use to connect us to all other Jews], then Judaism [i.e. our new identity] would be pictured as a national religion. [Because:] A distinctive language is a characteristic of a distinctive peoplehood [such as the People of Israel, our traditional identity]. The [hitherto] necessary connection between Judaism and a distinctive nationality [is now obsolete and thus] would certainly not be maintained by a single member of this conference."

This rabbinical conference itself - this theological conversation, this declarative statement - didn't take place in Hebrew, but in the German language. This is not a technicality. It is incredibly important to be conscious of this framing on the "meta" level of history. It means that to begin with, the discourse is conceptualized in a German way, and again, Luther and his reformation play a role (Geiger did not propagate replacing Hebrew with the catholic language, Latin).

Of all the words Geiger is using here, the key word is one: Religion. To avoid the etymologic and theological rabbit hole of analyzing the term "religion", let us just say it is a deeply Christian notion that could only be applied figuratively to Jews, which is exactly what Geiger struggles to do with his metaphor of a "national religion". These words are his attempt to describe in German the Jewish identity before his theological reform, the traditional notion of the People of Israel. Calling it a "national religion" brings together two words (and worlds) that Christian thought in the 19th century aspired to separate. It doesn't sound natural and wasn't supposed to either: Geiger didn't want such a "national religion", but to give up on Jewish peoplehood. This way, Jews could become just another religion along the lines of Catholicism, Lutheranism, Calvinism etc. 

His motivation in reforming Jewish principles and in creating "Judaism" was to find a way for Jews to gain civil rights as part of a new nation discovering its identity. In various kingdoms of the German Federation, people were advocating for a nation state, for the creation of Germany. Those were Lutherans, Catholics, Calvinists and so forth, yet united in the notion of their common identity as a people, as Germans. If the Jews would no longer be "pictured" as a people on their own accord and would instead be seen solely as another religion, they could be allowed to partake in the emerging German nation, made of Catholic, Protestant and (hopefully) Jewish Germans.

In the era of Karl Marx, with new ideas such as socialism and atheism, Geiger was trying to redefine (in his wording naturally "to reform") Jewish identity as a religion. Building on changes older rabbis had introduced, he developed what could (perhaps?) be understood as a Jewish religion in its Western sense - "religio" in Latin - which regards the Protestant churches as different religions than the Catholic Church. In other words: When Geiger advocated his reform, he did so in order to fit into an imposed (diasporic) social order and find a spot in the existing structure of society (as opposed to Marx who wanted to revolutionize, not to reform).

Geiger's reforms amounted to a new Jewish theology that broke with tradition but, as he was hoping, would enable true progress, a legal and social emancipation - at least for his followers. To him, the other Jews were a burden.  Regardless of how one might find his ideas, at the very least he was trying to find a balance between the Jewish desire to belong, to partake and to be accepted, on the one hand; and, on the other hand, the social and legal pressure to convert to one of the "legitimate" religions, be it catholic or protestant - a path thousands of Jews did take at the time, including the Marx family, who converted to Lutheranism in an otherwise catholic city.

Geiger's aspiration almost became reality three years later, in the revolution of 1848 (the very same year as the Communist Manifesto). It led to the first national conference of delegates, including Jews, from the various kingdoms constituting the German Federation. Their goal was to draft a constitution for the new nation state, promising to grant civil rights to Jews. But the revolution failed. The constitution was indeed drafted, but never implemented. Many of Geiger's followers were understandably disappointed and crossed the ocean to bring his vision to America. 40 years after he had established Reform Judaism as a religion, another rabbinical conference was held in Pittsburgh PA to initiate an American Reform movement. Now in English, not in German, the Pittsburgh Platform declared:

"We consider ourselves no longer a nation, but a religious community."

That was in 1885, and as noted above, Reform Judaism has naturally evolved since: In 1999, the Pittsburgh Platform has been revised (check out the New Pittsburgh Platform) to reaffirm the value of Jewish peoplehood for the Reform movement nowadays. Another important change in Reform Judaism since Geiger is the emphasis on feminism, but in his defense, it was not yet a thing in his days. While the word "feminism" did exist, its meaning was different. This is also true for the ancient Greek meaning of "Judaism", used as early as the 1st century BCE, but not in the way that seems so natural and obvious to us. Rabbi Prof. Shaye Cohen from JTS puts it well in his "Beginnings of Jewishness" (published 2001):

"We are tempted, of course, to translate Ioudaïsmos as 'Judaism', but this translation is too narrow, because in this first occurrence of the term, Ioudaïsmos has not yet been reduced to designation of a religion. It means rather the aggregate of all those characteristics that makes Judaeans Judaean (or Jews Jewish). Among these characteristics, to be sure, are practices and beliefs that we would today call 'religious', but these practices and beliefs are not the sole content of the term. Thus Ioudaïsmos should be translated not as 'Judaism' but as Judaeanness."

In Yiddish we call this Yiddishkeit, in contemporary English indeed Jewishness - but not "Judaism". Our contemporary understanding of Judaism, namely as a religion, is in fact entirely modern. This seems counterintuitive to many. Has Judaism not always been a religion? Well, of course it has - because the question assumes "Judaism". This tautology is perhaps Geiger's greatest success. Seriously: It brought about a tremendous shift in how Jews are thought of as well as in how Jews think of themselves. And in this great conceptual shift lies the just as great importance of the original reform in Berlin, Frankfurt, Hamburg and elsewhere in the German Federation: While many of its practical changes have been put aside by now (as far as we know, there are practically no reform congregations that still hold their Shabbat services on Sundays?), its conceptual and theological changes are quite in place. Geiger's reform continues to shape the way all of us - reform or not - think of Judaism, starting with the basic fact that everyone is now using this 19th century term, including orthodox rabbis who want to uphold and protect what they think of as our "religion". So even people who would really disagree with Geiger's new theology are often captured, consciously or not, in this notion of Judaism that originates from Berlin and other places in Germany of the 19th century.

That is why visiting the relevant places in Berlin, such as Geiger's former address and the former rabbinical seminary he initiated with others, could be worth your while even if you're not "a fan of his", and we recommend orthodox guests to not skip it (although it is, of course, your call).

So why Germany? Why did it not begin in America, why not in Russia? Book us and find out :-)

Update May 2024:

We've come across this video from the Stephen Wise congregation in NYC and thought it might be worth including here, because from Geiger's perspective, the grievances expressed in the video would not be a "bug", but rather a "feature". The ideal of "Ahavat Israel" or love/responsibility for fellow Jews rests on the traditional notion that we are a people (the People of Israel in the singular, not plural); yet as quoted above, Jewish peoplehood is exactly what Geiger was trying to uproot with his reform.