Originally published in World Jewry 9:4 (1966), p. 30.
The Growth of Reform Judaism — American and European Sources until 1948. By W. Gunther Plaut. World Union of Progressive Judaism, New York. $7.50.
Modern Varieties of Judaism. By Joseph L. Blau. Columbia University Press, New York and London. $6.00.
Rabbi Plaut’s earlier volume “The Rise of Reform Judaism” told the tale of the birth of Reform by the novel method of selection from the documents of both the early Reformers and their opponents. In this volume he takes up the story and brings it down to the emergence of the State of Israel, with a short Epilogue in which he discusses Reform developments in more recent years.
The author does not seek to disguise his own Reform affiliation and sympathies but he is always fair to critics of the movement. Far more historian than apologist, he does not seek to conceal its faults. The most striking shift in emphasis in Reform thinking is undoubtedly with regard to the challenge of Zionism. While the early Reformers tended to look upon the Jewish nationalistic movement as a betrayal of Jewish universalism the later period produced prominent Reform Rabbis who played a leading role in Zionist endeavours. The diehards it appears are now only represented in the American Council for Judaism and it is highly significant that this splinter group is here reprimanded by the official Conference of American Reform Rabbis.
Like many American writers Rabbi Plaut is not too well-informed in Anglo-Jewish history. Simeon Singer was, of course, the minister of the New West End Synagogue (not the ‘West End Synagogue’) and the reforms to which Plaut refers (the admission of female choir singers and English Bible readings) were not ‘initiated’ by Singer but were introduced into a number of Orthodox Synagogues with the sanction of Dr. Adler. ‘Despite his (Singer’s) avowed liberalism’, the author observes, ‘his translation of the Orthodox prayer book has become the “Authorised Version”.’ There is nothing for surprise here since, whatever his views, Singer remained all his life the minister of an Orthodox Synagogue in the Anglo-Jewish understanding of that term.
Referring to the ‘further breach in the official structure of British Jewry’ which, ‘at this writing’, ‘appears in the making’, Plaut suggests that it might encourage more people in this country ‘to look to liberalism as a solution to their religious dilemma’. Although he spells the word with a small ‘l’ he is obviously, in the context, thinking, in fact, of Reform and Liberal Judaism. Many of us entertain a different hope — that it will make for a more liberal spirit in the traditional section of Anglo-Jewry so as to promote the old Anglo-Jewish ideal of, in the words of Dr. Hertz, ‘progressive conservatism’.
Dr. Blau’s book reminds us that side by side with Reform there has arisen a number of other movements with the aim of making Judaism viable and relevant on the contemporary scene. He examines skilfully Zionism, Neo-Orthodoxy and Conservative Judaism in addition to Reform. The book can serve as a Useful historical introduction to Jewish thought in modern times on the practical side, but there is not much to be found in its pages that is really new.