The Trefa Banquet:

Judaism Divided

By Rabbi Shlomo Nachman © January 12, 2014 (last updated March 5, 2014)

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Note: This is an excerpt from my study The Awakenings
While Jews usually focussed on their own communities and therefore had limited direct impact on the world outside religiously, a major reform movement arose within Judaism during the late 1800's.

Inspired by the spirit of the Third Great Awakening, as early as 1869 certain American Jews (gathered in Philadelphia) began working to redefine or modernize Judaism to incorporate their continuing assimilation into the American 'melting pot'. They drew inspiration from a similar German Conference held between 1841-1846 that promoted Haskalah (the Jewish Enlightenment trend). This emphasis on reform exploded within the heart of American Judaism when, in 1883, 'the Trefa Banquet' was held.

The Hebrew word trefa refers to food that is prohibited for Jews under halacha (Jewish law). In order to officially establish its rejection of and separation from Jewish halacha and tradition, 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 (i.e. traditional Judaism). It also established a deep gulf between the reformers themselves. While the later divisions are now fading as the movements draw closer (sometimes to the left, sometimes to the right), the former divisions are only increasing with time and has effectively created two Judaisms (i.e. one Orthodox and one non-Orthodox). This was unfortunate.

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.

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 is accepted by the Orthodox.

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 based on the developing New World Order universalist paradigm. Jews were now becoming public figures and their many contributions, which had always blessed the world, were beginning to be 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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