D’var Torah: Philadelphia 1869

Written by Rabbi Josh Levy — 13 December 2019

As we sit here, Rabbi Hannah and synagogue Vice Chairman David Brown will be sat in the Friday morning sessions at the URJ biennial in Chicago.  Every two years the American Reform movement has a large gathering, attended by normally 5000 or so Jews, mostly from North America, and from around the world.

Attending the biennial is a reminder of something we often forget in this country: that the largest synagogue organisation in the world is Reform, that there are millions of Reform Jews around the world.  It is a reminder too of the long history of Progressive Judaism.  In America you get a real sense of Reform Judaism as an established and establishment religion.  Which is not to say that it does not retain its radicalism, but that that radicalism has a deeper history than sometimes we recognise.

In this vein, and as this is the last Dvar Torah I will give on a Friday night in 2019, I want to acknowledge an anniversary in the year just ending that we haven’t spoken about.
Last month saw the 150th anniversary of an example of that Reform radicalism – the Philadelphia rabbinic conference of November 1869.

Some of the decisions and statements made at that conference still seem fresh today, especially from the perspective of our community, surrounded as we are by Orthodox practice.

So, for example, in the area of ritual life, it is 150 years ago that the American Reform movement removed the differentiation between Jews on the basis of priestly caste from their practice.  As they put it “Every distinction between Aaronides and non-Aaronides, as far as religious rites and duties are concerned, is inadmissible, both in the religious cult and in social life.”
Similarly, at that meeting they rejected references to bodily resurrection in liturgy as having no religious foundation.  150 years ago!

In the area of family life too.  As many of you will know, I teach Progressive Halakhah at Leo Baeck College, and we discuss the halakhah of Jewish weddings.  Rabbinic students are always surprised that the following statement is from 1869:  that at a wedding, “the bride shall no longer occupy a passive position in the marriage contract, but a reciprocal avowal should be made by the bridegroom and the bride, by pronouncing the same formula, accompanied by an exchange of rings.” As one Rabbi in attendance explained: “By this innovation it is intended to express the full equality of woman with man in the conjugal relation and in moral life, so that, just as he consecrates her to be his alone, so she consecrates him to be hers alone.”   [As an aside, it is worth noting that it still comes as a surprise to many couples, too,  – living as we do with a dominant normative orthodoxy – that while there is no fully reciprocal ring exchange in an Orthodox or Masorti wedding in this country, it has now been accepted international Reform practice for over 150 years.]

Not everything they said resonates today, their religious and social context was very different indeed, but their radicalism, their willingness to engage with difficult questions, their belief in equality – in gender equality and in the equality of all faiths shines out from 150 years ago until today.

For those of us not lucky enough to be in Chicago this weekend, the anniversary of the Philadelphia Conference should be a reminder that we are part of a long and honourable tradition as well as a Judaism with millions of members around the world.