What is Classical Reform Judaism?

This Sunday, our klezmer band will be performing at the Greater Chicago Jewish Festival. In making the plans for our trip, I had numerous emails with the leadership of the festival.  One of them read:


Thanks for your request.
See you on June 5th at the Festival!

–Lisa Drucker

Greater Chicago Jewish Festival Organization Chair
P. S. I’m Lisa Berman (Mush and Scott Berman’s “little sister” from Temple Beth Israel)

The other – from Michael Lorge, the son of my childhood rabbi – informed the VIP parking coordinator, who will be greeting our bus, of our common TBI roots.

Temple Beth Israel was the congregation where I grew up. It was a large yellow brick building on a residential street in Albany Park – a northwest side neighborhood of Chicago. As I wrote that description, I realized that it was a structure not unlike IHC’s Tenth Street Temple. It was at TBI that I received my foundational education in Judaism and Jewish music. We prayed from the Revised Second Edition of the Union Prayer Book and had a choir loft with its organ hidden away above the congregation. We sang “The Lord of All” and “All the World Shall Come to Serve Thee” as well as “Ein Keiloheinu” and “Adon Olam.”

Like IHC, Temple Beth Israel had a strong history of Social Justice. My rabbi, Ernst Lorge, fled Germany in the 1930s only to return there as a U.S. Army Chaplain. His unit was involved in the liberation of Buchenwald in 1945. Rabbi Lorge was a champion for civil rights, co-founding the Chicago Commission on Racial Relations and serving as an advisor to President Kennedy on race relations.

So, I am a Reform Jew through and through – a classical Reform Jew at that. It was a little over 4 years ago that we began to offer this Classical Service. The driving force was Rabbi Nadia Siritsky, who serves on the Board of the Society for Classical Reform Judaism. It was Rabbi Nadia who helped to raise funds to purchase the Sinai Edition of the Union Prayer Book which we are using. She also had a vision that this service might function as a point of entry into the congregation for interfaith families.

When Rabbi Brett and I have discussed this service, he is most concerned with the liturgical details. Each of you here tonight comes for a different reason – we can talk about those at the Oneg Shabbat. But as I thought about this service – and my own connection to Reform Judaism and the UPB – it occurred to me that how the movement and prayer book developed is as important as what the words and music communicate.

The roots of what we know as Reform Judaism grew from the thinking of 18th Century philosopher Moses Mendelssohn.  According to the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, he was a creative and eclectic thinker whose writings on metaphysics and aesthetics, political theory and theology, together with his Jewish heritage, placed him at the focal point of the German Enlightenment for over three decades. Dubbed “the Jewish Luther,” Mendelssohn also contributed significantly to the life of the Jewish community and letters in Germany, campaigning for Jews’ civil rights and translating the Pentateuch and the Psalms into German. Some Jewish thinkers took exception to Mendelssohn’s Jerusalem, or on Religious Power and Judaism and its argument for conceiving Judaism as a religion founded upon reason alone.

Mendelssohn’s belief that it was possible to live a Jewish life in a secular society influenced German Jews long after his death in 1786. However, it was not until the formation of the society to study Wissenschaft des Judentums – the science of Judaism – in early 19th century Germany, that radical change to Jewish worship began. The first Reform congregation was established in 1818 in Hamburg, Germany. It was called the Hamburg Temple. According Rabbi Louis Jacobs:

Reform generally came to prefer the term Temple rather than synagogue for its house of prayer in the belief that the Messianic doctrine could no longer be interpreted in terms of personal messiah who would rebuild the Temple. The new opportunities presented in the West for greater social and educational advancement and for the spirit of freedom to flourish were themselves seen as the realization of the Messianic dream and it was felt that the synagogue, standing in place of the Temple, should be known as such. The Prayer Book of the Hamburg Temple omitted most of the references in the traditional Prayer Book to the return to Zion and the restoration of the Temple service. Prayers and sermons in the German language were introduced and an organ was played to accompany the prayers.

Reform Judaism was brought to America by German rabbis during the period of immigration that took place during the middle of the 19th Century. In his article on the roots of Reform Judaism, Rabbi Howard Berman, Executive Director of the Society for Classical Reform Judaism, wrote:

The early Reform Movement embraced the pluralistic culture of American democracy and developed a liturgy and rationale reflecting the unique experience of Judaism in the free and open society of the United States. It taught that Judaism had always developed new responses to the challenges of each generation, and had historically engaged in a creative encounter and synthesis with many cultures throughout the ages – affirming that modern Jews had the right and responsibility to continue this dynamic process for a new chapter in Jewish history.

Leaders of the Reform Movement in America, rabbis, David Einhorn, Kaufmann Kohler, and Isaac Mayer Wise, sought revision of both synagogue worship and theological principles. In 1885, the Pittsburgh Platform was adopted by the Central Conference of American Rabbis. It set forth the foundations of Reform principles: the primarily religious nature of Jewish identity and the emphasis on the ethical and spiritual, rather than ritual nature of Judaism.

The first edition of the Union Prayer Book dates back to 1892 and is titled Tefilot Yisrael in addition to its English title. It reflects the principles as stated in the Pittsburgh Platform. In 1937, after “The Guiding Principles” were ratified by the Central Conference, a revised version of the UPB was published that reflected some reclamation of traditional ritual as well as an affirmation of Jewish peoplehood.

Meanwhile, an entire musical culture developed to support the new prayer book. Early Reform music directors appropriated the music of German composers Lewandowski and Sulzer – who were classically trained musicians, yet composed for traditional synagogues. However, on American shores, music directors – some Jewish, others Christian – composed and/or adapted music for use in Reform settings. In the 1930s and 40s, a group of composers who had immigrated to America altered the course of American Reform worship. Isadore Freed, Hugo Chaim Adler, Herbert Fromm, Heinrich Schalit, Lazar Weiner, Max Helfman and Julius Chajes raised synagogue music to new levels of sophistication. All of them had formal musical training; some were the offspring of cantors. Also involved in composing music for the synagogue were American-born Abraham Wolf Binder, Frederick Jacobi and Ben Steinberg (who is actually Canadian).

The hallmarks of the Classical Reform service are: a liturgy which is primarily offered in English, music which is led by a mixed choir and accompaniment by organ, and lack of traditional ritual garb and movement – such as bowing.

According to Rabbi Berman, these are the philosophical underpinnings of Classical Reform Judaism:

the eternal Jewish Covenant with God – at the heart of our identity and history as Jews. While our faith engenders and empowers many different understandings and interpretations of the Divine, it is the religious quest for faith and meaning that is at the core of our Jewish identity.

. . . that Judaism is primarily a universal religious faith, rather than an ethnic, cultural or nationalist identity. . . the rich and varied ethnic and cultural traditions of the Jewish experience . . . offer meaningful dimensions for our religious identity, but our faith is timeless and universal in its aspirations.

. . . to uphold the historic Reform concept, linked to our emphasis on the ethical and moral vision of our Hebrew Prophets, of the “Mission of Israel.” . . we must work as individuals and as a community to bring justice and peace to the world.

Most importantly, Berman writes:

We cherish the distinctive worship traditions of historic Reform – a meaningful, participatory liturgy that appeals to both mind and heart. This commitment has always embraced a primarily English language worship Service, enriched by the timeless elements of Hebrew texts and song that symbolically link us to our past and to our fellow Jews throughout the world. And yet, we would insist that what makes a worship experience truly

“Jewish” is not its degree of Hebrew usage, but rather the ideals and values it reflects. Classical Reform worship also embraces the role of inspiring choral and instrumental music that elevates the spirit and reflects the highest artistic standards; drawing on both the great historic musical traditions that have been the distinctive heritage of the Reform synagogue as well as the compositions of contemporary creativity. . . We believe that these characteristic qualities of Classical Reform worship services, which for many of us are embodied in the historical liturgy of the Union Prayer Book, continue to offer a vital, creative option for many Jews today.

So here we are, at IHC’s Classical Shabbat service – which uses a prayer book based on the traditional UPB, which includes music that dates back to the roots of Reform Judaism as well as beloved, more contemporary, melodies – which is led by a female cantor who was raised with the values and traditions (so to speak) of Classical Reform. In the words of Ira Gershwin, “who could ask for anything more?”