Basic Ideals of Reform Judaism
Reform Judaism — probably the largest Jewish group in America — rests on the idea that all Jews have the responsibility to educate themselves and make decisions about their spiritual practice based on conscience rather than simply relying on external law.
In Reform Judaism, the Torah, Talmud, and halakhah are necessary resources, but Reform Jews tend to focus on social and ethical action based on the writings of the Prophets rather than the ritual observance of the Torah and the halakhah of the Talmud.
Unfortunately, many Jews today associate the Reform movement — which outside of North America is usually called Progressive or Liberal Judaism — with empty and meaningless services, or congregations that want to retain a sense of being Jewish without actually following any practice other than the Passover seder and Friday night services.
It can’t be denied that some groups are like this, nor that the Reform movement of the 1950s and 1960s often lacked a sense of spirituality, but the Reform movement has changed radically in recent decades. Today, many Reform congregations are deeply committed to a living and evolving sense of Judaism and Jewish spirituality.
Reform Jews tend to strip away what they consider to be unessential elements of Judaism in order to more closely observe the kernel of the tradition.
For example, when the movement began in the early 19th century, Reform synagogues started seating men and women together, pretty much dropped the dietary laws, and encouraged instrumental music at Shabbat services. Clothing customs — like yarmulkes and prayer shawls — were discouraged (though today growing numbers of Reform Jews wear them).
In 1972, the Reform movement became the first Jewish movement to ordain women as rabbis. Although the Reform movement, which is currently the fastest-growing group in American Jewry, continues to innovate, it has also started to embrace more traditional practices, as reflected in the 1999 revision of the basic principles of Reform Judaism.