Only knowledge about the diversity of Judaism allows developing a true understanding of Judaism. “The Jews” as one homogeneous group does not exist, but there are various diverse religuous and cultural identities that can be associated with different Jewish movements. These include mainly Orthodox, Conservative, Liberal and Reconstructionist Jewish movements. The latter three branches are called the Progressive Jewish Movement or Reform Judaism. Over 150 years ago, the large majority of Jews in Germany were part of Reform Judaism.
Germany being the cradle of Reform Judaism
Reform Judaism in Wiesbaden
During the 19th century, Rabbi Abraham Geiger was active in Wiesbaden. He was one of the first and also most important representatives of Reform Judaism in Germany. The first Rabbinical College having been founded in Germany after the Shoah is named after him. Abraham Geiger proposed adapting historically rooted religious ritual laws to the present. His magnum opus are translations of the Torah (1857) and he postulated that early Rabbis of the Mishnah worked towards liberalizing and democratizing Jewish Law. Within the Reform Movement of Judaism Geiger i.a. campaigned for gender equality, for simplifying and shortening of Jewish services, for using German language within Jewish liturgy, for self-determination in respect of observation of Shabbat and dietary laws and for renouncing circumcision of boys.
Old Synagogue Wiesbaden on the Michelsberg in moorish-byzantine style.
In 1869 Wiesbaden’s largest Jewish congregation built the Reform Synagogue at Michelsberg. This congregation was a progressive Jewish community in the sense of Abraham Geiger. It stood for integration, democratization and updating of religious ritual laws to the present. Of the roughly 3,000 Jews living in Wiesbaden, between 1869 and 1942 never more than 50 families belonged to the Orthodox community.
The synagogue has been destroyed like many others on 9./10. November 1938.
In 1938 the Reform Synagogue has been destroyed. The members of the Jewish Reform congregation have been deported and most of them have been murdered, sharing the fate of all other Jews living in Germany. That also included individuals having “only” a Jewish father. Many non-Jewish spouses accompanied their loved ones to the concentration camps and they have been killed as well.
Development of Progressive Judaism and its’ importance
The Progressive Movement spread from Germany over the world. Since then, the World Union of Progressive Judaism, to which the Reconstructionist Movement belongs, has become the largest Jewish movement in the world, counting today more than 1.5 million members in nearly 40 countries.
The history of Judaism in Germany and all over the world is more than a history of exclusion, persecution, destruction and victim hood. One should not focus exclusively on the Shoah (the catastrophe of mass murder of Jews during Nazi rule). The contribution of Jewish personalities to scientific, cultural, economic and political progress in Germany and the world is of enormous value. It was Progressive Judaism that has enabled this, since Orthodox perspectives limit certain activities.
Recent history of Judaism in Germany
Since 1990 more than 200,000 Jewish citizens coming from the countries of the former USSR have moved to Germany. These individuals are the majority of nearly every Jewish congregation in Germany. A significant proportion of those who came to Germany as Jews, to rebuild Jewish life in Germany, are people who have a Jewish father and a non-Jewish mother. Those have not been able to become members of the existing Jewish congregations since they are not seen as being Jewish according to the Orthodox perspective. The Reconstructionist Movement as well as the World Union of Progressive Judaism are welcoming these Jews in their communities. They have equal rights in progressive Jewish congregations all over the world. Considering the specific German history, this approach is overdue in Germany as well.
Reconstructionist Jewish Movement
Reconstructionists define Judaism as a development of civilization which includes religion, history, literature, art, music, land and language. Through commonly experiencing traditions, festivals, cultural events, discourse of Jewish teachings we enforce our affiliation with the Jewish People.
Judaism over thousands of years has been developed and changed through Rabbinic interpretation of the Torah. In the beginning, being Jewish was inherited from the father. Only about 2,000 years ago a Rabbinic decisions changed this to matrilineal inheritance. Therefore the Reconstructionist Jewish movement insists on both options being valid. Reconstructionists believe that Jews have the right and obligation to reconstruct Judaism in such a way that it realistically is compatible and harmonizing with our life within society.
We share Judaism as Jewish scholars always have done it. Therefore, Reconstructionists introduced the Bat Mitzvah (festival of religious adulthood of girls). This tradition has been taken over by all other Jewish denominations.