Rabbi Plaut’s books on Reform Judaism still resonate

Rabbi Gunther Plaut

The lament of modern rabbis is either that no one listens to them or that what they said last year (or even last week) is no longer considered relevant.

So it’s a sign of their impact and worth that two sister volumes written and compiled by the late Rabbi Gunther Plaut of Toronto’s Holy Blossom Temple have been re-issued on the 50th anniversary (roughly) of their first appearance. Equally remarkable is that they still contribute to the conversation about Reform Judaism.

The milestone editions of Rabbi Plaut’s The Rise of Reform Judaism, published in 1963, and The Growth of Reform Judaism (1965) have been issued by the Jewish Publication Society in Philadelphia. Considered landmark studies in their day, the volumes chart the beginnings of the Reform branch of Judaism in 18th-century Germany, and take the reader through virtually every aspect of its formation, growth, governance, schisms, beliefs, worship and relationship with other Jews.

Even though the second volume charts the strong attraction of liberal/progressive Judaism in its day, it does not – could not – foresee Reform’s pride of place in today’s Jewish universe. For example, the Canadian Council for Reform Judaism now represents 27 Reform Congregations from Montreal to Vancouver with over 30,000 affiliated members. In Toronto alone, according to a 2006 study, 37 per cent of Jews identified as Conservative, 19 per cent as Reform and 14 per cent as Orthodox.

Stateside, the Reform movement is the largest in American Jewry, with 1.5 million members and more than 900 congregations. More than one-third of U.S. Jews identify as Reform.


And in Israel, nearly four per cent of a mostly religiously unaffiliated population self-identifies as Reform. As of three years ago, there were 63 Reform preschools in Israel, up from 25 a decade ago, and 41 congregations, double the number from five years ago.

Clearly, Rabbi Plaut, who died in 2012 at the age of 99, was onto something when he wrote that Reform Judaism “is a phenomenon of man’s restless spirit.” Substitute a gender-neutral term and he’s still right.

Rabbi Plaut was writing and compiling in the turbulent 1960s, when a growing counterculture sought more individual freedoms, alternative living arrangements, and demands for ethnic, racial and sexual equality. Sound familiar?

It was Reform’s “dynamism,” he averred, that was its chief attraction. But that factor also made it difficult to describe, for Reform was rooted in tradition, yet struggled to reconcile the old ways with a sparkling new world and its dangers of assimilation.

Indeed, the author discussed assimilation at length as a key issue facing Reform and all Jewry. Writing in a new preface to the first volume, Rabbi Howard Berman of the Society for Classical Reform Judaism echoes Rabbi Plaut in saying that many Reform Jews would understand the driving force in the growth of liberal Judaism not as negative, destructive assimilation, “but as a positive creative process of acculturation – an embrace of progressive, pluralistic American culture and democratic values by Jewish immigrants in the 19th century and by the Reform movement generally as time went on.”

Again, substitute something for “American,” and Rabbi Plaut would doubtless agree (though one can imagine him shaking his head at Canadian Jewry’s rightward turn over the years Stephen Harper was prime minister).

The Rise of Reform Judaism covers the first 100 years of the Reform movement, from Jewish Enlightenment leader Moses Mendelssohn to the Augsburg synod in 1871. Rabbi Plaut quotes liberally from the earlier reformers on such still-relevant controversies as organ music in the synagogue, circumcision, observing the Sabbath, the rights of women, relations with Christians and the authenticity of the Bible. The contentious introduction of a rabbi’s sermon is now the norm in all mainline Jewish denominations.

The Growth of Reform Judaism features a new introduction and epilogue, and additional primary sources documenting Reform’s profound changes over the last 50 years. The emphasis is chiefly on the American scene, where liberal Judaism took the deepest hold, but there are examples from Europe and Israel as well.

The tensions and challenges facing Reform today are multi-faceted. As Rabbi David Ellenson, former president and chancellor emeritus of Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, writes in the second volume’s epilogue, “waning Jewish commitment and attachment” are competing with “pockets of intense Jewish revival and knowledge.”

The future of Judaism in North America, Israel and throughout the world, Rabbi Ellenson boldly states, “depends to a large extent on the ability of Reform Judaism to maintain and revitalize Jewish religious tradition in a voice that is relevant and inspiring to the Jewish People today.”

In other words, the debate and challenges Rabbi Plaut so cherished continue.