How do Reform Jews choose which laws matter to them in the Torah?


Judaism is the traditional religion of Jews, although not all Jews practice it. Modern Judaism has three main “branches”: Orthodox (traditional), Reform (also known as Liberal or Progressive in Europe), and Conservative (which charts a course between the other two). Most synagogues are designated by one of the branch titles, similar to how churches use a denominational name.


Reform Judaism describes itself as follows: Throughout history, Jews have remained firmly rooted in Jewish tradition, even as we learned much from our encounters with other cultures. Nevertheless, since its earliest days, Reform Judaism has asserted that a Judaism frozen in time cannot coexist effectively with those who live in modern times. The great contribution of Reform Judaism is that it has enabled the Jewish people to introduce innovation while preserving tradition, to embrace diversity while asserting commonality, to affirm beliefs without rejecting those who doubt, and to bring faith to sacred texts without sacrificing critical scholarship.


The development of Reform Judaism is somewhat parallel to the development of liberal Christianity. With the scientific and philosophical shifts in culture and higher learning spawned by the Enlightenment, the supernatural element in religion and the concept of divine authority was gradually replaced with the supremacy of human reason. Many Jews began to reject the halakha and the Bible, although they still valued many of the ethics and principles found within the Bible. Most of the ceremonies and rituals that had been central to Judaism were rejected as mere superstition.


Today, Reform Judaism most values doing good for family and for mankind. The idea of a personal Messiah has been replaced by the idea of a messianic age of goodwill that will be inaugurated by human effort. The doctrine of the resurrection of the dead has been replaced by the concept of living on in the memories of descendants and society because of the good works that one has accomplished. As for the Bible, Reform Jews find much wisdom in (and tend to focus on) the Prophets because those books’ call for social justice. Ethical concerns and proper relationships with fellow human beings are viewed as more important than ceremonies designed to lead one into a right standing before God (the emphasis of the Torah). For instance, Passover is celebrated by Reform Jews with an emphasis on freedom. On Yom Kippur (the Day of Atonement), Reform Jews acknowledge the need to be forgiven by God, but emphasize forgiving and seeking forgiveness from other human beings.


After the events of the twentieth century, Reform Judaism has also embraced Zionism, which it initially rejected. In more recent years, Reform Judaism has evolved to become more of an individual expression of religion rather than a unified “movement.” Adherents pick and choose those aspects of Judaism that they find meaningful or helpful while rejecting the rest. Many Reform Jews live their daily lives in the same way that their non-Jewish friends do, without concern for kosher requirements. In the end, the ultimate authority in Reform Judaism is the individual. As might be expected, Reform Judaism is strongest in North America, and approximately one third of Jews in the United States identify as Reform.

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