American Reform Judaism: An Introduction

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The only comprehensive and up-to-date look at Reform Judaism, this book analyzes the forces currently challenging the Reform movement, now the largest Jewish denomination in the United States.

To distinguish itself from Orthodox and Conservative Judaism, the Reform movement tries to be an egalitarian, open, and innovative version of the faith true to the spirit of the tradition but nonetheless fully compatible with modern secular life. Promoting itself in this way, Reform Judaism has been tremendously successful in recruiting a variety of people—intermarried families, feminists, gays and lesbians, and interracial families among others—who resist more traditional forms of worship.

As an unintended result of this success, the movement now struggles with an identity crisis brought on by its liberal theology, which teaches that each Jew is free to practice Judaism more or less as he or she pleases. In the absence of the authority that comes from a theology based on a commanding, all-powerful God, can Reform Judaism continue to thrive? Can it be broadly inclusive and still be uniquely and authentically Jewish?

Taking this question as his point of departure, Dana Evan Kaplan provides a broad overview of the American Reform movement and its history, theology, and politics.  He then takes a hard look at the challenges the movement faces as it attempts to reinvent itself in the new millennium.  In so doing, Kaplan gives the reader a sense of where Reform Judaism has come from, where it stands on the major issues, and where it may be going.

Addressing the issues that have confronted the movement—including the ordination of women, acceptance of homosexuality, the problem of assimilation, the question of rabbinic officiation at intermarriages, the struggle for acceptance in Israel, and Jewish education and others—Kaplan sheds light on the connection between Reform ideology and cultural realities. He unflinchingly, yet optimistically, assesses the movement’s future and cautions that stormy weather may be ahead. 

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780813532196
  • Publisher: Rutgers University Press
  • Publication date: 6/15/2003
  • Edition description: New Edition
  • Pages: 320
  • Product dimensions: 6.00 (w) x 8.90 (h) x 0.80 (d)

Meet the Author

A noted Jewish studies scholar as well as a pulpit rabbi, Dana brings excitement and energy to synagogue scholar in residence programs, guest lectureships, and Jewish book fairs. His research interests are broad, from contemporary Reform Judaism to American Jewish history, from Judaism in contemporary film to Jewish humor.
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  • Posted August 3, 2009

    It's unique

    Rabbi, professor and multi-published author Dana Evan Kaplan has taken on the feat of describing the myriad of facets that shape Reform Judaism in America, including its relatively short history, distinct and indistinct theology, worship evolution, Israeli endeavors, educational philosophies, mixed marriage outlooks, efforts to facilitate women's equality, acceptance of gays and lesbians, and future possible directions and issues. This well-crafted fabric of points is sewn together with the thread that Reform Judaism in America is inherently in a constant state of flux. What is more, he does all this in little more than 250 pages. Dana Kaplan's American Reform Judaism is very thought-provoking and, therefore, well worth reading.

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  • Posted June 4, 2009

    Made me understand my religion

    I knew Rabbi Kaplan while we were teenage co-counselors at Camp Laurelwood in North Madison, CT many years ago. He was coming to grips with his Judaism at that point, reading books like "The Source," and I enjoyed debates/discussions on a range of topics related to religon and Judaica. Honestly, I initially read the book to be polite, but ended up enjoying it far more than most books I choose on my own. Dana's book is written in an easy-to-read style, with lots of interesting stories. It focuses on how the Reform movement shifted over the past 20 years or so to try to become more dynamic. Part of the analysis is based on the sociological works of Rodney Stark, a researcher from the University of Washington who specializes in the sociology of religion. Stark has argued that religious groups that are too flexible do not do well. You have to have a fairly high contrast with the general society in order to attract people to your religious group. In the book, Rabbi Kaplan suggests that there is something to the argument that the Reform movement should become a bit stricter. Not too strict, but a little bit stricter. In order to do that, we need a more coherent theology. Not everyone agrees with him -- Rabbi Eric Yoffie, the presidentt of the Union for Reform Judaism, argues in the afterword that it's more important to get people doing Jewish things and the theology will come later.

    The book covers all of the hot button issues of the last 15 years -- women's rights, gay marriage, intermarriage, the fight over the 1999 Pittsburgh platform, and so forth.

    It is not a how-to manual. It focuses on what Reform Judaism believes in and how the movement has gone about implementing its beliefs. It does not go point by point and say Reform Jews do this, Reform Jews do not do that, etc.

    It has gotten a fair amount of attention in scholarly and Jewish worlds. I understand that a few years ago, Judaism journal ran a whole symposium on the book. They had an Orthodox, Conservative, a Reform, a humanist, a Jewish renewal, and so forth each talk about the book. It was a very interesting symposium, which you can download on Rabbi Kaplan's webpage.

    The book had special meaning for me in another way. As I sense is the case with many reformed Jews, I am at a transition of sorts on my religion. Do I believe in G-d? Is Judaism dissipating into nothingness due to assimilation into the greater society? Is it better to be more flexible/open or less? Dana's book moved my thinking along.

    Overall, I thoroughly enjoyed the book, happy I took "the road less traveled" in reading it.

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