Thursday, 15 Jul 2010

Written by Rabbi Dr Michael Shire

Two hundred years of Progressive Judaism

At the height of the JFS crisis, a letter appeared in the Jewish Chronicle that read as follows, ‘Dear Sir, In the light of the Progressive communities obsession with getting their children into JFS, let us ask ourselves what have they ever done for the Jewish community apart from including non-Jews in the synagogues and allowing ceremonies for gay people. What has Progressive Judaism ever done for us?

Progressive Judaism has now been around for 200 years. It was on July 17th 1810 that Israel Jacobson, opened a synagogue next door to his school in Seesen, Westfalia with the ideas of the French Revolution and the Napoleonic Sanhedrin resounding in his ears. At this first service an organ was played on Shabbat morning accompanying a choir of Jewish and non Jewish choristers. Jewish and non-Jewish Clergy of many denominations filed in wearing the black robes and white collars of Protestant Germany and the bell tower above rang out a new dawn for Jewish synagogue life. Prayers were in German with some Hebrew and songs were composed especially for the occasion by Jewish and non Jewish composers based on German operatic melodies.

I think our Jewish Chronicle writer might find all that rather unpalatable as did many traditional Jews of the time. As we know this new Movement was attacked for its changes by critics predicting that the descendents of these reforming Jews would all die out and  convert within a couple of generations. At the recent World Union for Progressive Judaism conference, I met a 7th generation descendent of Israel Jacobson who is now the chairman of the new Manchester Liberal congregation. My own family goes back four generations Progressive, my grandfather having become barmitzvah under Leo Baeck and I proudly have a copy of my great grandmother’s cheder prize certificate from her German Reform synagogue in 1870.

The initiative that Israel Jacobson took upon himself was to rescue Judaism from a medieval superstitious and irrelevant attitude that was gradually eroding the power of the great humanist ideas of the Hebrew Bible and ensuing the massive outflow of Jews to the more socially acceptable and romantic religion of Christianity. Reform Judaism emerged at a time when the critical reasoning approach to all matters especially science was in the forefront of the modern man and woman. Critical reasoning was applied to history and to Bible, Theology and Liturgy.  This so called Wissenschaft method used by Abraham Geiger, Leopold Zunz and others questioned Jewish views long taken for granted; why do we still pray for the restoration of the ancient Temple? Are we citizens of the land we live in? How do we contribute to the whole society? Why have our services become longer and longer and why can’t women have full participation? In what ways has rabbinic Judaism altered and submerged biblical and prophetic Judaism? What is the purpose of ritual in achieving holiness and righteousness? Reform was certainly needed.

So what is it that we as liberal Jews have contributed in the last 200 years? First of all we dared to seek answers to those critical questions. We took the courageous step to live out our convictions by changing our liturgy to make it meaningful and understandable instead of a mantra of unintelligible mumbles. We gave relevance to our prayers by omitting superstitious and anachronistic references like the mythological figure of Satan and the mass return to Zion. We included women albeit slowly into all aspects of religious leadership and ritual and we ensured that families could sit and pray together.

We understood that ritual is merely a means to seek holiness, justice and ethical behaviour. Where tradition stands in the way, we did away with it as in removing negative references to non Jews in our prayers or outmoded ideas of chosenness as perpetuated in things like kosher wine and kosher clothes and kosher toothpaste! Where ritual or law was an obstacle to natural justice, we abolished it like impediments for same sex couples or intermarried families. Where law became obsessive in detail, we went back to the original principles like making Shabbat holy and peaceful rather than restrictive and pernicious.

So have we been successful in our 200 year experiment? Would Israel Jacobson, Abraham Geiger, Leo Baeck look upon our Judaism with pride and satisfaction at what has been achieved? I believe they would celebrate our prayer books not only the way we have made our services meaningful and understandable for all but also in the original creativity and beauty of new prayers that have been incorporated within it.

Israel Jacobson, would be proud of our Progressive and pluralist day schools, cheders and youth Movements and the fact that Leo Baeck College is a centre of excellence for Jewish educational and rabbinic training and development. I believe we are privileged to have a rabbinic seminary and educational centre in our midst. Every Jewish community of stature throughout Jewish history has been sustained by its academies of Jewish learning from Babylonia to Berlin. By training rabbis and teachers for our communities and inspiring our liturgies and deepening the principles and ideas of Progressive Judaism, our College is maqom torah -the centre of our Judaism while our synagogues are the centres of Jewish life.   

Abraham Geiger, the theologian, would be surprised at how reason and individual choice and autonomy in Jewish decision making are now simply accepted by all of us and taken for granted throughout the Jewish world. Leo Baeck would take pride in the Liberal and Reform Movements’ ethical stance and activism on fair trade and 3rd world debt and sustainability for the environment and humanity.

But there are some things that they might challenge us to improve. First the fact that we have gone too far in throwing out the baby with the bathwater. Ritual may not be an end in itself but it is a powerful means to bring community together to act in holiness and righteousness. We should not be afraid of incorporating ritual into our daily and weekly individual and communal lives where it leads us to better appreciate the people and the world in which we live. I would suggest that a Jewish dietary discipline or a commitment to Shabbat observance are not incompatible with being a Progressive Jew.

Secondly as Adult Jews our Jewish learning leaves a lot to be desired. Notwithstanding the fact that our services can be understood in English, still the vast corpus of Jewish literature – law, philosophy, Bible, rabbinics are all more fully understood in Hebrew. We should all improve our biblical Hebrew at the very least. But if we are to make our own Jewish decisions then we must do so with informed choice. That can come only come about with knowledge and an ability to understand our history and its practices. I would suggest that we need one thing more and that is a love of Jewish learning, an engagement with our Jewish texts and literature, a devotion to going back to Torah study or other texts to gain insight into the changing nature of the texts as we grow and change ourselves.

Finally perhaps the greatest desire of our founders was that Judaism become a prophetic religion once again, compelling to all in its message to the world and its mission to be a light to the nations. As Leo Baeck said in 1945 emerging from the darkness of the Holocaust, ‘Judaism cannot live without the Jewish congregation but the congregation is not the ultimate purpose. It is not an end in itself. It is there for the sake of Judaism, for the sake of the great Jewish whole’. In this we have still to achieve much. How can we make our Jewish wisdom public? How to contribute to National debate, How to work for the betterment of our society. It will not be by weight of numbers but rather by depth of idea and conviction of purpose.

As Israel Jacobson said 200 years ago at the dedication of the first Progressive synagogue:

“What I had in mind when I first thought about building this Temple was the religious education of my Israelite brothers, our customs and our worship. Let us be honest, our ritual is still weighed down with religious customs that must be rightfully offensive to reason as well as to our Christian friends; it desecrates the holiness of our religion. But let us never despair of the good cause of religion and mankind. let us not lose heart when new obstacles will be thrust upon our path, when we find that any beginning can proceed but slowly and can only mature after centuries. We are descendents of one humanity which adores a common Father that we are brothers who must learn love and gentle tolerance, who under God’s guidance walk toward a common goal and who, in the end, will meet each other, on one and the same road.”

Let us celebrate the conviction of our forebears and the principles and practices we have inherited and have the passion and dedication to renew them for ourselves, our families and our communities for the future. So that Progressive Judaism in its 3rd century will have truly come to the fore as an inspiring liturgical and ritual means to holiness and righteousness. Where its adherents will be engaged in Jewish life knowledgeable and skilled to interpret our ancient tradition and texts for the purpose of making Jewish choices and that Judaism as a whole will be a prophetic reminder to the world at large about all that religion should be.

Rabbi Dr Michael Shire, Vice-Principal, Leo Baeck College
July 2010


The views expressed in this D’var Torah do not necessarily reflect the position of Leo Baeck College.