The Evolution of the Reform Movement and the Influences of Ahad Ha’Am

In a rapidly changing world, Jews entered modernity with challenging questions of identity, practice, faith and community. The Reform movement strove to redefine Judaism and its role in exile in order to adopt a religious mission of universalism. Reformists attempted to preserve Jewish continuity without compromising their full participation in the new era. Ahad Ha’Am, as the father of Cultural Zionism, undertook a strategy for modern Jewish survival with a different framework. Stressing the need for a Jewish cultural revival, Ahad Ha’Am rallied for a resurgence of national unity and cultural renaissance in specifically Jewish terms. Through the gradual evolution of a changing Reform movement, the influence of Ahad Ha’Am’s ideology is evident. Such influence eventually shaped the Reform movement’s general shift in its approach to Israel and Jewish peoplehood while maintaining its core beliefs about humanistic universalism, social justice, and ritual.

The Reform movement began with the firm redefining of Judaism as a religion, not a nation. This disaffiliation with Jewish national aspirations was one of the movement’s core resolutions for Jewish survival in an environment for accommodating and engaging in modern western nations. In order to succeed in the reshaping of Jewish identity, Reformers solidified their new outlooks about exile and Israel, Hebrew, culture and ritual.

As Eliezer Lieberman expressed in “The Light of Splendor,” the Reform movement framed Exile in a positive light. Lieberman determines that Jewish survival is dependant upon creating a “Jerusalem” in all of the Diaspora, implying that Jews must thrive as members of the nations in which they reside. (Jew in the Modern World, 149) Early Reform Judaism emphasized the importance of patriotism as a Jewish value and as a means of ensuring the continued Jewish existence. To highlight the importance of the Jewish inclusion in the Diaspora, the Reform movement hoped to erase the Jewish longing for the Land of Israel. The Reform Rabbinical Conference at Frankfurt wrote about this, “…all petitions for the return to the land of our fathers and for the restoration of the Jewish state should be eliminated for the liturgy.” (Jew in the Modern World, 185) By removing the national aspirations from Judaism, the Reform movement effectively redefined Judaism as purely a religion, which could live in harmony within separate nations in the Diaspora.

The Hebrew language was also fated to a similar reaction from the Reform movement. Since a language is an integral part of a nation, the Reformers rejected its value to Jews outside of certain liturgy, like the shema. Even this being the case, Reformers expressed that a prayer in German, for example, “strikes a deeper chord than a Hebrew prayer,” because Hebrew has “ceased to be alive,” as it is it written in the Reform Rabbinical Conference at Frankfort. (Jew in the Modern World, 179) Hebrew was a language of the past, and the Reform movement wanted to embrace progress and modernity by avoiding the perceived backwardness of Jewish nationhood. To these Reformers, Judaism should not depend on a language but instead on a religious and humanistic mission of ethical monotheism.

The Reform movement stressed the values of humanistic universalism. These leaders saw Jews as the chosen people with a religious mission to the world from one God who demands social justice. Samuel Holdheim in “This is Our Task”

demonstrated the Reform vision of spreading the values and the “light” of Judaism to all the nations through social justice. (Jew in the Modern World, 186) This ethical monotheism again framed living in Exile as a divine opportunity, rather than a negative reality. In terms of ritual, these visionaries hoped not to reform the Jewish faith but instead to reform the commandments so that the religion would not conflict with modern life. (Jew in the Modern World, 180, 187) As written in the Pittsburg Platform of 1885, the Reform Rabbis accepted as binding “only the moral laws,” which would help to “elevate and sanctify [their] lives,” while rejecting the laws that are not adapted to modern life. (Jew in the Modern World, 468) Through their selection of the moral laws and their stress upon humanistic universalism as a Jewish mission, the Reform movement tried to frame the religion in a new way that would accommodate for their participation and acceptance in the modern era.

Ahad Ha’Am addressed the solution for the Jewish struggles during this new time period with a different approach. He identified the major problem of Judaism in the “tyranny of written word” and the Jewish people’s stagnant interaction with tradition. (The Law of the Heart, 253) Ahad Ha’Am, as a spokesperson for Cultural Zionism, held an ideal of a revival of Jewish society in the Land of Israel as a beacon of cultural energy for the rest of the Jewish people and the world. Without this cultural renewal, Ahad Ha’Am feared for the future of Jewish continuity. Cultural Zionism hoped to “cure this long-standing disease” of a cultural stagnancy, so that the “Jewish people can still shake off its inertia, regain direct contact with the actualities of life, yet still remain the Jewish people.” (The Law of the Heart, 255) Ahad Ha’Am, like the Reformists, valued universal ethics and humanism, yet he qualified this morality within the distinct terms of Judaism. While early Reformism avoided any national aspiration or identity, Ahad Ha’Am underlined the importance of the uniquely Jewish personality accentuated by ethical universalism.

In an opposing view to the Reform movement, Ahad Ha’Am believed that a Jewish homeland was central for the success of a cultural revival. While Ahad Ha’Am knew that it was unrealistic for all Jews to immigrate to Israel, Cultural Zionism understood the value of a homeland even for the survival of Jews in Exile. At the core of this hope for the Jewish cultural spirit, both in Israel and in the Diaspora, was the renewal of the Hebrew language.  These factors—the Land and the language—paired with a renaissance of society through education and literature, could be shaped in distinctively Jewish terms and ensure the cultural continuity, growth and survival of the Jewish peoplehood.  Ahad Ha’Am’s thought may be contrasted greatly with the Reform movement’s understanding of Hebrew as a “dead” language and the rejection of any yearning for a homeland.

Ahad Ha’Am identified these differences between himself and the Reform movement as flaws of the Reformer’s theology. About Haskalah, Ahad Ha’Am wrote that it “could not make good its promise to bring humanism into Jewish life without disturbing the Jewish continuity.” (The Law of the Heart, 255) While he too valued the spreading of ethics, Ahad Ha’Am thought that the Reform movement was acting in universal humanism at the expense of Jewish identity and culture.  This perceived threat to Jewish continuity was the driving force behind Ahad Ha’Am’s insistence upon a Jewish homeland, Jewish language, and overall Jewish frame of reference for all human ethics. “Judaism which shall have as its focal point the ideal of our nation’s unity, its renascence, and its free development through the expression of universal human values in the terms of its own distinctive spirit,” he writes in The Law of the Heart. (255) Here we see the primary deviation from Reform Judaism by Ahad Ha’Am, who emphasized the need for a cultural revival with a spiritual homeland, all within the conditions of Jewish peoplehood.

Over time, the Reform movement changed and evolved in some of its perspectives, policies and values. The influence of Ahad Ha’Am eventually gave way to different outlooks about the Land of Israel, Hebrew, and Jewish nationhood within Reform Judaism. The cultural and societal attitudes toward Israel shifted greatly since the founding of the movement. In the Reform platform of the 1999 Pittsburgh Convention, the Reform Rabbis wrote, “We are committed to Medinat Yisrael and rejoice in its accomplishments. We affirm the unique qualities of living in Eretz Yisrael and encourage aliyah to Israel.” The promotion of aliyah proves the Reform movement’s recently developed commitment to the success of Jewish nationhood, which was so fervently objected in the past.  The reception of the Hebrew language by Reform Jews has been transformed as well. Even the use of so many Hebrew words in the mentioned Reform movement platform of 1999 proclaims a new position of its embrace.  The platform urges Jews in the Diaspora to learn Hebrew as “a living language—“ the polar opposite description of Hebrew that was used when the movement first began.

The Reform movement now expresses the hope for a vibrant, expansive Jewish community in the Diaspora and in Israel, as is exhibited in its support for the Jewish nation and language. In this, it seems that Reform Judaism has retracted their original redefinition of Judaism as only a religion. The 13 Principles of the Reform movement’s youth group North American Federation of Temple Youth (NFTY) include the pillars of  “The State of Israel,” “Hebrew,” and “The Jewish People.” These three ideas would not have been included in the early Reform ideology. With these relevant shifts in position as evidence, it is clear that the Reform movement has undergone significant evolution since its founding.

Not everything about Reform movement has changed, although. The qualities of universal ethics, Tikkun Olam, and social justice continue to drive the Reform movement as their Jewish mission. These moral values are the traits of early Reformism which Ahad Ha’Am verily supported.  His support, though, was weighted with his cynicism of the early Reform movement’s ability to maintain Jewish identity and cultural continuity. He believed that Jews needed to “fuse with the humanism of Haskalah and prevent the latter from overwhelming and obliterating the Jewish mold.” (The Law of the Heart, 255)

With the recent welcoming of the Jewish peoplehood, land and language as integral components of Reform ideology, Ahad Ha’Am’s influence is apparent. The Reform movement has, in effect, guarded the values that were approved by him (social justice and humanism) and adjusted their views on Jewish nationality and cultural continuity to resemble, in a way, those of Ahad Ha’Am. While Ahad Ha’Am’s praises and criticisms may not have directly molded the Reform movement’s evolutions, the influence of his ideology indeed played a role in the overall transformational process.

Through the extent of Reform Judaism’s history, its strategies for coping with the Jewish challenges of the modern era have been adjusted and modified considerably. Ahad Ha’Am’s Cultural Zionist theology had a significant impact on this evolution, as his emphasis on Jewish peoplehood, homeland and language were later adopted by Reform Jews. At the core of these ideologies rests the Jewish value of humanism, which has remained unchanged at its center. From the blending, adjusting and sharing of Reformism and Cultural Zionism, we may better understand the heart of the Jewish response to modernity.

By Lucille Marshall

Written for God, Torah and Israel in Modern Jewish Thought with Rabbi William Plevan at the Jewish Theological Seminary of America.

Works Cited

Hertzberg, Arthur. The Zionist Idea: A Historical Analysis and Reader. Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1959. Print.

Mendes-Flohr, Paul Mendes-Flohr, and Jehuda Reinharz. The Jew in the Modern World. ; A Documentary History. N.p.: Oxford UP, 2011. Print.

“NFTY – Reform Jewish Teens – NFTY’s Thirteen Principles.” NFTY – Reform Jewish Teens – NFTY’s Thirteen Principles. N.p., n.d. Web. 27 Feb. 2013

“A Statement of Principles for Reform Judaism – CCAR.” A Statement of Principles for Reform Judaism – CCAR. N.p., n.d. Web. 27 Feb. 2013.



About lucystarer

college student. hiker. oatmeal eater.

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