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The Confirmation Revolution: Then and Now

The Confirmation Revolution: Then and Now

Today's North American Reform synagogues have increasingly begun to rethink and attempt to reinvigorate the contemporary practice of bar and bat mitzvah, a practice that may transform Reform Judaism in general. In many ways, these conversations are reminiscent of the emergence of confirmation at the beginning of the 19th century, a significant part of a broad effort to re-envision Judaism's well known adolescent rites-de-passage in communities throughout central Europe. In time, confirmation, largely became associated with Reform Judaism.

With respect to the practice of bar mitzvah, several issues confronted early Reformers and other Jewish modernizers in Europe. The bar mitzvah's popularity was waning, and educational questions arose regarding comprehension versus mastering prescribed ritual practices. There was also the issue of co-education and whether or not girls as well as boys could be confirmed if the reading of Torah was eliminated.

With the dawn of the 19th century, ritual and educational change proved irrepressible in many Central European communities. Jewish communities broadly adopted a catechetical approach to Jewish learning, and a new type of educational textbook quickly appeared to meet the need of the day.

The first modern Jewish confirmation (for boys only) likely took place in Dessau, Germany, in 1803 in the town's school. Four years later, Leopold Zunz, considered the founder of modern Jewish scholarship, was confirmed in Wolfenbuttel, about 100 miles away. Subsequently, the Jewish Consistory of Westphalia sought to root confirmation throughout the Napoleonic Kingdom it served, but the practice only took hold in a few towns.

In Germany, the most revolutionary aspect of confirmation was its embrace of the co-education of boys and girls. The earliest report of boys and girls being confirmed together was 1811; by 1831, Samuel Levin Eger, one of Germany's leading Orthodox rabbis, instituted co-confirmation in Brunswick, later a site of one of the principal Reform rabbinic conferences of the 19th century. Jewish co-education reached the United States in 1838, when Rebecca Gratz created the "Hebrew Sunday School," which employed catechetical teaching methods and exclusively presented an "Orthodox" Jewish theology. Curiously, Gratz's school did not adopt confirmation and instead had a public examination/graduation exercise in March.

In the U.S., the Reformed Society of Israelites envisioned confirmation as early as the 1820s, but it was not until 1843 that we have a report from the Danish possession of St. Thomas in the Virgin Islands of a (co-educational) confirmation taking place in the New World. Max Lilienthal, the "Chief Rabbi of New York," proposed in 1846 that the Hebrew Union School Society adopt confirmation both for boys and girls, and later that year, a confirmation service was held at a traditional synagogue, Anshe Chesed, on Shavuot. The Occident, an Orthodox newspaper, reported that 1,500 people attended and that "the Rabbi delivered an impressive sermon, which drew tears from all, and satisfied every one, that far from being a destructive innovation, 'confirmation' was an earnest appeal to every Jew to rally heart and soul round the standard of our holy religion."

Although ultimately rejected by New York's traditional congregations, confirmation was successfully rooted in U.S. Reform synagogues - often in lieu of b'nai mitzvah. Ultimately, the American Reform Movement took ownership of confirmation and, toward the end of the 19th century, made confirmation its hallmark event.

The confirmation itself often became a lavish affair, with incredible floral displays consistent with the cultural mores of the Gilded Age. Formal photographs of the confirmation class and its rabbinic instructor were placed on permanent display in nearly every American Reform synagogue; confirmation yearbooks were published and confirmation class trips became integral. Despite the increased popularity of b'nai mitzvah during the course of the 20 th century, Reform families still typically kept their children enrolled in confirmation (generally until the end of tenth grade).

Still, concerns arose outside Reform Judaism about the educational value and quality of confirmation, and questions persisted about its Jewish authenticity. In particular, the English name "confirmation" raised issues, as it was clearly borrowed from Christianity, where it is intimately connected to the practice of Baptism. Today, some congregations use Hebrew substitute terms like Kabalat Torah or Brit Torah in lieu of "confirmation." In some Reform congregations, the traditional counting of the Omer has been tied to the counting of days to confirmation. Early proponents of confirmation pointed out both Biblical and rabbinic proof texts for the public confession of faith in the Jewish tradition to strengthen claims to the Jewish authenticity of confirmation.

During the 20th century, though, the American Reform Movement became increasingly ambivalent about confirmation and unsure of its religious purpose. The 1940 Union Prayer Book spoke of bringing "our children unto Thine altar that they may renew the vow of their fathers," but 1975'sGates of Prayer prayerbook speaks simply of "their children learn[ing] the joy of the mitzvoth." The 2007 Reform prayer book Mishkan T'filah contains no reference to confirmation at all.

Looking back, it is clear that this confirmation revolution played a central role in the rise and spread of Reform Judaism, revolutionizing Jewish education and blazing educational and religious pathways for Jewish women. Today's confirmation, however, is in need of redefinition.

Just as confirmation once solved the problem of the bar mitzvah for West European and American Jews, perhaps today's conversations about b'nai mitzvah - including such initiatives as the Reform Movement's B'nai Mitzvah Revolution - will now help reinvigorate confirmation. It would be a shame to take down all those confirmation class pictures in our Reform synagogues as relics of a lost past when it is more than possible that they also contain the seed of a reinvigorated 21st century Reform Movement in Judaism.

Rabbi Lance J. Sussman, Ph.D., is the senior rabbi of Reform Congregation Keneseth Israel in Elkins Park, PA, and the Chair-Elect of the Board of Governors of Gratz College. A historian of the American Jewish experience, Sussman has taught at Princeton, Binghamton University (SUNY), and Hunter College. A prolific author, he is currently editing a volume of his own essays and working on a television documentary on Philadelphia Jewish history.

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