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Reform Judaism

Mishkahn T'filah, a reform siddur

As you’ve discovered, there are many different Jewish prayer books (siddur, plural: siddurim). Each one reflects the beliefs and practices of the particular Jewish community for which it is intended. For example, contemporary Reform siddurim avoid gendered language that refers to God or to worshippers.

Different denominations within Judaism use different prayer books, and within Orthodoxy, prayer books reflect the unique customs of various cultures, sects, and ethnic groups. There are prayer books for weekday, Shabbat, and holiday worship, with specific prayers, readings, and rituals for those days. The prayer book for the High Holidays is called a machzor (plural: machzorim) and is published as a separate volume. In addition, some synagogues publish their own prayer books.

Look for a siddur that includes both English and Hebrew, as well as transliteration. Transliteration – Hebrew written out in English letters – will help you follow the Hebrew prayers that are recited or sung in synagogue.  

Mishkan T'filah, the Reform Movement’s newest siddur, includes Hebrew with both transliteration and English translations, as well as beautiful prayers in English. If you are exploring Judaism with a rabbi or cantor or participating in a congregation, it’s a good idea to ask which siddur the congregation uses in communal worship.

Thanks for asking! The correct term is “Reform Jews.” Reform Judaism teaches that change is ongoing; the reforming of Jewish tradition and practice is not something that concluded in the past, but rather is something that continues with each individual. Therefore, “Reform” in the present tense is the appropriate term.

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Answer By: 
Rabbi Joseph B. Meszler
bright heaven above clouds

In the Jewish prayer book, the siddur, there are references to an “end of days”: the Temple in Jerusalem will be rebuilt, the dead who were righteous will be resurrected, and a figure known as the Messiah, or in Hebrew the Moshiach, will restore Israel to new-found glory. The word “Moshiach” means “anointed one,” and it refers to someone who is descended from King David who was anointed with oil as king.

Reform Judaism teaches that, in partnership with God, it is up to us to make the world into a place of peace and justice, and that we cannot wait nor do we expect a personal Messiah. The Principles of Reform Judaism (1999) state: We continue to have faith that, in spite of the unspeakable evils committed against our people and the sufferings endured by others, the partnership of God and humanity will ultimately prevail…. We bring Torah into the world when we strive to fulfill the highest ethical mandates in our relationships with others and with all of God's creation.

Partners with God in tikkun olam (repairing the world), we are called to help bring nearer the messianic age. We seek dialogue and joint action with people of other faiths in the hope that together we can bring peace, freedom and justice to our world. We are obligated to pursue tzedek (justice and righteousness), and to narrow the gap between the affluent and the poor, to act against discrimination and oppression, to pursue peace, to welcome the stranger, to protect the earth's biodiversity and natural resources, and to redeem those in physical, economic and spiritual bondage. In so doing, we reaffirm social action and social justice as a central prophetic focus of traditional Reform Jewish belief and practice.

In the 19th century, the earliest Reform Rabbis rejected all of the “end of days” beliefs as superstitious and anti-intellectual. They made a radical change: instead of praying for a Messiah, we now pray for a Messianic Age. In Hebrew in the prayer for our ancestors, instead of praying for a go’el or “redeemer,” the Reform siddur refers to ge’ula or “redemption.” These changes have been maintained from the earliest Reform innovations and continue today.

Answer By: 
Rabbi Mark Washofsky
Archeological ruins

The observance of Tishah B’Av (literally the 9th day of the month of Av) poses some interesting questions for Reform Jews. The day is one of fasting and mourning, for the destruction of both the First and the Second Temple in Jerusalem is said to have taken place on that day. While other tragic events in Jewish history may have coincided with the ninth of Av, it is the Temple’s destruction (churban habayit) that dominates the day’s ritual and liturgy. Reform theology has not generally looked upon the loss of the Temple and the expulsion of the people of Israel from its land as a catastrophe to be lamented by liberal Jews.

Some Reform prayerbooks do not acknowledge Tishah B’Av altogether; others have gone so far as to transform the day into one of joy as well as sadness, for on the day when the Temple was laid waste and the Jewish people was scattered over the face of the earth, Israel accepted the religious mission to disseminate the knowledge of God to all mankind. Since some Reformers regarded this as the essence of Israel’s eternal religious mission, they saw the destruction of the Temple and the sacrificial cult as a progressive and positive moment in our history as a people.

This point of view was never a unanimous one. Other Reform thinkers emphasized that, however much we feel at home in our Western lands and however little we feel the need to pray for a restoration of sacrificial worship, the tragedies and sufferings of Jewish history cannot be erased by the experience of but a few years of Enlightenment and Emancipation. The ninth of Av is a moment of great power in the Jewish calendar, the time when we give voice to our sadness as a people for the calamities that have befallen us.

It is part of the traditional observance of Tishah B’Av to fast from sundown to sundown. In this way, the fast of the ninth of Av is more stringent than any other of the Jewish year save Yom Kippur. It is customary not to hold weddings on Tishah B’Av, since the day is not a proper time for the expression of joy. Even if we do not observe this fast, we avoid conducting weddings on Tishah B’Av out of historical consciousness and respect for K’lal Yisrael, the Jewish people.

Source: Jewish Living: A Guide to Contemporary Reform Practice by Mark Washofsky (URJ Press)

Answer By: 
Rabbi Richard N. Levy

At the end of the week of Passover, a fifth question arises as we look at the Torah portion for this week: 

Why is this week different from all other weeks? On all other weeks we read one parashah (Torah portion) each week; on this week we read only half the portion, postponing the second half to the following week. Why do we do this? 

It is one of the rare examples where the lectionary (cycle of Torah readings) in the Reform Movement in the Diaspora differs from that of the rest of the Jewish world in the Diaspora. In the rest of the Diaspora, festivals are observed for two days (stemming from the time before the calendar was fixed), so some years Shabbat is considered to be the eighth day of Passover (that is, the second day of the conclusion of the festival), on which a special Torah portion is read (Deuteronomy 14:22-16:17). But because the calendar has been fixed for millennia, the Reform Movement has never observed the second day of festivals. So for us, even if the day considered to be the eighth day is Shabbat, we do not read the special portion.  The problem is that if on the following week we were to read the next portion, we would be completely out of sync with the rest of the Jewish world. 

Striving to balance Reform festival practice with our simultaneous commitment to K'lal Yisrael, "the whole community of Israel," the Reform Movement decided when this happens to split the portion read on the first week into two and read it for two weeks.  It means that by the next week the Diaspora Reform Movement  joins the rest of the Diaspora community  with the same Torah reading. 

The splitting of a portion over two weeks would be required in any year when the first seder falls on a Friday evening.

Answer By: 
Rabbi Mark Washofsky

Yes, a person who died by suicide may be buried in a Jewish cemetery.

The ancient prohibition against doing so is based upon the conception of suicide as the conscious and willful taking of one’s life. Over time, however, Jewish tradition has come to view suicide as the result of mental and emotional desperation and, virtually by definition, an irrational, non-willful act. Jewish law puts an extraordinarily strict construction upon the definition of “suicide”; therefore, even if all evidence points to suicide and even if that evidence satisfies the investigative authorities as to the cause of death, our custom is to bury these individuals, to engage in mourning rituals for them, and to eulogize them appropriately.

Answer By: 
Rabbi David Lilienthal
The American flag

Yes, there certainly is Reform Judaism outside North America. Reform Judaism is actually a product of the European Enlightenment of the late 18th and the 19th century. This was the time when the walls of the ghettos were broken down and the Jews slowly entered the society around them as citizens with "full" civil rights. There were Jews who chose not to do so, but to stay in self-created new ghettos with invisible walls; these are the ultra-orthodox Jews of today who do not mix with society more than absolutely necessary.

Reform came to America halfway during the 19th century, brought by European immigrants. By the end of the century, Reform broke up into two parts, when the Conservative movement was founded. If you are interested, look at Rabbi Gunther Plaut's two sourcebooks The Rise of Reform Judaism which deals with the European background, and The Growth of Reform Judaism which deals with the American continuation, both published by the World Union for Progressive Judaism. Another excellent book is Michael Meyer's Response to Modernity.

Today, Reform exists in Great Britain where it is organized in two movements, the Reform Movement which is slightly more traditional, which arose out of the British Sefardi community in 1840, and the Liberal movement which is more like American Reform, which arose out the the Ashkenazi community in 1905. Almost the opposite development from the the US, interestingly enough.

Further there are Reform communities in Holland, France, Switzerland, Belgium, Spain, Austria, Hungary, Czechia, and strong movements are now growing all over the Former Soviet Union and in Germany. You also find Reform in all centers in South Africa, Australia, New Zealand, and in South America like Argentina, Brazil, Chile, Curaçao, Aruba. These communities are joined together in the World Union for Progressive Judaism with its headquarters in Jerusalem, and in Arzenu (ARZA International), which is the Zionist political arm of the Movement, representing it in the World Zionist Organization and the Jewish Agency. You can find all the countries listed on the WUPJ website, with links to many of the communities' own homepages.

Reform also has a number of communities in Israel, where the growth of the Movement is made very difficult by the political system, where by it is hampered in most ways of performing the functions of most congregations and excluded from all government funding which in Israel normally pays for all rabbis and buildings and other expenses. Any ARZA representative in your neighbourhood can tell you more, or look at the IRAC website.

You should know that the Reform communities outside the US tend to be more traditional in several respects than is the American movement. This is partly due to the fact that the Conservative movement has very few constituents outside the Americas, for historical reasons. The Reform communities elsewhere therefore caters to a broader spectrum of Liberal views. When in Holland, for example, Conservative Jews tend to find themselves more "at home" than American Reform Jews.

Answer By: 
Rabbi Ramie Arian
a kippah or yarmulke

If Reform Judaism is about making informed choices, how can the average Reform Jew be expected to have enough knowledge to interpret Jewish law without guidance from learned rabbis?

Clearly, interpretation needs to be based on knowledge. And yes, obviously, that knowledge is present especially among the learned. That is all true, but it is not enough.

Jewish interpretation, and not only the interpretation, but the very agenda of what is of to be interpreted, requires interaction with the real world. Otherwise, we run the risk of creating interpretations that are book-wise but counterproductive in practice. Judaism's interpretive tradition is profoundly conservative by definition. No teacher is permitted, traditionally, to overturn a ruling by a previous sage, unless he is greater in learning. And that is presumed (by definition) to be nearly impossible, since the earlier teacher was nearer (chronologically) to Sinai, and hence presumed to have a more authoritative tradition.

Narrow interpretation in that way is profoundly maladaptive in eras of radical social and historical change in the world. Great turning points in history have required courageous, mold-breaking leadership, which was not afraid to interpret the tradition in radically new ways. Such was the generation, for example, of Yohanan ben Zakkai at Yavneh (who enabled Judaism to survive the destruction of the Temple).

The 20th century has brought multiple prescedent-shattering crises to the Jewish world. Political emancipation, large-scale confrontation with modernity, the Holocaust, the establishment of Israel: any one of these alone would have been an earth-shaking crisis for world Jewry. To claim, as some of my ultra-Orthodox colleagues do, that the Holocaust happened because Reform Jews in Germany in the 1930's were not sufficiently punctilious in repairing their mezuzot, is insulting, obviously inadequate as an explanation for the historical reality of the Holocaust, and patently a mis-interpretation of the situation. Yet this interpretation comes out of halachically observant, learned sages, and is taught in the name of Torah and truth to thousands of disciples in the Yeshiva world.

Is this a more reasonable, more reliable method of interpretation than what I claim?

So-called "Torah-true" interpretation puts high on the agenda of today's discussion such pressing issues as whether lettuce or broccoli can ever be truly kosher, given that it is nearly impossible to wash all the microscopic insect matter out of them. So-called "Torah-true" interpretation carefully follows the letter of the law, while sometimes completely missing its spirit. Such interpretation, for instance, allows the creation of kosher for Passover bagel mix, cake mix, pizza, even burritos: Is this truly the "bread of affliction" that our ancestors ate in Egypt?

I aver that interpretation requires knowledge, learning. I aver that no one has the right blindly to "do whatever they want" Jewishly without a solid basis in understanding the tradition. I acknowledge the value of Torah, as it has traditionally been interpreted, as a guiding voice in determining a correct interpretation for today.

Yet Torah (as traditionally interpreted) needs to be in dialogue with modernity (that is, with the modernity of whatever age it is), in order to make sense of "what God wants us to do". And there are many sensitive persons who are able to perceive God's voice in the world in diverse ways. And I (and other rabbis like me) don't have a monopoly on truth.

Answer By: 
Rabbi Ramie Arian
Man holding a Jewish prayer book or siddur (Judaism)

There have, in fact, been three occasions on which major "platforms" have been published in the name of Reform Judaism: the Pittsburgh Platform, in 1885; the Columbus Platform, in 1937; and most recently, a statement (more descriptive than prescriptive) called Reform Judaism: A Centenary Perspective, promulgated in 1976. The three make a fascinating study. If you are interested in pursuing this topic in depth, I suggest you read a book called Reform Judaism Today, by Eugene Borowitz. The author was the chair of the committee that developed the Centenary Perspective, and the book is, in essence, an extended commentary on that 2-page platform.

In my opinion, the central dividing point between Reform and Orthodox Judaism is over the question of halacha, that is, Jewish law. The Orthodox believe (in varying degrees and with varying interpretations) that halacha represents an accurate, precise description of what God want us to do. Therefore, the law is binding on us. That's it, plain and simple. No ifs, ands or buts. God is God. We know what God wants. We have to do it. It doesn't matter whether we understand it or not. It doesn't matter whether we like it or not. It doesn't matter whether it gives us a spiritual feeling or not. It doesn't matter whether we feel it enhances our lives or not. God wants it, we have to do it. Period.

The Reform position is much more complicated. First, how do we know what God wants? Reform asserts that every knowledgeable Jew has an equal claim to a personal understanding of what God wants. Therefore, Movement-wide agreement is, in principle, not necessary nor desirable, nor probably even possible. We each (if we are knowledgeable about the tradition, if we confront it seriously and take its claims and its wisdom seriously) have the ability, the freedom, indeed the responsibility to come to a [potentially differing] personal understanding of what God wants us to do.

But if we are free to choose, what, then, is the point of Torah (and halacha)? For me, and I think for many other Reform Jews as well (though in principle it doesn't matter), it is a record of how our people, in widely differing times, places and societal circumstances, experienced God's presence in their lives, and responded. Each aspect of halacha is a possible gateway to experience of the holy, the spiritual. Each aspect worked for some Jews, once upon a time, somewhere in our history. Each, therefore, has the potential to open up holiness for people in our time as well, and for me personally.

However, each does not have equal claim on us, on me. Some (the agricultural laws, for instance) are no longer possible to observe. Others (the sacrificial laws, for instance) come from a social context so foreign to our own that it would be impossible to conceive modern people finding holiness in their revival. Much of the halacha arose in societal settings where distance from the peoples in whose midst we lived was desirable. The "outside" world was dark, dangerous and threatening. That is no longer our situation. We welcome, applaud and are uplifted by much of Western culture. Portions of the halacha whose main purpose seems to be to distance us from our surroundings no longer seem functional.

Yet some parts of the halachic tradition seem perfect correctives to the imbalances of life in modernity. Shabbat, for example, reminds us of the importance of balance as we struggle with time. The various ethical imperatives remind us not to make idols of the self. And so on. In those parts of tradition, we are sometimes blessed to experience a sense of God's closeness. In my personal life, I emphasize those areas. And other areas of halacha, I de-emphasize, or sometimes abandon.

Reform Judaism affirms my right, our right, to make those kinds of choices.

Many Orthodox Jews are offended by our presumption, to give individuals the right to abandon the practice of what, in their opinion, is God's will. And some of them get positively furious when we lead others down those same paths (in their opinion, away from what God wants). And it makes some of them really go bonkers, when we assert that we are making those choices, precisely in the name of Judaism, that is, in the name of getting closer to what we believe will bring us closer to God and to what God calls us to do.

Answer By: 
Rabbi George Stern
a kippah or yarmulke

What is the most fundamental difference between Reform Judaism and Orthodox Judaism? How does this difference then manifest itself in the ways these two respective groups live their lives in response to God?

The fundamental difference is the approach to Torah and the implications of that approach. The Orthodox believe that it comes directly from God and so cannot be changed. All we can do is "understand" (they wouldn't even say interpret) it, and the right to do so has devolved upon rabbis, descendants of the Pharisees who probably began teaching during the Babylonian Exile. The "authentic" understanding of the Torah is encapsulated in the "halachah," the law (literally, "way"). God is thus the law-giver whose literal words must be obeyed. From this comes the concept of mitzvah, which means "commandment."

For Reform, the Torah is the God-inspired attempt by Hebrews/Israelites/ Jews to understand their surroundings and their relationship with God. While it is a holy document, the Torah is rooted in the past, and we can even sometimes discern the circumstances under which certain sections were written down. Reform thus sees development in Judaism, not just through the biblical period but thereafter as well, so that we can continue the process of helping Judaism evolve by coming to our own understandings. We also recognize that Jews in various places developed varying customs and understandings, again proof to us that Judaism is not and never was monolithic. When Reform Jews relate to God, they do so on a more personal and less mechanistic level than one would through halachah, though I must add that I am sure that many Orthodox Jews also have a very "personal" relationship with God, and many Reform Jews do feel that God demands certain behavior of them. The fact is, Judaism has never really imposed a "belief" on people, though obviously the halachah system implies a specific understanding of God.

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