August 14, 2016
Why Reform Judaism Transformed The Messiah Into The Messianic Age

Original English Essay
Authored By Mike Furey

From its very beginnings in the 19th century, the Reform movement rejected traditional messianism. Why? The notion of a heroic messiah is one of the most powerful ideas in Judaism. This idea has influenced two other major religions: Christianity and Islam. The entire Christian religion is based on messianism. This paper will attempt to outline why Reform Judaism would reject and transform traditional messianism into a messianic age by looking at key transitional ideas and key pressures imposed by internal and external forces.

Key Transitional Ideas

A bird`s eye view of Reform itself can be quickly seen in abbreviation as follows. The first stirrings of Reform could perhaps be recognized in 1786 after the death of the Prussian King Frederick the Great, when Jews began to propose for changes in both secular and sacred contexts.[1] The first stage in the development of Reform Judaism occurred between 1815 and 1821 during the controversy that arose as a result of the changes made at the Hamburg Temple in Germany.[2] For practical purposes, Reform Judaism as a movement has been identified as being "founded" by Abraham Geiger in Germany around the early 19th century.[3] The community of five thousand Jews that Geiger led in Breslau around 1838 is considered to have been the first Reform congregation.[4] In 1889 the Central Conference of American Rabbis was founded by the great Isaac Mayer Wise. He labored tirelessly to organize resistant congregations into a "denominational" type structure, which would evolve into today`s Union for Reform Judaism.[5] An oversimplification of the evolutionary process that led to Reform can be reduced to the following flow: Ghettoization → Emancipation → Secularization → Reform. Simply put, Jews were locked up. Jews were set free. Jews were shocked by the enlightenment. Jews were leaving Judaism. Reform has been an attempt to stop the hemorrhaging and make being Jewish relevant, respectable, and even relaxing recreation, that is, fun. In two centuries Judaism is radically transformed on social and intellectual levels.

Another way to abbreviate Reform is on the theological level. Ideologically speaking, the transformation process can be summarized as an attempt to do theodicy. It can be argued that Jews, in each century and in the face of each crisis, have always been trying to prove God`s goodness in spite of their condition. In the 19th century Jews had been waiting a long time for the messiah to come and their situation had deteriorated to the point of desperation. It is as if Jews concluded, "What can we do in this miserable situation of ours? Where is God? Let`s quit waiting and take action. This is the Torah."[6]

With these handy abbreviations in mind, the redefining of the messiah was, first of all, not a simple overnight change; change occurs synagogue by synagogue, city by city, "nation by nation," (nations are in formation in the 19thcentury). In practical terms, the actual medium of ideational transmission was the printed form: it occurred newspaper by newspaper, novel by novel. The 19thcentury was the age of the newspaper.[7] Since most Jews had deserted their synagogues, newspapers were the key medium by which rabbis reached other Jews.[8] In the 20th century, newspapers and radio were the major forces that disseminated and unified Israeli Hebrew.[9]

The impact of newspapers can be seen, for instance, when Ludwig Philippson (1811-1889) founded in 1837 the newspaper Allgemeine Zeitung des Judentums, which he would go on to edit for fifty years. With its mass appeal it had a great impact on the Reform movement. It reported on all manner of changes going on in German synagogues and other places. It was the chief sounding board for conflicting views.[10]

In 1820 messianism transitioned when "the most audacious innovation of the Hamburg reformers" was written into its siddur.[11] The new prayer book omitted the messianic return to Zion. Returning to the Land no longer mattered according to the new way to pray. This omission broke with a central principle of Judaism grounded in all layers of tradition. To deny the constitution of the nation and the rebuilding of the temple, both notions strongly related to messianism, is almost a denial of Judaism itself.[12] But since messianism could be interpreted to imply lack of complete loyalty to the rulers under whom Jews lived, Jews began to downplay the national and the cultic parts of messianic hopes. For survival, messianic hope demanded "political quietism."[13] The emphasis shifted from the messiah`s concern for one nation, Israel, to the messiah`s concern for all nations.

In France the messiah had already evolved from person to age as seen in a letter to the editor of the Gazette de France, August 27, 1838. Joseph Salvador, a well-known writer among French Jews, penned that the messianic idea was "a personification of an epoch and a new condition, of a universal dispensation bestowed upon the human race."[14] In Germany in 1841 in the Hamburg Temple its new prayer book had once again redefined the three traditional messianic notions which all fit together like hand and glove: redemption, messiah, resurrection. Orthodox leader Isaac Bernays criticized the siddur for the "violation of [the] three cardinal doctrines,"even though it still retained a reference to go`el, a redeeming messiah.[15] In the fall of 1842 an association in Frankfurt called Reformfreunde, Friends of Reform, which only lasted three years and had at most forty-five men in it, had published three points. The third point, which had the widest support in the Reform movement, was as follows:

"We neither expect nor desire a messiah who is to lead the Israelites back to the land of Palestine; we recognize no father land other than that to which we belong by birth or civil status."[16]

The above quote says nothing about the messianic age, but it lends a clue to its geographical adoption and evolutionary transitional point in Germany from which Reform had its greatest impetus. A sign was hung in Frankfurt for the people to see, "Messiah not wanted."

In 1845 at Frankfurt-on-the-Main during a conference of rabbis and other Jewish thinkers, it became necessary to tone down the political side of messianism. Although messianism was part of the essence of Judaism it was no longer meaningful politically under the circumstances of integration. Only its universal aspect remained relevant. The majority at the conference decided, "The messianic idea deserves a significant role in our prayers, but the petitions for our return to the land of our fathers and the establishment of a Jewish state should be eliminated from them."[17] The mission of Israel now replaced the messianic return. David Einhorn said in Frankfurt:

"The collapse of Israel`s political independence was once regarded as a misfortune, but it really represented progress, not atrophy but an elevation of religion. Henceforth Israel came closer to its destiny. Holy devotion replaced sacrifices. Israel was to bear the word of God to all the corners of the earth."[18]

By 1881, in America, Isaac M. Wise had written in a series of sermons on The Origin and History of the Messianic Idea that both Jews and Christians have completely distorted messianic ideals.[19] According to James G. Heller, Wise thought the idea of "a personal Messiah had no warrant in Mosaic writings."[20] According to Heller, the following year Wise wrote that "the concept of a personal Messiah did not become an official Jewish teaching until the time of Rabbi Akiba ...", and, that "the suffering Messiah was never adopted among Jews as a religious belief ...", and, that "both, Christians and Jews, had lost sight of the Messianic idea ..."[21] For Wise, the original meaning of messianism had been corrupted by contact with Christianity. Wise thought it had always been about a universal age for all peoples. For him, the idea did not evolve, but had suffered devolution.

Key Pressures, Internal And External

Since Jewish communities are scattered everywhere and not necessarily in association with one another, and, since schules, synagogues, and temples are not led by an overarching organization comparable to a papacy or a Protestant synod but by great personalities and philosophers, there has always been multiple streams of ideas and practices. New or updated Jewish ideas form only after decades or even centuries of debate. Nevertheless, Jews in the main have held to a popular belief in a messianic figure - until the 19th century.

Sooner or later the ideas around the messiah were bound to change because change is the only constant in this world. In particular, ideological change, is inevitable. Population growth itself will lead to new ideas and beliefs. In 1800 there were 2.2 million Jews in the world.[22] In 1880 there were 7.5 million. In Eastern Europe the numbers grew from 1 million to 4.25 million in just eighty years. At the eve of World War II, there were nearly 17 million Jews in the world. By its very prophetic nature, Judaism is in a continuous state of 改善(kaizen). The greater the population size the greater the potential for change because there are simply more people to contribute to the knowledge base, says Julian Simon according to Eric Brynjolfsson.[23] Based on this logic, any notion by any growing group will evolve. What makes Reform`s evolutionary process different? Jews in Western Europe felt unique exploding pressures from within and without.

Pressure From Hatred And Jealousy

Daniel Jonah Goldhagen concludes in his book, The Devil That Never Dies : The Rise and Threat of Global Antisemitism, that the source of antisemitism has been identified simply as "Jewness."[24] Antisemitism is at least as old as the book of Esther. An interesting example of antisemitism in 1815 can be seen in the home of Jacob Herz Beer in Berlin.[25] Under rabbi Israel Jacobson, liberal and popular services were conducted in the wealthy Beer home. When it caught the attention of the Prussian king Frederick William III, the king ordered it closed down for jealous fear of its success and resistance to missionary activities. As usual, Jewish success made Gentiles nervous. The Berlin community appealed and the house synagogue remained open until September 1823. The minister of the Interior under King William III, felt that Reform was "dangerous to civil society."[26] Berlin remained tough on Jews and it would have to be in Hamburg where Reform struck its deepest roots.

Pressure From Secular Laws

Reform Judaism originated primarily as a Western European phenomenon in the explosive face of the enlightenment, the edict for elementary education,[27] and the emancipation. In 1782 Austrian Emperor Joseph II issued an edict imposing elementary education in German on Jewish children, which opened their way to the general culture in spite of the scandal it caused among traditionalists.[28] In 1789 French Emperor Napoleon Bonaparte sprang the Jews from their ghetto cages and opened them up to legal equality as human beings. Even though these positive forces were released into the world, Jews felt even more pressure than ever with exposure to more Gentiles and their Torah shaking rationalism. This shaking is still going on among Jews and more specifically, the Orthodox community. What 19th century German Jews experienced in the clash with civilization is still going on in Jewish communities. In a book entitled תורהומדע (Torah Umadda) by Norman Lamm about the struggle with modernity, the struggle with how much time one can spend away from Torah study and in modern sciences, Jonathan Sacks wrote an afterword in which he quoted Professor Daniel Elazar, writing that "Some 80 percent of the identifying Jews no longer see themselves as bound by Halakhah."[29] Without succumbing to the fallacy of anachronism, this number could probably represent 19th century Jews in Western Europe as well.

Pressure To Fit Into The Host Nation

While reading the text for this course, The Jew In The Modern World: A Documentary History, one repeated theme that popped out was the pressure Jews felt to fit into the Gentile host nations in which they lived. This leitmotif piqued the writer`s curiosity to look closer. Like a blinking neon sign, the writer kept seeing the text shout and doubt, "Would Jews who longed for a messianic king and a homeland of their own be loyal to the nation in which they currently lived?" Reading primary source documents gave flesh and blood to this buried pressure which had otherwise been largely imperceptible in contemporary Jewish American life. Back then Jews wanted to assimilate so badly that they were willing to cast off any semblance of Jewishness in order to look, act, and even smell like a Gentile. A sample of documents from the text for this course to represent the pressure to assimilate based on the accusation of being a nation within a nation include:

  • Johann David Michaelis` Arguments Against Dohm (1872), pp. 34-36
  • Abbé Grégoire`s An Essay On The Physical, Moral And Political Reformation Of The Jews (1789), pp. 54-57
  • Johann Gottlieb Fichte`s A State Within A State (1793), pp. 283-284

For a longtime, the idea that Jews were a nation and would be redeemed by their messiah-king kept Jews from taking political or religious action. Luz wrote, "The eschatological-messianic attitude, reinforced by the historical experience of the Jewish people, sapped any tendency for a realistic political solution to the problem of their national existence" within other nations.[30] The historical belief in messiah kept Jews from assimilating into any other nation. Jews focused on the spiritual so much that "the material," how to succeed in politics was weakened. Eventually, Reform Jews responded to this imbalance. The pendulum would swing from the ghetto Jew trying to preserve traditions to the emancipated Jew trying to establish equality in Gentile lands. The pendulum would swing toward another extreme, as Meyer wrote, "At times among the laity, the rejection of Jewish national identity seems to have been the principal distinguishing feature of Reform or Liberal Judaism."[31]

Pressure To Fit Into Society

Similar to the pressure to fit into the nation, there was pressure to fit seamlessly within the local society. Even to this day, Reform Jews continue to feel like "the ugly duckling" as felt in the words of Marc Rosenstein, "We Reform Jews are understandably appalled by our repeated experiences of rejection, de-legitimization, ignorance, and prejudice, by both secular and Orthodox Israelis ..."[32] Rabbi Rosenstein is referring to how Reform is perceived by Israelis but a similar unanacronistic feeling was felt in the 19th century in the Galut, (exile). Benjamin Harshav was writing about Eastern Europe, but his words are just as true for Western Europe: "When we read the memoirs of Solomon Maimon (1753-1800) or the writings of Mendele Moykher Sforim (Abramovitsh, 1835-1917), we are amazed at how wretched, dirty, degenerate, illiterate, or ugly our ancestors appeared - only three or four generations ago."[33]

Pressure To Enter Modernity

The pressure to assimilate is probably the greatest of all factors that led Reform thinkers to transform the messiah from a person to an age. In particular, the pressure to assimilate by updating Judaism`s ideas in accordance with enlightened philosophy and science is the key to the foundations for the messianic age.

Rationalism put extreme pressure on Jews to grow out of their thinking about life. Jews were embarrassed by their legacy.[34] Elaine Rose Glickman says in regard to messianic belief, "It was simply not needed anymore."[35] Like a Christian child who discovers there is no Santa Claus, he or she simply outgrows the belief and moves on. The old mythologies were updated in accordance with rational thinking. This newly obsolescent notion of a messiah who used to be expected to usher in a kingdom of righteousness was being transformed into a messianic age, a time of righteousness and rule, of blessedness and bliss, brought into being by a sufficient number of observant Jews who had behaved well enough by performing mitzvot (commandments, good deeds), tzedakah (charity), gemilut chasidim (acts of kindness), tikun olam (repairing the world), etc. So, the emphasis was placed on action in the here and now. Groups appeared that transformed messianism into political action, like secular socialists or Zionist socialists. In summarizing Nachman Syrkin`s thought, Ehud Luz wrote,"Modern socialism, in its utopian version, is no more than the realization of Jewish messianism and is the pinnacle of Judaism`s historic development."[36] On the eastern front, Hasidim did some ideological rework by trying to recover from the still lingering aftereffects of the Sabbatean fiasco by redirecting messianism inward toward the mystic realm of the soul. For them, the rebbe became the redeemer, replacing the traditional messiah.[37] Jews everywhere were confronted by new ways of reasoning and had to update traditional ideas, especially messianic ones. Jews had to be rational in order to enter modernity.

Pressure Based On The Perceived Failure Of Judaism And Daily Life

In the 19thcentury there was a widespread consensus that Judaism as a religion did not meet the spiritual and physical needs of life. The shock of modernity caused a shockwave of perceived failure. As it first encountered modernity, a superstitiously laden Judaism had failed to provide hope and to meet one`s daily needs. Luz writes, "The assumption that the Jewish religion had completed its historical mission and was destined to pass from the scene sooner or later, because it contradicted the needs of modern life, was accepted by practically all the Zionist intelligentsia, including those who recognized the importance of its historical role."[38] Simply put, the Gentile world at that time held that Judaism had fulfilled its mission and was superseded by Christianity. This misleading view, nevertheless, put external pressure on ordinary Jews who began to think if a Jew expected God`s blessing, he or she had better get with the new program. Other Jews emerging from the ghetto still believed that all one had to do was study Torah and God would provide as God did when the Jewish system of welfare-like provisioning was successful in the ghetto. But with that system down and rabbinical power gone, it became a challenge for pious Jews to survive as many became poor. Many Jews began to seek new lives in other places and lands, all too ready to throw off tefillin and tradition. To make a long story short, eventually, Reform and other streams of Judaism would reconfigure traditions and restore Jewish pride. But for a time, for many Jews, being Jewish meant being a failure. For a time, many Jews did not even care to think about messianic ideas.


Messianism is really another face for theodicy. As Jews try to explain the world to themselves and to non Jews, messianism has been a major way to provide answers. "We all suffer, but God does care and help is on the way." In response to suffering, messianism arose out of the human need for a deliverer, a king, a hero. In response to the suffering of various pressures, it evolved into an age, a period of time when all nations will one day enjoy shalom together. The definition of messianism is fluid [in Judaism][39] and will continue to evolve in response to internal and external pressures. It remains to be seen what form its next iteration will take.


Anderson, Benedict. Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism. Brooklyn: Verso, Revised edition, 2006. Print.

Brynjolfsson, Eric and Andrew McAfee. The Second Machine Age: Work, Progress, and Prosperity in a Time of Brilliant Technologies. Perf. Jeff Cummings. Brilliance Audio, 2013. CD.

Glickman, Elaine Rose. The Messiah and the Jews : Three Thousand Years of Tradition, Belief and Hope. Vermont: Jewish Lights, 2013. Print.

Goldhagen, Daniel Jonah. The Devil That Never Dies : The Rise and Threat of Global Antisemitism, New York: Little, Brown and Company, 2013. Print.

Harshav, Benjamin. Language in Time of Revolution.Stanford University Press, 1999. Print.

Heller, James Gutheim. Isaac M. Wise : His Life, Work And Thought. New York: The Union of American Hebrew Congregations, 1965. Print.

Lamm, Norman. Torah Umadda: The Encounter of Religious Learning and Worldly Knowledge in the Jewish Tradition. New Milford, CT: Koren Publishers, 3rdedition 2010. Print.

Luz, Ehud. Parallels Meet: Religion and Nationalism in the Early Zionist Movement (1882-1904). Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society, 1988. Print.

Mendes-Flohr, Paul R., and Jehuda Reinharz. The Jew in the Modern World: A Documentary History. New York: Oxford UP, 3rd edition 2010. Print.

Meyer, Michael A. Response to Modernity: A History of the Reform Movement in Judaism. Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 1995. Print.

Rosenstein, Marc. "Meanwhile, in Tel Aviv, Look How Things Are Changing." Web blog post. Galilee Diary., August 3,2016. Web. August 3, 2016. Link

End Notes

[1] Michael A. Meyer. Response to Modernity: A History of the Reform Movement in Judaism. Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 1995. P. 17.

[2] Meyer, Response, p. 61.

[3] Meyer, Response, p. 89.

[4] Meyer, Response, p. 117.

[5] James Gutheim Heller. Isaac M. Wise : His Life, Work And Thought. New York: The Union of American Hebrew Congregations, 1965.

[6] Luz, Parallels Meet, pp. 42-48.

[7] Benedict Anderson. Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism. Brooklyn: Verso, Revised edition, 2006. Pp. 24-25.

[8] Luz, Parallels Meet, p. 16.

[9] Benjamin Harshav. Language in Time of Revolution. Stanford University Press, 1999. P. 127.

[10] Meyer, Response, p. 108.

[11] Meyer, Response, p. 59.

[12] Ibid.

[13] Ibid.

[14] Meyer, Response, pp. 170 and 435.

[15] Meyer, Response, p. 117.

[16] Meyer, Response, pp. 122-123.

[17] Meyer, Response, pp. 137-138.

[18] Ibid.

[19] Heller, Wise, pp. 536-537.

[20] Ibid.

[21] Ibid.

[22] Norman Lamm. Torah Umadda: The Encounter of Religious Learning and Worldly Knowledge in the Jewish Tradition. New Milford, CT: Koren Publishers, 3rd edition 2010. P. 58.

[23] Eric Brynjolfsson. The Second Machine Age: Work, Progress, and Prosperity in a Time of Brilliant Technologies. Perf. Jeff Cummings. Brilliance Audio, 2013. CD. Disc 3, Track 8.

[24] Daniel Jonah Goldhagen. The Devil That Never Dies : The Rise and Threat of Global Antisemitism, New York: Little, Brown and Company, 2013.

[25] Meyer, Response, p. 46.

[26] Meyer, Response, p. 52.

[27] Joseph II, Edict of Tolerance (January 2, 1972). Paul Mendes-Flohr and Jehuda Reinharz. The Jew in the Modern World: A Documentary History. New York: Oxford UP, 3rd edition 2010. Pp. 42-45.

[28] Harshav, Language, p. 10.

[29] Lamm, Torah, p. 211.

[30] Luz, Parallels Meet, p. xii.

[31] Meyer, Response, p. ix.

[32] Marc Rosenstein, "Meanwhile, in Tel Aviv, Look How Things Are Changing." Web blog post. Galilee, August 3, 2016. Web. August 3, 2016.

[33] Harshav, Language, p. 10.

[34] Meyer, Response, pp. 10-11.

[35] Elaine Rose Glickman, The Messiah and the Jews : Three Thousand Years of Tradition, Belief and Hope. Vermont: Jewish Lights, 2013.

[36] Ehud Luz, Parallels Meet, p. 192.

[37] Ehud Luz, Parallels Meet, p. 115.

[38] Ehud Luz, Parallels Meet, pp. 287-289.

[39] The words "in Judaism" were added for the internet version and did not appear in the original text written for a class at a Jewish institution of learning. My personal policy is to understand Judaism as backgrounds to the New Testament and not to proselytize Jews.

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