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Reform Judaism: Unity Among Diversity
An interesting concept with in Judaism is Jews believe themselves to be a
chosen people. They had no country in the mid nineteenth century, but still they
considered themselves as a nation, a distinct people upheld by the belief in God’s
covenant with them. As you read you will see the many divisions that have taken place
throughout history and despite this, the belief as a covenant and chosen people has
held together a forlorn people with deep rooted traditions. This is what I hope to explore
and give insight to the challenges and complex idea of “Unity”. This paper will explore
this idea of Judaism by:
A Brief History, Comparison, and Contrast of the Branches of Judaism- This will
give an overview of Judaism’s history starting with the Orthodox Jews down to the
subsequent breakdown and formation of the Reform and Conservative movements.
This will include the controversies among its divisions.
Observing Diversity-This portion will detail the practices, beliefs, interviews, and
observations. It will also explore some of the current trends and challenges within this
Unity among the Forlorn- This designate will navigate the subject of unity among
a people with a torrent past (how adversity can unite) and the cultural unity that exists or
doesn't exist among the branches of its people. This topic will discuss how the cultural
sphere of unity may exist among a people with varying opinions and views and what we
may learn for this.
This ethnography used the method of participant observer with interviews. It also
used an interpretive approach to help answer question and direct questions. No audio
or film was used and only first names are used with the exception of the rabbi and the
cantor. I was able to gain some rapport with a few of the members. I collected most
information Saturday morning during Shabbat service and during Torah study. I also
had several conversations with practicing Jews and a rabbi that affiliated with the
Reform Judaism: Unity Among Diversity
Reform movement. I used various books, pamphlets, and internet resources for the
historical background. I used much of this information to educate myself before I attend
any meetings or conducted interviews.
One challenge included a definite authority on any given subject. Those that I
met had a saying “You could have 2 Jews in a room and have 5 different opinions. This
was often times very accurate. It is more about preference such as, which
interpretations or version of the Torah was best to use verse who was right and who
was wrong.
I also found some of my questions during the interview process came across as
egocentric. I had to be careful in how the question may have sounded to those in the
congregation and more over the rabbi.
The amount of time I was able to spend presented itself as a challenge. There is
a great complexity in which only time could help complete in painting a more accurate
The Site
This research was conducted at Congregation Kol Ami which is located: 2425
Heritage Way (2760 South) Salt Lake City, Utah 84109 (t) 801.484.1501. This
synagogue is accessible via I-80 where I will travel by car. The social composition at
this site is a mixture of Reform and Conservative movement with a limited number of
A Brief History, Comparison, and Contrast of the Branches of Judaism
Judaism is a diverse religion; those that are followers of its tenants hold a
variation of beliefs and understanding of Jewish law and practice. Different branches
Reform Judaism: Unity Among Diversity
within Judaism reflect this diversity. According to the American Jewish Committee's
2008 Annual Survey of Jewish Opinion, American Jews identify as follows: Orthodox
8%, Conservative 28%, Reconstructionist 1%, Reform 30%, Just Jewish 31%, Not Sure
This portion is not intended to cover all Judaic history and beliefs, but give a
simple overview and understanding to the different movements within Judaism. Most
often times various sources refer to the movements of Judaism as “branches” or “sects”,
to which some within the Reform movement, that were interviewed, would call these
statements erroneous and prefer the term “movements”. This idea of “movement vs.
branches” will be explored more in depth later on as this is related to the idea of “Unity”
among the different movements. The word “movement” is used for a reason among the
Reform group and this will be explained later. This “movement” idea is controversial as
there are some Orthodox Jews that do not recognize the other groups such as Reform
and Conservative as movements or branches. This section will focus more on the
Reform movement.
It was explained by Rabbi Schwartzman that it is easier to identify the three
movements by their approach to traditional Jewish law. The traditional law consists of
both moral requirements (such as giving charity and pursuing justice) and ritual
obligations (such as dietary restrictions and holiday observances). The different
movements or branches have different interpretations and requirement to be considered
adherents to traditional law. We will compare and contrast these ideas below.
There is great variety within Orthodoxy and it comprises of many philosophical
movements. These ranges from Modern Orthodoxy, which teaches that Jews should
embrace Western culture while adhering to Jewish law, to Charedi Judaism, which
teaches Jewish life, should focus on Jewish culture.
Orthodox is close to the traditional expression of modern expression of Judaism.
Orthodox Jews believe the entire Torah- including “Written,” the Pentateuch, and “Oral,”
the Talmud, was given to Moses by God at Sinai and remains authoritative for modern
Reform Judaism: Unity Among Diversity
life in its entirety.1 The present estimate for Orthodox Jews in Eretz Yisrael (Land of
Israel) is between 900 thousand and one million; in North America it is between 550 and
650 thousand; and in the rest of the world between 120 and 150 thousand, making for a
total of between 1.67 and 1.8 million.2
Orthodox Jews reject the changes of Reform Judaism and stick to the most
traditional Jewish beliefs and practices. Orthodox Judaism:
…has held fast to such practices as daily worship, dietary laws (kashruth),
traditional prayers and ceremonies, regular and intensive study of the
Torah, and separation of men and women in the synagogue. It also
enjoins strict observance of the Sabbath and religious festivals and does
not permit instrumental music during communal services.3
There are some Orthodox Jews that consider Reform and Conservative Jew
supporters of the Jewish faith, but do not recognize many non-Orthodox Jewish
marriages, divorces, or conversions based on the point that they were not performed
under the standard Jewish law.
There is an OU Kosher division within the Orthodox Union that commits it
resources to the certification of kosher foods. It is an estimated 660,000 products in 77
countries around the world.4 The OU symbol is considered the most common
certification symbols seen on kosher foods.
Conservative Judaism (referred to as Masorti Judaism outside the U.S.) hopes to
conserve the traditional elements of Judaism while avoiding the polar ends of Orthodox
Orthodox Union official site
Menachem Berger, letter to the editor, The Jewish Observer (February 2000)
Orthodox Judaism." Encyclopædia Britannica Premium Service, 2004.
OU Kosher official site
Reform Judaism: Unity Among Diversity
and Reform Judaism. They do this by allowing for agreeable modernization and
rabbinical change.5
Zacharias Frankel (1801-75) formed the basis of Conservative Judaism based on
his teachings. The fallout came from Frankel breaking away from the Reform movement
in Germany in the 1840s, arguing that Jewish ritual and tradition was essential part of
Judaism. He accepted both the Torah and Talmud as continuing powers that be with the
exception that historical and textual studies could distinguish cultural expressions from
enduring religious truths. Basically, these truths could be reinterpreted to fit the context
of modern life.6
Conservative Jews observe the Shabbat (Sabbath) and dietary laws, but can and
have been changed when it may be decided as necessary. Women may be rabbis in
some conservative groups as in Reform Judaism. The Conservative Jews preserve the
idea of Jewish nationalism; promote the study of Hebrew and further Zionism. As stated
in the beginning, there are divisions within the various groups and the Conservative
movement goes past the basic beliefs, practices and standard viewpoints and can
range from Reform to Orthodox in nature.7
The Conservative movement has found success within the U.S. The United
Synagogue of Conservative Judaism (USCJ) is the main representative for this
movement. USCJ was founded in 1913 and today has about 1.5 million Jews and 760
congregations.8 Training still takes place at the Jewish Theological Seminary (JTS) in
New York, NY, founded in 1883. It would be interesting to note, while attending
Shabbat, a woman gave a report about the conservative convention they had recently
attended. She stated that the Conservative movement leaders have recognized that
recent drop in numbers of its membership. She said the leaders were looking to address
this concern and find a better way to connect with its members.
Conservative Judaism." Encyclopædia Britannica Premium Service, 2004.
Conservative Judaism." Encyclopædia Britannica Premium Service, 2004.
Conservative Judaism." Encyclopædia Britannica Premium Service, 2004.
About the USCJ." Official Site of the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism.
Reform Judaism: Unity Among Diversity
There are studies that show a current split, that is narrowing, between what is
taught and what is actually observed by its members. Conservative Judaism believes
halakha (Jewish law) should be an everyday practice and members should strive to live
by it. They also add obedience to the laws of the Shabbat must be followed; the laws
kashrut (keeping kosher); the practice of thrice daily prayer; adherence of Jewish
holidays and life-cycle events. Those minority members, that are the most adherent to
what is taught, are the lay leadership, rabbis, cantors, educators, and those who have
graduated from the movement’s various schools. Most do follow the laws some of the
time. There is some research showing an increase in the observance to these laws that
may correspond with the report the woman gave during Shabbat.9
Reform Judaism
The most liberal in thought and expression of Judaism is the Reform movement.
Looking here in America, the Union for Reform Judaism (formerly known as the Union
of American Hebrew Congregations), states its mission “to create and sustain vibrant
Jewish congregations wherever Reform Jews live.” About 1.5 million Jews in 900
synagogues are members of the Union for Reform Judaism. According to 1990 survey,
42 percent of American Jews regard themselves as Reform.10
Reform Judaism’s birth took place in Germany in the early 1800s. It formed as a
rejection against the ridged Orthodox practices and a response to the political liberal
sphere in Germany. This is in relation to examining the idea of “Unity” but, among the
biggest changes in the 19th century Reform movement were the de-emphasis on Jews
as a united people, stopping the prayers for a return Palestine, prayers and sermons
spoken in German instead of Hebrew, an addition of organ music to the synagogue
service, and a relaxed observance of dietary laws. Some other extremes include rabbis
advocating the abolition of circumcision and a major congregation in Berlin changed the
Sabbath to Sundays to mirror their Christian neighbors. The early Reform Judaism
Conservative Judaism." Wikipedia. 2005.
Official Site of Union of Reform Judaism
Reform Judaism: Unity Among Diversity
reserved traditional Jewish monotheism with the tradeoff of ethical behavior to almost
the exclusion of ritual. The Talmud was mostly rejected, with the ethical teachings of the
Prophets being preferred by Reform rabbis.11
In Modern Reform Judaism it restored some of the traditional aspects the 19th
century founders discarded. Modern Reform have since affirmed the central tenets of
Judaism- God, Torah, and Israel- and still maintaining a great diversity in Reform
Jewish beliefs and practices. Reform Jews are more accepting than other Jewish
movements i.e.: women may be rabbis, cantors, and synagogue presidents; interfaith
families are accepted; and Reform Jews are “committed to the full participation of gays
and lesbians in synagogue life as well as society at large.”12
Reform Judaism's Hebrew Union College is founded in Cincinnati.
Its founder was Rabbi Isaac Mayer Wise, the architect of American
Reform Judaism.
1885 A group of Reform rabbis adopts the Pittsburgh Platform.
1922 Reform Rabbi Stephen S. Wise establishes the Jewish Institute of
Religion in New York. It merged with Hebrew Union College in 1950. A
third center was opened in Los Angeles in 1954, and a fourth branch was
established in Jerusalem in 1963.
1937 The Central Conference of American Rabbis adopts "The Guiding
Principles of Reform Judaism", known as the Columbus Platform.
1976 On the occasion of the centennials of the Union of American
Hebrew Congregations and the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of
Religion, the Central Conference of American Rabbis adopts "Reform
Judaism: A Centenary Perspective".
1983 The Central Conference of American Rabbis formally states that a
Jewish identity can be passed down through either the mother or the
Rabbi Joseph Telushkin, "Reform Judaism." Jewish Literacy (William Morrow and Company, 2001), 241-43.
Rabbi Joseph Telushkin, "Reform Judaism." Jewish Literacy (William Morrow and Company, 2001), 241-43.
Reform Judaism: Unity Among Diversity
father, thereby making official what had been the state of affairs in many
Reform communities since the early twentieth century. Despite its
rejection by Conservative Judaism and Orthodox Judaism, descent
through the mother or the father becomes the standard for North American
Reform and unaffiliated Jews. This leads to the disintegration of the interdenominational Synagogue Council of America.
1997 On the occasion of the centenary of the first World Zionist
Congress, the Central Conference of American Rabbis adopts the Miami
Platform, dedicated to the relationship between Reform Judaism and
1999 The Central Conference of American Rabbis adopts "A Statement
of Principles for Reform Judaism" in Pittsburgh. 13
A simple summary but not an absolute of the three branches:
Orthodox Judaism is the most traditional branch of Judaism and
emphasizes observance of both the moral and ritual obligations of
traditional Jewish law. There is great diversity within Orthodoxy and it
contains many philosophical movements. These range from Modern
Orthodoxy, which teaches that Jews should embrace Western culture
while adhering to Jewish law, to Charedi Judaism, which teaches that
Jewish life should focus on Jewish culture.
Reform Judaism teaches that Judaism’s ethical laws are binding while
ritual laws can be adapted to fit modern society. It views Judaism’s
essence as ideals of morality and social justice while encouraging
The timeline is from "Reform Judaism." Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia. January 7, 2005.
Reform Judaism: Unity Among Diversity
individuals to maintain traditional practices that they find meaningful. The
branch favors individual choice over obligatory beliefs and practices.
Conservative Judaism occupies a middle ground between Reform
Judaism and Orthodox Judaism. Institutionally, it seeks to preserve the
structure and content of traditional Jewish observance, while allowing for
adaptations to fit modern circumstances. Conservative Judaism
emphasizes the importance of studying traditional Jewish texts to guide
ethics and practice.14
Observing Diversity
I attended the Congregation Kol Ami a Reform Jewish group. Their mission
statement is thus:
Congregation Kol Ami is a congregation for all our people. We are a
vibrant, inclusive, participatory, egalitarian synagogue that values the rich
traditions of our heritage. We are a mix of Jews from many places and
Jewish experiences, and our unique strength comes from our diverse
backgrounds. We affiliate with both the Reform and Conservative
movements, and offer a variety of religious services, educational
experiences, and countless opportunities for gathering together and
Congregation Kol Ami's mission is to provide Jews by birth, Jews by
choice, and K’rov Yisrael interfaith families a place to join together as we
worship, learn, and celebrate Judaism in a dynamic and caring
community. Every person counts and everyone is welcome.
Reform Judaism: Unity Among Diversity
From what I experienced this above statement is very accurate. This
congregation had Reform, Conservative, and even a few Orthodox within the walls of
this sanctuary. Kol Ami has traditional Shabbat service as well as a Reform version in
which I attended both. The major difference between the two services is the amount of
English vs. Hebrew during the service. Reform would have more of the service in
English and this seemed to be the most popular service. I had wondered how
investigators could connect to the service when language is a barrier to understanding
what is being said during Shabbat services. This was the question I had asked the rabbi
about and soon realized how careful my questioning needs to be. I later reworded my
questions with more sensitivity.
Kosher is observed as it is a multi-inclusive congregation. A woman I interviewed
did not keep kosher but many others did. The idea of keeping kosher is understood to
bring one closer to God and comes under the category of mitzvah between God and
man and therefore is considered a matter of personal choice. Part of this practice is
keeping and preparing all dairy and meat separate. This synagogue had two separate
kitchens to do this. Ecotarianism was practiced by some which can be described as
ecological kashrut. Simply, it is food that is produced in ethnical and environmentally
friendly ways (organic). Traditional kosher required animals to be slain in a ritualistic
manner that ensures the humanity of the slaughter. Ecological kashrut offers and
appealing substitute that provides for the humanitarian and environment concerns that
also exhibits an assurance to sustainable living movement currently being promoted by
this congregation’s social action group while remaining convenient to a busy lifestyle.
10 | P a g e
Reform Judaism: Unity Among Diversity
This congregation is very much a business with a school associated with it as
well as dues required every year for membership requirements. There are a higher
percentage of democrats and progressives associated with this congregation.
Shabbat service can be considered a fulfillment of the commandments to
observe a day of rest according to the rabbi. The majority of Shabbat took place on
Saturday, with Shabbat beginning on Friday evening. The amount of rules are contained
in the Torah regarding Shabbat but of course can be interpreted differently by each
movement. Ward(2000) accurately stated they often prefer the traditions to be upheld
by the Orthodox, who can be trusted to conserve the more strict and ancient forms,
even though they themselves could not share the beliefs of the Orthodox” (pp. 10-11).
The first time I went to Torah study a man by the name of Lauren left early to
attend a football game. Often the Shabbat is attended on Friday or Saturday based on
its convenience within the Reform. Not spending money during Shabbat tends to be
loose within the Reform. People seemed to show up at their convenience rather than
starting at the time prescribed. I was told this is normal.
During a portion through the service I noticed several movements such as
standing on the tips of your toes and coming back down consecutively, three times. The
reason is to show respect when Gods name is stated three times. The Torah scrolls are
brought out, in which everyone stands to show respect or reverence, and then the
Rabbi walks through the aisle in which the members will kiss the Torah book and touch
the corner of the book to the scrolls as they pass by. They had two books used during
worship. One was the “Siddar” which means “order” and the other is the Torah. They
ask that you not set these books on the ground. The Siddar in simple terms is a hymn
book for worship that teaches in the process.
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Reform Judaism: Unity Among Diversity
Unity among the Forlorn
In the beginning it was mentioned the word “movement” verses “Branch”. The
word movement is important to the idea of the progressive nature and the desired unity
the Reform movement would like to exist. The word “movement” in Reform Judaism
gives the idea Reform, Conservative, and Orthodox are all a “united in movement”
moving in the same direction, only on separate paths. Any other term used would take
away from this idea. It is interesting that it was the Reform movement that wanted to
separate from the idea of the Jews as a united people and then once again attempt to
restore this idea.
The Orthodox seems to reject or even recognize the Reform as legitimate Jews.
The Conservatives are more open and accepting to the Reform. The Reform members
that were interviewed would like to see each movement survive as they do feel they all
serve important roles. The Orthodox would like to see them go away. There are
Orthodox who feel the Reform are supporters of the faith but do not recognize rituals
performed by the Reform and even the Conservative movement.
There was an unanimous belief to always be on guard and prepare for the worst
and large impart due to the atrocities that took place during World War II and throughout
Jewish history. This feeling was quite strong and it’s my belief this is the underlying
factor for unity among a diverse people.
I found the Idea of “Unity” a complex issue as the Reform and some
Conservatives are united, in many respects. On the other hand, the research done on
the Orthodox side doesn’t recognize the Reform and Conservatives. The trials that the
Jewish have been through, and they still have survived as a distinct group, pays tribute
to the strong cultural bonds and traditions among all those that profess to follow the
tenants of Judaism.
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Reform Judaism: Unity Among Diversity
Resource page
Conservative Judaism." Encyclopædia Britannica Premium Service, 2004.
Menachem Berger, letter to the editor, The Jewish Observer (February 2000)
About the USCJ." Official Site of the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism
Conservative Judaism." Wikipedia. 2005.
"About the Union for Reform Judaism." Union for Reform Judaism official site.
Rabbi Joseph Telushkin, "Reform Judaism." Jewish Literacy (William Morrow and
Company, 2001), 241-43.
"What is Reform Judaism?" Union for Reform Judaism official site.
George Robinson, Essential Judaism (Pocket Books, 2000).
The timeline is from "Reform Judaism." Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia. January 7,
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