Reform Movement In the Early 19th Century


The most extreme precursor to the Reform movement was a man
by the name of Samuel Holdheim. He was born in 1806 in
Kempo in the province of Posen. At a young age he studied
at a yeshiva and received a Talmudic education. He began to
study German and secular subjects after his marriage to a
woman with a modern education. After their divorce several
years later, he began studying at the University of Prague
and Berlin and received a doctorate from the University of
Leipzig. Following service in Frankfurt -Am-Oder he became
a Landesrabbiner or chief Rabbi of Mecklenberg-Schewerin.
In the year 1847 he became the rabbinate of a reform
congregation in Berlin . At this point he already
disapproved of most liberal Rabbis and came to be known as
the most exemplar of reform Rabbis in all of Europe ( 241)
The question comes to mind as to what exactly triggered
this different belief in Judaism which differed
significantly from previous tenents. It started during 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 in. Ghettos were being
abolished, special badges were no longer required and Jews
could dress the way they wanted, settle were they pleased
and work the occupations they desired. 

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 began to neglect
Jewish Studies and forget about he Shulchan Aruch.
In 1815, after Napoleon's defeat , Jews lost the rights of
citizenship in many countries. Many Jews converted to
Christianity in order to retain those rights. Many
thoughtful Jews were concerned about this. They realized
that many of these changes took place not because of a
dislike for Judaism, but in order to obtain better
treatment. Many rabbis believed that the way to address
this was to force Jews to give up public schools and
universities. This didn't work.
Rabbis suggested that observance might have to be changed
in order to appeal to the Jew living the modern world. They
realized that every now and then old practices and new ones
were introduced, resulting in a different lifestyle then
4000 or even 2000 years previously. They fathomed that
these changes often made life easier for the Jew. They
concluded that in order to make Judaism attractive to all
Jews this change had to continue. A group of Rabbis
assembled in Germany, and changes began, thus developed the
start of Reform Judaism. Holdheim a reform Rabbi himself
felt that the Jews living during his time period should
change the laws given to them at Mt. Sinai and the halacha
that the Talmud and Mishna state. Holdheim believed that
the laws of the Torah and the Talmud that were in effect
when the Jews had their own country and government have
lost their legitimacy. Judaism now had to be in accord with
both the letter and the spirit of laws of the nations they
were living among. Even the laws of the Torah whose source
was God had to be regarded as valid for certain times and
places as he said " with the change of the circumstances
and conditions of life for which God once gave those laws ,
the laws themselves cease to be operative, that they shall
be observed no longer because they no longer can be
observed". Thus , Holdheim said that the biblical and
Talmudic laws concerning marriage, divorce and personal
status are no longer relevant and the Jews in these cases
should be ruled by the state government( Sasson 835). He
concluded that laws between man and man should be left to
the rule of the state they lived in but questions of prayer
and religious institutions should be left to the Rabbis
because prayer was the most important part of religious
life( ). 

Holdheim denied the authority of the Talmudic dicta, the
oral law. He says that it was written by the hand of man
but was divinely inspired. His conclusion was that Jewish
life should be based on spiritual and ethical guidance of
the Torah. Even though he didn't reject the Talmud and
Mishna one-hundred percent for him they were no longer used
for Jewish law but storehouses of wisdom and ethics(Gay
155). Illustrations of commandments that he rejected during
this time period were the celebration of Shabbat on
Saturday. The reason for this was there was normal school
on Saturdays and the Jews felt school was more important
than observing the word of God (Gay 155). Holdheim also
went a little far fetched and said that he couldn't find
anything wrong with intermarriage , even though the Torah
clearly states it. He also stated in 1844 that circumcision
wasn't required even though he had absolutely no reason for
this( 243). Other important beliefs of Holdheim were
anti-Zionism, the observance of only one day festivals and
that men and women should be treated equally in terms of
mitzvot(Gay 155). Most of these changes in the religion
were so that the Jews should adapt with the nation they
were living in. Since they themselves didn't constitute a
nation and these laws were prerogatives of the state the
Jews should abide by the law of the land( Sasson 835). 

Reform Judaism wasn't the only way of belief during this
time period. Others like Samson Raphael Hirsch went in the
totally opposite direction of Holdheim. Hirsch felt that
Judaism had to be observed the way we were told to under
almost any and every circumstance(Gay 154). If Hirsch
wouldn't have taken this different stand a true Jewish
nation wouldn't exist today. Holdheim didn't realize that
he was weakening the nation and could have ultimately led
to the extinction of the Jewish people 

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