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Religion Library: Judaism

Modern Age

Written by: Marc A. Krell

In the 19th century, European Jews attempted to answer the "Jewish Question": "How do the Jews fit into the modern nation state?" Those seeking a religious solution to this problem ultimately created four new religious movements between the mid 19th-20th centuries.

The first responders favored political emancipation with religious and social integration. Abraham Geiger (1810-74), the spiritual father of the Reform movement, based this new movement on the essence of Judaism as the universal idea of ethical monotheism that has the particular role of being a "light unto the nations." Using historical methods developed by the Wissenschaft des Judentums, Geiger portrayed the evolutionary progress of Judaism based on continuing religious innovation and creativity.

Title: Samson Raphael Hirsch Source: response to the Reform movement, Samson Raphael Hirsch (1808-88) established the Neo-Orthodox movement, which, like the Reform movement, favored emancipation and cultural integration into Christian Europe. Yet Hirsch turned the tables on the reformers by arguing that one can become more universal not by allying or adjusting Judaism to cultural progress but by becoming more traditionally Jewish, upholding the all-consuming nature of Jewish law, which covers all aspects of life.

In 1845, Zecharias Frankel, Rabbi of Dresden, located his religious ideology in between the Reform and Neo-Orthodox movements. Like the reformers, he promoted changes in Judaism, yet based them on the ongoing halakhic process of rabbinic decision-making on behalf of Jewish communities throughout history. This movement was originally called "Positive Historical Judaism" because of its "positivistic" or rational approach to Judaism as a "historically" developing religion. This led to the 20th-century development of the Conservative Movement in the United States that promoted the "conserving" of Jewish law in response to contemporary realities and new encounters with God in every generation.

Finally, in an attempt to revitalize Judaism in the face of rising assimilation and Christian antisemitism, 20th-century American rabbi and scholar Mordecai Kaplan argued that Jews must "reconstruct" Judaism as a civilization consisting of a distinct history, literature, language, social organization, spiritual ideals, and standards of conduct, which he called folkways. By formulating the ideology for what would later become the Reconstructionist movement, Kaplan redefined the nature of God, Torah, and Israel in the sense that he returned to a pre-modern understanding of rabbinic culture while radically reinterpreting the people of Israel as a community whose belief in God and Torah stemmed from its own creativity.


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