Thursday, 07 Mar 2013

Written by Rabbi Mark Goldsmith

The mishkan is finished in every one of the details that have been outlined in the past five Torah portions since we read Terumah in mid February.   God’s creation of the universe took only one chapter at the beginning of the Torah but the Children of Israel’s building project of one single Tabernacle requires fifteen chapters of detail, from God’s instructions to the execution of those instructions, and the record of participation of the community as donors, builders and artisans. 

When it is finished, just as the creation is called “very good” by God so the mishkan receives its seal of approval as the “glory of God” fills the mishkan, witnessed as a cloud by day and fire by night.   It is ideal. 

Being given the exact specifications by God makes building the ideal mishkan straightforward, you would imagine, good enough that the Presence of God can find its way in.  It is not so straightforward to find the specifications of the ideal Jew.

The Masorti movement had a go at this some years ago.    At a conference about ten years ago an attempt was made by the participants to come up with a definition of the “ideal young Masorti Jew”. 

It read, as reported in the Jewish Chronicle – “the ideal young Masorti Jew is one who is Shabbat observant and keeps all festivals, has a knowledge of Israel and spoken Hebrew and feels at home in any synagogue.”  This description as is the JC’s wont was not entirely as it appeared at the conference itself  There was some additional preamble concerning how the ideal young Masorti Jew expresses his or her love of Judaism by how he lives his life and how he is both tolerant and flexible in relation to other Jews.

When I heard this description of the ideal Masorti Jew it was not surprising that it would probably be little different to a similar description if one were available of the ideal Orthodox Jew – perhaps the Orthodox Rabbonim would want to strike out the bit about feeling at home in any Synagogue.  It is not surprising because, attitudes and thinking aside, the practice of Masorti Judaism is not intended to be far different from that of Orthodoxy.  But what the Progressive Jewish Movements?  Could we articulate a description of the ideal Progressive Jew?

Perhaps to propose such a task is oxymoronic from the start.  Can religious movements which proudly assert the responsible autonomy of each of its members ever lay down an ideal that inevitably leaves little room for individual interpretation? I believe we can – but we would not go about it in the same way as those to the right of us in the Jewish religious spectrum. 

We would not be laying down absolutes concerning Shabbat and festival observance nor Hebrew competency.  Rather we would be taking much the same approach as has been with Judaism ever since its inception.  This approach is one whereby we state the poles which give the boundaries of the Jewish endeavour and consider ideal the Jew who expends his or her energy and commitment on finding their own place within those boundaries.

Rabbi Leo Baeck memorably expressed this notion in his book “The Essence of Judaism”.  Amongst the messages of this book was the reminder that Judaism is a religion based on a spectrum between polarities – God, in Judaism is both transcendent (far above our understanding) and immanent (close to us even inside of us).  God in Judaism both commands (an action of immanence, dealing directly with humanity which gives rise to most Jewish practice) and is shrouded in mystery and inapproachability (God’s name is not pronounced, God’s identify cannot be pictured).  Judaism is both particular and universal, concerned with our own people and with the whole world.  The Jewish world requires both a strong and creative Israel and a strong and creative Diaspora.  The list goes on of these apparent contradictions, in the tension between which Judaism thrives.   

Our Torah portion today exists within these tensions.  –  the mishkan was the place where God dwelt – yet God dwells everywhere – within the tension between these statements was that which enables us to focus on worship in the synagogue whilst not leaving Judaism behind when we go out into the street. 

So to say an ideal Jew is this, does that, believes the other is, I believe to miss the point of the essential dialectic of Judaism.  What then is the ideal Progressive Jew?  I would suggest that he or she is a Jew who is thoroughly engaged in the process of making his or her own balance between the conflicting demands of Judaism.  He learns from Jewish sources and non Jewish sources, he observes Shabbat in a way that enables him to remain part of the wider society, he cares for the welfare of Jews but is also open to the needs of the wider society,  he prays in Hebrew and can also express himself spiritually in his own vernacular.  He lives in the contemporary society of his country but does so proudly as a Jew.  One could continue through the whole catalogue of Jewish experience building a picture of the hundreds of ways in which an ideal Progressive Jew needs to create balance within their life.  The very creativity required to make that balance is the essence of the spiritual satisfaction available to the Progressive Jew – and why it is harder to be a religious Progressive Jew than to be a Jew who truly subscribes to the principles of a more fundamentalist Judaism – that therefore does not give him such freedom of action or thought.

The ideal Progressive Jew then is something like this – a Jew who is thoroughly engaged in the process of making a meaningful balance between the conflicting demands of Jewish learning, Jewish worship and Jewish action and who lives within a community which can help him or her to do so.

Rabbi Mark Goldsmith, Alyth – North Western Reform Synagogue
Chair of the Assembly of Reform Rabbis UK
March 2013
Ordained Leo Baeck College 1996


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