Exploring the historical roots of Reform Judaism
By Harriet P. Gross

grossforwebAround the world, many people of the Christian faith are already preparing for 2017, when the Lutheran Church will commemorate a date that is commonly considered the birthday of Protestantism.
On the eve of All Saints Day, Oct. 31, 1517, the German monk Martin Luther dared to challenge the leaders of his own Catholic Church by nailing “The 95 Theses” to the door of the Castle Church in Wittenberg, Germany. This event, almost 500 years ago, is recognized as the start of the Protestant Reformation.
Reform. That’s the key word. Luther was angry at his church, but he didn’t mean to abandon his religion and give rise to another one. His desire was to begin a debate about some Catholic ideas that rubbed him the wrong way. His biggest complaint involved “indulgences,” the then-common belief that a person could earn his way to salvation by making monetary contributions to the Church. Luther was protesting the idea that anyone might simply buy a path to eternal life.
Indulgences, he said, amounted to a corruption of the faith, and not a direct route to heaven.
The American Luther Research Center, headquartered right here in Dallas, recently presented the third in an annual series of major lectures leading up to the 500th anniversary of “The 95 Theses.” I attended last year’s lecture and learned a lot; I went again to this latest one, but found it unsatisfying — and not for matters of content. My extreme tinnitus certainly contributed to the problem, but the venue was a large hall, and the speaker, with a soft voice, continually bowed her head and read her text below the underpowered microphone instead of looking up and talking into it.
However, these circumstances gave me a chance to let my mind wander some, from Luther back to Jesus, and then ahead to the earliest reformers of Judaism.
Luther’s bold action in response to the church leaders of his time seems very similar to something the New Testament says Jesus did: In the Jerusalem Temple courtyard, he overturned the tables of money changers who were in the business of buying and selling animals for sacrifice. Jesus had no more intention then of birthing a new religion, a total breakaway from the old, than did Martin Luther at the door of Castle Church. The new religions — Christianity out of Judaism, Protestantism out of Catholicism — were actually started by followers of those early reformers.
Look at what happened to Judaism during the time of the European Enlightenment. That was an age of openness that offered civil inclusion to our people. They were able to mingle with their Christian neighbors — learning about them and from them — and, as a result, wanted to become more like those neighbors in their worship. We can date our own “reformation,” the start of our Reform movement, from the end of the 1700s and well into the mid-19th century. And its central place was Germany. Stately hymns, prayers in vernacular languages instead of Hebrew, and the use of organ music in services: all of these reforms were Jewish adaptations of Lutheran practices. So, in a way, Reform Judaism owes something of itself to Martin Luther!
It’s our glory and saving grace that although we’ve divided ourselves into varied streams, we don’t “protest” in the same way. Somehow, we’ve all managed to stay together under the one great umbrella that is Judaism. Christian Protestants have almost too many subdivisions to count, some of them not even recognizing some of the others as fellow Christians. This year’s Luther lecture emphasized the ecumenical — unity and cooperation between splintered groups. We Jews already live that concept for ourselves. We call it am Yisrael.
I will return for next year’s lecture and hope then for more “enlightenment.” Maybe someone will give microphone lessons in advance to the 2014 speaker!

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