Judaism Unbound Episode 87: Reforming Judaism - Daniel Freelander


Daniel Freelander, President of the World Union for Progressive Judaism, joins Dan and Lex for the first of a two-part conversation about the history of Reform Judaism. [1] In today's episode, Freelander tells the story of the first 100 years of Reform Jewish history, beginning in Germany and continuing into the first few generations of Reform in the United States. [2]

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Image Credit: Leo Baeck Centre for Progressive Judaism

Image Credit: Leo Baeck Centre for Progressive Judaism

(0:01 - 14:57): To begin the episode, Rabbi Daniel Freelander discusses the earliest post-Enlightenment reforms of Judaism that occurred in Germany, highlighting Israel Jacobson as a key figure in initiating those reforms. [3] Freelander lays out an important frame for the remainder of his overview of Reform Jewish history -- the three major eras of Reform Judaism, which he terms Moderate Reform, Classical/Radical Reform, and New Reform. He also outlines the earliest manifestations of Reform Judaism in the United States in the mid-19th Century.

(14:58 - 32:33): Freelander emphasizes the lack of centralized bodies in the early years of Reform Judaism, which resulted, he explains, in the first era of Moderate Reform being largely defined by lay leaders, not rabbis. Freelander presents two key figures, Isaac Mayer Wise and David Einhorn, whose different philosophies exemplified some of the ideological debates of the time, and he engages with the deep shifts to American Judaism that came about due to the massive immigration wave of East European Jews beginning in the 1880s. He then tells the story of the founding of Hebrew Union College, the first American rabbinical seminary, along with the infamous "Trefa Banquet" [non-kosher banquet] that occurred at its first ordination. [4] Freelander also analyzes forms of Jewish life in this period that manifested outside of synagogues, often in homes. 

The original edifice of the Hamburg Temple. Image Credit: Uni-hamburg.de

The original edifice of the Hamburg Temple. Image Credit: Uni-hamburg.de

Image Credit: The Jacob Rader Marcus Center of the American Jewish Archives

Image Credit: The Jacob Rader Marcus Center of the American Jewish Archives

(32:34 - 49:15): Freelander talks about the growing influence of rationalism and how it led to liturgical, calendrical, ritual, and other changes in Reform Jewish communities. He explains that Americans, unlike many others in the world, draw a hard distinction between nationality and religion, emphasizing how this was one reason that Reform rejected the conception of Jewish peoplehood at the time, in favor of the idea that Judaism was a religion. [5] To close this first section of the two-part episode, Freelander analyzes why the newly formed Conservative movement spoke deeply to Eastern-European immigrants in ways that Reform Judaism, at the time, did not.

[1] Access Daniel Freelander's bio by clicking here and learn more about the World Union for Progressive Judaism, which he serves as President, by clicking here. Learn more about the Union for Reform Judaism, the umbrella organization of Reform Judaism, by visiting their website.

[2] To learn more about the history of Reform Judaism, we recommend Response to Modernity: A History of the Reform Movement in Judaism, by Michael A. Meyer, and American Judaism: A HIstory, by Jonathan Sarna, whose guest appearance on Episode 11 of Judaism Unbound can be accessed by clicking hereAmerican Judaism: A History is also available as an audiobook at this link.

[3] Learn more about Israel Jacobson through his entry in the New World Encyclopedia. Learn more about the early years of the Israelite Temple, located in Hamburg and cited by Freelander as the first Reform congregation, by clicking here.

[4] For more on the "Trefa Banquet," we recommend "The Trefa Banquet and the End of a Dream," written by Michael Feldberg for MyJewishLearning.com.

[5] For a landmark text that declared Reform Judaism's rejection of Jewish nationhood, along with a number of other philosophical reforms, see the text of The Pittsburgh Platform, crafted in 1885 (though never officially adopted, it would prove to be particularly influential).