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Judaism Has Changed Before — Part 4

When Napoleon conquered most of Europe in the early 1800’s, he freed the Jews from many forms of discrimination and in some countries like France, England, and Germany, Jews were allowed to participate in general society.

In Germany, the Reform Movement was started, in protest against the strict orthodoxy of traditional Judaism. The Reform Movement allowed Jews to continue to be Jewish while they integrated (and in many cases assimilated) into general society. The rebellion against traditional Orthodox Judaism was so great that some Reform synagogues didn’t allow the wearing of yarmulkas or tallises, they drove on the Sabbath, didn’t keep kosher, and they used organ music to supplement their prayer services.

These practices of the Reform Movement were abhorrent to the Orthodox Jews (and still are to this day). A couple of centuries later the Conservative Movement was started, partly to bridge the gap between Reform and Orthodox.

Thus, it has been 300 years since Napoleon opened the world to Jews, and despite the two Movements mentioned above, and several other Movements of much smaller dimensions created later, Judaism has still not figured out how to adapt to its new-found freedom without constantly shrinking due to intermarriage, assimilation, apathy, and even hostility.

The Orthodox today comprise between 8% to 15% of Jews worldwide (including in Israel), and the remainder of Jews are either Reform, Conservative, Secular, Unaffiliated, or Assimilated.

The Orthodox have done very well at keeping alive the ghetto traditions of Europe during most of the 2,000 years since our exile from Judea, but despite their enormous birthrate, it is hard to imagine that they can carry the torch of Judaism beyond their narrow communities. Meanwhile, the rest of us become a continually shrinking number, becoming less and less effective of carrying the torch ourselves.

It seems incumbent on us to find a way that works, being Jewish without being Orthodox, because most of us will never be Orthodox and that is not the way toward the kind of progress Judaism now needs to survive and thrive in another new environment. Judaism has changed many times before, and it needs to change again!

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