Reform Judaism originated in Germany in the 19th century. Jewish reformers were motivated by three great realities: a desire to take full advantage of newly granted rights, the Emancipation in Europe, and the Enlightenment. In response to these currents, and to the ideas of philosopher Moses Mendelsohn (1729- 1786), Reform Judaism adopted a more liberal, flexible approach to religious activity than did traditional Judaism. Early reformers sought to do away with those rituals, customs, and prayers that were considered unenlightened and incompatible with modernity and rationality. Chief among the reforms instituted was to make the primary language of prayer in Reform services the vernacular or local native tongue, rather than Hebrew.
In Europe the movement toward reform stalled-in France over issues of doctrine and in Germany over issues of esthetic aspects of worship. It was imported readily into the United States, however, where it melded with earlier trends towards reform.
In the United States, Rabbi Isaac Mayer Wise became the leading reformer. In 1875, thanks to his efforts, the Hebrew Union College was established in Cincinnati for the training of Reform rabbis.
It was the Pittsburgh Platform, prepared in 1885 by a group of 15 rabbis that became the guiding principles of Reform Judaism in America. Some of the principles were:
We accept as binding only the moral laws and maintain only such ceremonies as elevate and sanctify our lives, but reject all such as are not adapted to the views and habits of modern civilization.
We hold that all mosaic and rabbinical laws as regulate diet, priestly purity, and dress originated in ages and under the influence of ideas altogether foreign to our present mental and spiritual state. They fail to impress the modern Jew with a spirit of priestly holiness; their observance in our days is apt rather to obstruct than to further spiritual elevation.
In the United States, the Reform movement is now the largest Jewish denomination. It is Reform Judaism which is most welcoming to intermarried couples and accepts patrilineal descent; meaning Reform Judaism recognizes as Jewish the child of a non-Jewish mother and a Jewish father, contrary to traditional Jewish law, which requires the mother to be Jewish. Reform Judaism, besides being the largest denomination, is also the youngest in ages of participants.