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Reform Judaism

Girl in blue dress waves goodbye to a man

We’re glad to hear that you’re enjoying our weekly podcast, On the Other Hand: Ten Minutes of Torah. Thanks for listening!

The Hebrew phrase at the end of the podcast is “L’hitraot,” which it means “See you again.” It is a bit less formal than the Hebrew word shalom (farewell).  

If you’re interested in more content along the lines of On the Other Hand, you may want to check our other podcasts, Stories We Tell and Wholly Jewish. If you’re interested in more resources for weekly Torah study, you might like to subscribe to Ten Minutes of Torah, weekday emails on topics of Jewish interest.

Wrought Iron Star of David

While it is true that, historically, only Jews were permitted to be buried in Jewish cemeteries, the prevalence of interfaith families has necessitated new options.

Many Jewish cemeteries have opened sections where Jews and people from other faith and cultural traditions can be buried together. Some communities have built new Jewish cemeteries where the entire cemetery is available to people of all faiths.

Reform clergy have expressed their willingness to bury interfaith partners alongside one another. The best source for what’s available in your community will be your local Reform congregation (find a congregation near you) or Jewish funeral home.

Learn more about Reform Jewish death and mourning.

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Answer By: 
Rabbi Julie Zupan
little girls looking at open Torah scroll

I am learning Torah cantillation (trope) by learning each week’s Torah portion. Is there a suggested part of the parashah to chant each week? I see that the parashah is broken down into seven aliyot, but I’ve never heard my rabbi chant that many verses.

It is customary to chant the entire parashah (divided into seven aliyot) on Shabbat. Some congregations follow a triennial cycle, reading  one third  of the weekly parashah until, over the course of three years, they have read the entire Torah.

In Reform congregations, it’s common to read a selection of verses from the parashah or weekly Torah portion rather than to chant the entire parashah. Often the spiritual leader selects the verses, and different verses from the parashah may be selected each year. Sometimes rabbis or cantors choose verses they plan to teach or preach about, or verses that are meaningful to the children becoming b’nei mitzvah. The Reform Movement does not suggest communities read particular aliyot or particular verses over others. 

Perhaps you’ve already asked her, but it would be interesting to learn how your rabbi chooses the verses that are shared each Shabbat.

Mishkan T'filah

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.

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