Where did Reform Judaism come from? For many centuries, Judaism was a single entity without major divisions or denominations like those in the Christian world (Catholic, Orthodox, Protestant, etc.) or in the Muslim world (Shiite, Sunni, and others). In the middle of the 19th century, a new “branch” of Judaism suddenly emerged among Ashkenazi Jews in Europe. This was Reform Judaism, which quickly separated itself from “Orthodoxy”, meaning the traditional Jewish way.
The classic answer to explain this development is that once Jews in Europe were “emancipated” at the turn of the 19th century, they assimilated into European society and wished for a more “modern” version of Judaism that would be acceptable to their “enlightened” Christian neighbours. At the same time, the state of Jewry was at a very low point for a number of reasons (including poverty, persecution, and pogroms), and these early reformers wanted to help the poor “ghetto Jew”; to make him more educated and more prosperous.
Of course, this latter reason is admirable, and it is true that many European Jews at this time needed a big boost both morally and financially. This is why the great Rav Shimshon Raphael Hirsch (1808-1888) started a Torah im Derech Eretz movement which strove to educate and empower Jews, but without abandoning Torah and mitzvot, as did his contemporary Rabbi Azriel Hildesheimer (1820-1899).
Meanwhile, the Reform movement sought to abandon traditional Torah, and relegate mitzvot to being optional at best. One of the fathers of Reform Judaism, Abraham Geiger (1810-1874) emphatically stated that the “Talmud must go”. He removed prayers that mourned the Temple or spoke of a return to Jerusalem, for this would be unpatriotic for a German to recite. To this day, Reform Jews call their synagogue a “temple”, the idea being that there is no need to yearn for rebuilding the Holy Temple in Jerusalem, the local “temple” being a valid substitute. Geiger admitted that his “new” Judaism is modelled on Protestant Christianity, and that the Torah and Talmud should be studied “from the point of view of the historian”. For Geiger and his successors, Judaism was nothing more than ancient history, with a set of voluntary cultural traditions.
Why take such an extreme position? Why work so hard to assimilate Jews and to abandon the Torah entirely? Why not follow the balanced model of Rav Hirsch or Rabbi Hildesheimer? Where did this strong antinomianism (rejection of law) come from?
The Erev Rav
In this week’s parasha, Bo, we are told that an erev rav, a “mixed multitude”, emerged with Israel out of Egypt (Exodus 12:38). These were not Israelite descendants of Jacob, but various Egyptians and other nations among them that were awed and convinced by God’s plagues and miracles, and wanted to join the Israelites. They, too, stood at Sinai, and thus became Jews.
Yet, it was these same erev rav “Jews” that just 40 days later instigated the incident of the Golden Calf. The Sages state there were 3000 of them, and their goal was to incite the Jews to immorality and idolatry, drawing them away from God. After Moses came down from the mountain, we read how these instigators were punished, and Exodus 32:28 states explicitly that 3000 of them were slayed. While this evil erev rav was removed from the Exodus generation, it is said that the same 3000 souls reincarnate in future generations to cause havoc among the Jews (see, for example, the Arizal in Sha’ar HaGilgulim, ch. 39). While they may be halachically “Jewish”, spiritually they are anything but. They are not necessarily conscious of this, and appear to be well-meaning people, but their inner calling is the very elimination of traditional Judaism.
The erev rav accomplishes this through various means, central among them the use of cunning “reason”. The Arizal taught (see Sha’ar HaPesukim on Ki Tisa and Balak) that they twist the power of da’at, “knowledge”, and lead Jews from true da’at Hashem, knowledge of God, to a foreign da’at of idolatry and immorality. [For those who like gematria, the Arizal illustrates this beautifully by pointing out that the numerical value of erev rav (ערב רב) is 474, equal to da’at (דעת).]
The Zohar (I, 25) prophesies that this erev rav will be particularly powerful in the End of Days, and will lead countless Jews astray. Thankfully, they will ultimately be destroyed, and this is the deeper meaning of Zechariah 13:2, which states how the “prophets of the impure spirit” will be removed from the earth. Prior to this, though, they will succeed in causing Jews to abandon true Judaism; to assimilate and to forget the God of Israel and His Torah.
Before we get into the depth of the matter, one can already see how “Reform Judaism” has accomplished the above goal quite well: recent statistics show that only 29% of Reform Jews say they have a strong belief in God, and only 4% regularly attend their “temple”. A whopping 80% of Reform Jews intermarry, with the express approval of the “rabbis” who officiate these weddings. The same rabbis are often quite proud to publicly trample Torah law—in fact, the first graduation ceremony of the Reform seminary Hebrew Union College in 1883 featured frog legs and shrimp, and was called the “treif banquet”.
The leaders of Reform Judaism have accomplished the role of the erev rav quite well. Where exactly did they come from?
A New Cult
The story of Reform Judaism actually begins two centuries earlier. In the middle of the 17th century, there was a great messianic fervour, particularly in Europe. Many Christians believed that the year 1666 would be the last (having the symbolic 666), while some Jews also clung to several opinions—including a possible reference from the Zohar—that the End of Days would come in the mid-1600s. Meanwhile, Eastern European Jews were experiencing perhaps their worst catastrophe yet, the Chmelnitsky massacres.
In the midst of this, a mentally-unstable Jew named Shabbatai Tzvi (1626-1676) started to have illusions of grandeur. Although he was a noted Torah scholar, his family and rabbis rejected his fits of megalomania. Tzvi left his hometown of Smyrna and eventually ended up in the Holy Land, where Nathan of Gaza soon proclaimed him the messiah. Although rejected by the majority of rabbis, and at one point excommunicated, Tzvi’s fame continued to spread.
Eventually, he stirred enough of a storm that the Ottomans arrested him and gave him the option of converting to Islam and ending his messianic pretensions, or death. Tzvi converted, and became an honoured Ottoman effendi. His closest followers converted with him. The messianic dream came to an end. Yet, many people still believed him to be the messiah, even after his death. While those of his followers that converted to Islam lived in Turkey and were known as the Dönmeh, there were also Jews who continued to practice Judaism but were secretly “Shabbateans”, particularly in Eastern Europe.
The biggest problem with Tzvi is that he claimed to fulfil the messianic role of bringing a “new Torah”, the Torah of Atzilut, and this Torah does not require strict adherence to mitzvot. He publicly ate chelev, prohibited non-kosher fats, and even recited a blessing over it. The Shabbateans feasted on fast days, and there were also rumours that they suspended the laws of prohibited relationships.
Among the Dönmeh, the latter abolition took particular significance, and their future leader Baruchiah Russo (d. 1720) abolished any restrictions on sexuality, developing a series of bizarre sexual practices. In the middle of the 18th century, this community was paid a visit by one Polish-born Jacob Frank (1726-1791), the son of a secret Shabbatean. In 1755, Frank returned to Poland and started preaching the way of the Dönmeh. He founded his own Shabbatean sect, claiming to be the final incarnation of Shabbatai Tzvi.
Following the model of the Dönmeh in Turkey, who outwardly converted to Islam, Frank and his followers outwardly converted to Christianity. Because of this, they were assisted by the Catholic Church. (Frank himself was baptised by King Augustus III of Poland!) The Frankists took antinomianism to an extreme, and sought to destroy Torah law entirely, and all of traditional Judaism with it. While Frank and about 500 of his followers converted, it is estimated that several thousand more (3000?) remained as outwardly practicing Jews, often very religious-looking and supposedly very pious to mask their secret Frankism. Frank believed that in such a way, the Dönmeh will destroy Islam, his Frankists would destroy Christianity, and those secret Frankists among the Jews would destroy Judaism.
Thankfully, their plot was averted. The Dönmeh had no influence on Islam (a tiny isolated community still lives in Turkey today) nor was Christianity affected very much, mainly because there was a much greater wave of atheism and “Enlightenment” already passing over Europe. The Frankists were excommunicated by the rabbis, who also made it incumbent upon every Jew to expose any Frankist they may suspect.
At the same time, the Chassidic movement took off, and it is quite likely that the Baal Shem Tov (Rabbi Israel ben Eliezer, 1698-1760) decided to go public with his previously-secret group of Chassidim to counter the Frankist threat and provide Jews with a valid mystical approach. Sadly, the Baal Shem Tov died in 1760, just months after the Frankists publicly converted to Christianity and reignited a blood libel against Jews at the end of 1759. It is said that the Baal Shem Tov succumbed to a young and untimely death because of his grief over the Frankists. He toiled effortlessly to stop them; his efforts were not in vain.
By the early 19th century, Frank himself was dead, and the movement couldn’t live on without his power, wealth, and charisma. His daughter Eva lead for a while, but soon ended up destitute and without followers. The movement was quashed, but thousands of Frankists remained across Europe, ostracized from the Jewish community, and without any leadership, organization, or support. Where would they go?
Reform and the Franks
World-renowned philosopher and scholar Gershom Scholem (1897-1982) thoroughly researched the origins and history of Shabbateanism and Frankism, and published a great deal of literature on these movements. Besides this, Scholem was an expert on Jewish mysticism, and was once called “without challenge the greatest living authority on Kabbalah.” He was professor of Jewish mysticism at Jerusalem’s Hebrew University for over three decades, and his breadth of Kabbalistic knowledge was astounding.
In The Messianic Idea in Judaism (pg. 141), Scholem wrote:
The leaders of the “School of Mendelssohn”, who were neither Shabbateans themselves, of course, nor under the influence of mysticism at all, to say nothing of mystical heresy, found ready recruits for their cause in Shabbatean circles, where the world of Rabbinic Judaism had already been completely destroyed from within, quite independently of the efforts of secularist criticism. Those who had survived the ruin were now open to any alternative or wind of change; and so, their “mad visions” behind them, they turned their energies and hidden desires for a more positive life to assimilation and the Haskala [“Enlightenment”], two forces that accomplished without paradoxes, indeed without religion at all, what they, the members of the “accursed sect”, had earnestly striven for in a stormy contention with truth, carried on in the half-light of a faith pregnant with paradoxes.
Scholem points out that the members of the Shabbatean and Frankist “accursed sect” found a comfortable new home in Reform Judaism, the “School of Mendelssohn”, which accomplished so well what the sect was trying to do through subversion and infiltration. Moses Mendelssohn (1729-1786) was the backbone of the Reform founders. While himself initially well-intentioned, and wishing to help the “ghetto Jew”, he would end up raising the platform for Reform. In fact, the philosopher Immanuel Kant admitted that Mendelssohn’s work was “the proclamation of a great reform”, while Heinrich Heine proudly credited him: “Mendelssohn overthrew the Talmud.” (Yes, and five of Mendelssohn’s own six children converted to Christianity. So much for his reformed Judaism.)
Scholem further wrote of the link between the old cult and the new reform religion:
Around 1850, a consciousness of this link between Shabbateanism and reform was still alive in some quarters. In circles close to the moderate reform movement, a very remarkable and undoubtedly authentic tradition had it that Aaron Chorin, the first pioneer of reformed Jewry in Hungary, was in his youth a member of the Shabbatean group in Prague. Prossnitz and Hamburg, both in the eighteenth century centers of Shabbatean propaganda and the scene of bitter struggles between the orthodox and the heretics or their sympathizers, were among the chief strongholds of the Reform movement in the beginning of the nineteenth century. The sons of those Frankists in Prague who in 1800 still pilgrimed to Offenbach, near Frankfort, the seat of Frank’s successors, and who educated their children in the spirit of this mystical sect, were among the leaders, in 1832, of the first “Reform” organization in Prague. The writings of Jonas Wehle himself, the spiritual leader of these Prague mystics around 1800, already display an astonishing mixture of mysticism and rationalism… from which it is clear that his particular pantheon had room for Moses Mendelssohn and Immanuel Kant side by side with Shabbatai Tzvi and Isaac Luria. And as late as 1864, his nephew, writing in New York, lengthily praises in his testament his Shabbatean and Frankist ancestors…
Scholem’s conclusions are clear: Reform Judaism became a springboard for a new Shabbateanism. This may explain why it took such a strong antinomian turn, steadily shedding all mandatory observance of mitzvot. And just as it took hold across Europe, it immigrated to the United States, where the New York descendants continued in the footsteps of their fathers, as we see above. Today, the United States is the home of the largest Reform community. The statistics we pointed out earlier confirm that the Frankist vision of a destroyed, assimilated, lawless Judaism—indeed the vision of the first erev rav millennia ago—has been realized in Reform.
It is important to clarify that this does not meant that millions of Reform Jews are all part of some kind of conspiracy or evil faith, God forbid. Rather, Reform Jewish adherents are good-hearted people that have been duped into a flawed system of beliefs. Many are likely unaware of the hidden origins of their religion, and all that it truly represents.
Sure, Reform is not entirely without merit, and has its positive aspects, just as its founders had some valid arguments. Nor is present-day “Orthodox” Judaism perfect (far from it, and even further from it among certain “Ultra-Orthodox” groups). But one side, as a whole, is still cleaving to Hashem, His Holy Land, and His Holy Torah; the other isn’t.
Every Reform Jew, and every Jew in general, should undertake a serious evaluation of their beliefs and the system of which they are a part. Do your diligent research, and find where the real truth lies.