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American Reform Judaism

An Introduction

Dana Evan Kaplan

Publication Year: 2003

The only comprehensive and up-to-date look at Reform Judaism, this book analyzes the forces currently challenging the Reform movement, now the largest Jewish denomination in the United States.

To distinguish itself from Orthodox and Conservative Judaism, the Reform movement tries to be an egalitarian, open, and innovative version of the faith true to the spirit of the tradition but nonetheless fully compatible with modern secular life. Promoting itself in this way, Reform Judaism has been tremendously successful in recruiting a variety of people—intermarried families, feminists, gays and lesbians, and interracial families among others—who resist more traditional forms of worship.

As an unintended result of this success, the movement now struggles with an identity crisis brought on by its liberal theology, which teaches that each Jew is free to practice Judaism more or less as he or she pleases. In the absence of the authority that comes from a theology based on a commanding, all-powerful God, can Reform Judaism continue to thrive? Can it be broadly inclusive and still be uniquely and authentically Jewish?

Taking this question as his point of departure, Dana Evan Kaplan provides a broad overview of the American Reform movement and its history, theology, and politics.  He then takes a hard look at the challenges the movement faces as it attempts to reinvent itself in the new millennium.  In so doing, Kaplan gives the reader a sense of where Reform Judaism has come from, where it stands on the major issues, and where it may be going.

 Addressing the issues that have confronted the movement—including the ordination of women, acceptance of homosexuality, the problem of assimilation, the question of rabbinic officiation at intermarriages, the struggle for acceptance in Israel, and Jewish education and others—Kaplan sheds light on the connection between Reform ideology and cultural realities. He unflinchingly, yet optimistically, assesses the movement’s future and cautions that stormy weather may be ahead. 


Published by: Rutgers University Press

Title Page, Copyright

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pp. v-vi

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pp. vii-viii

Let me confess at the very outset of this foreword to Dana Evan Kaplan’s excellent book that I resisted writing this essay. I was eventually persuaded that I should by my respect for the author’s clearheaded understanding of the contemporary situation of Reform Judaism. ...

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pp. ix-xii

I write this book as a scholar working out of a university, but it would be disingenuous to claim that I come to it from a detached, neutral perspective. I grew up in the Reform movement and feel a strong sense of attachment to it. I studied at the Hebrew Union College–Jewish Institute of Religion (HUC-JIR) in Jerusalem ...

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pp. 1-5

This book is designed to accomplish three goals. First, I hope to provide a general introduction to the American Reform movement for readers coming from different backgrounds. Many non-Jews as well as Jews who have seen passing references to Reform Judaism may have been unable to put these stray facts into context. ...

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Chapter 1: A Historical Overview

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pp. 6-26

The reform movement was a bold historical response to the dramatic events of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries in Europe. Despite the frequent claim that pluralism has always been a central feature of Jewish life, the idea that Jews could practice their faith according to the moral precepts of Judaism ...

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Chapter 2: An Introduction to Reform Jewish Belief

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pp. 27-43

From all over the world and with many different backgrounds, most Jews—at least until recently—believed and believe in Judaism as a religion.1 So while Judaism is not the religion of a single ethnic or racial group, the Jews are a people who have one religion, and that is Judaism. ...

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Chapter 3: The Evolution of American Reform Theology

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pp. 44-63

Once a reform rabbinic leadership developed by the 1840s, these men—and for most of the first two hundred years, males led the movement— felt they must justify their religious positions theologically. The more intellectually oriented Reform rabbis believed that religious reflection was a process as well as a product. ...

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Chapter 4: The Reform Revolution of the 1990s

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pp. 64-78

In light of the Reform movement’s failure to develop a coherent theology, that the movement is undergoing a transformation and revitalization may seem surprising. Yet, this is precisely why Reform temples have been able to reinvent themselves to meet the needs of a new generation. ...

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Chapter 5: The Worship Revolution in the Synagogue

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pp. 79-112

The most concrete indication of a Reform revolution is the dramatic transformation of the worship service. The twice-a-year High Holy Day Jew cannot help but notice the substantial increase of Hebrew in the service over the past few decades. ...

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Chapter 6: The Struggle for Recognition in the State of Israel

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pp. 113-131

It is easy to forget that while Reform Judaism is most influential in the United States, it exists in many other parts of the world, including Israel. The international umbrella organization for Reform, Liberal, and Progressive Jews is the World Union for Progressive Judaism (WUPJ), founded in London in 1926 ...

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Chapter 7: New Challenges in Reform Jewish Education

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pp. 132-154

In the post–World War II period, Emanuel Gamoran served as director of the Reform movement’s Joint Commission on Jewish Education and is credited with transforming the approach of the Union of American Hebrew Congregations (UAHC) to teaching Judaism in religious schools. ...

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Chapter 8: The Outreach Campaign

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pp. 155-185

In the Old World, intermarriage was the least of the problems Jews faced. In countries such as Poland, Lithuania, and Romania, Christian hostility toward Jews was felt as ever present. The romantic liaisons that occurred were rare, and even in the United States in the early decades of the twentieth century, ...

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Chapter 9: The Struggle for Women’s Equality

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pp. 186-208

The reform movement set out to offer liberal Jews a modernized form of Jewish religious belief and ritual practice that would emphasize personal faith and ethical behavior. The movement declared that while it would draw on the traditional rabbinic literature for wisdom and inspiration, it was not obligated by the halacha. ...

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Chapter 10: The Acceptance of Gays and Lesbians

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pp. 209-232

The reform movement has been a relatively tolerant place for gays and lesbians for many years. Most Reform Jews are liberal, not just religiously but socially and politically as well. Tolerant, pluralistic, and open to new ideas, Reform Jews accepted woman as equal in religious terms ...

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Chapter 11: The Battle over the Future of Reform Judaism

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pp. 233-253

When the 110th annual Central Conference of American Rabbis (CCAR) convention in Pittsburgh passed a new set of principles in May 1999, the vote represented the culmination of eighteen months of debate over a Reform platform, the latest clash between two very different approaches to Reform Judaism. ...

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Chapter 12: Where Do We Go from Here?

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pp. 254-258

Conflicting—one might almost say contradictory—strands run through contemporary Reform Judaism. The movement is rushing to embrace more of what used to be regarded as traditional Judaism, while eagerly accepting social innovations that even today strike many as on the left fringe. ...

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pp. 259-262

A modern American religious movement, particularly if it is progressive in orientation, is certain to be a messy affair. The United States is a diverse country with a stubbornly individualistic population and a multiplicity of belief systems. When Americans come together to form a religious movement, they refuse to leave their proud individualism behind, ...


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pp. 263-284


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pp. 285-297

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About the Author

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Dana Evan Kaplan is the Oppenstein Brothers Assistant Professor of Judaic and Religious Studies in the Department of History at the University of Missouri-Kansas City and is a Research Fellow at the Miller Center for Contemporary Judaic Studies and the Institute for Cuban and Cuban-American Studies at the University of Miami. ...

E-ISBN-13: 9780813542485
E-ISBN-10: 0813542480
Print-ISBN-13: 9780813532189

Page Count: 320
Publication Year: 2003