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The Great Awakenings

The Essence of Contemporary American Religion

Part Twenty-Eight


By Shlomo Phillips © 1989
(most recent update February 26, 2015)

The Trefa Banquet

While Jewish religious developments usually remained focussed within their own communities and therefore had limited direct impact on the world outside, a major reform movement arose within Judaism during this period that continues to have a major impact on the Jewish and non-Jewish people.

Inspired by Das Aufklarung and Haskalah, as early as 1869 certain American Jews (gathered in Philadelphia) began working to redefine or modernize American Judaism. They drew inspiration from similar German conferences held between 1841-1846. This Jewish reformation exploded within the heart of American Judaism when, in July of 1883, the Trefa Banquet was held. After this dinner, held at Highland House Restaurant and attended by over 200 distinguished Jewish and non-Jewish guests of Hebrew Union College, there was no turning back. American Judaism had divided into two organized movements, each claiming its right to define Jewish religious practices. The "trefa banquet" did not cause that division, but the anti-Torah principles advocated by its organizer was symbolized by it.

The word tref refers to food that is prohibited for Jews under halacha (Jewish law). In order to officially establish its rejection of and separation from traditional Judaism, Hebrew Union College chose to serve trefa (including shrimp) at its first graduating class of rabbis during the official graduation dinner. This Halachically forbidden act instantly established an impenetrable wall of mistrust and disrespect between the reformers and what is now called the Orthodox Movement, which is to say, traditional Judaism.

The overt rejection of Jewish law symbolized by the dinner also established a deep gulf between the reformers themselves. In time other non-Orthodox movements were established. During the Third Great Awakening however, the Jewish reformation effectively created two Rabbinic Judaisms, one Orthodox and traditional, the other non-Orthodox and "liberal."

In 1885 Rabbi Kaufmann Kohler (a liberal reformer) and Rabbi Alexander Kohut (a conservative reformer) oversaw a split among the reformers. Their debates resulted in the Reform Movement's Pittsburgh Platform, chaired by Isaac M. Wise. In 1889, the more liberal "Reform" rabbis established the Central Conference of American Rabbis with Hebrew Union College as its university and seminary flagship.

Seeking to establishing itself as a middle-ground between what it saw as two extremes the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism and the Jewish Theological Seminary Association (established in 1902) were established for the Conservative Movement. Neither group is accepted by the Orthodox, which is itself now divided into several sects.

Because the non-Orthodox movements favored assimilation into American society they were much more open to inter-religious dialogue. This openness enhanced communication and liberal Judaism became more familiar to average Americans. Because of this, Reform Judaism enjoyed a direct relevance within the American religious experience that Jews had never before known. Judaism in American soon meant Reform Judaism to the majority of Jews and non-Jews alike.

I discuss the Jewish movements in more detail elsewhere. For our present purposes, like American Christians, American Jews of the Third Great Awakening were establishing an independent minded version of their religion that was more socially accepted. For these Jews that meant denying the ancient view of the Jews as a uniquely Chosen People. These Jews were Americans first whose religious preference was non-Orthodox Judaism. Jews were now becoming public figures and their many contributions, which had always blessed the New World, were now being recognized in many areas of social life. While anti-Semitism continued to boil just under the surface during this period, in the United States Jews were justifiably optimistic. Perhaps this made the events of the 1930's and 40's all the more difficult to bear!

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