July 29, 2004

by Reb Yudel
Progressive Judaism, monkeys and parrots

Rabbi David Goldberg of The European Region of the World Union for Progressive Judaism on Progressive Judaism in the Wider World

Progressive Judaism as an institution is no longer, in my opinion, at the cutting edge of religious innovation or radical social action. One hundred and fifty years ago Samuel David Luzzatto accused Reform Jews of being the monkeys of modern society, aping whatever was the latest fashion. Nowadays, we are the parrots of wider Jewish society, repeating �Me too, me too� at whatever pronouncement comes down from the World Jewish Congress, the Jewish Agency, the Anti-Defamation League, the Simon Wiesenthal Centre, or a Likud government spokesman, as being in the best interests of the Jewish people. Being accepted for our usefulness when it suits the Establishment, and supping at top table, has made us complacent, as Abba Hillel Silver once accused Chaim Weizmann of being about his relationship with the British Mandate.

Apart from our knee-jerk support for Israel, whichever government is in power, and our obsession with real or alleged anti-Semitism � and if you don�t like my use of the word �obsession� just ask yourself this: in modern Europe, despite the spill over from the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, despite the Left�s hostility to Zionism, is it easier and safer to be a Jew or a black, a Muslim, or an asylum seeker? � apart from those two examples, let me give a few more: after nearly two hundred years of existence, and with the exception of America, where Reform Jews are in the majority, Progressive Judaism in Europe and Israel still spends a disproportionate amount of its time claiming authenticity and seeking recognition from discredited, out-of-touch Orthodoxy.

It is pathetic that with a long history behind us, and so many achievements to our credit, we should still be so insecure about our validity.

Is that why most of my younger colleagues, male and female, regard wearing a kippah all the time as essential proof of their Jewishness? Is that why many of them want to make conversion to Judaism harder, not easier? Does it explain the proliferation in Progressive synagogues in recent years of what I would call �gesture rituals� � there is more davvening and shokelling and bowing and scraping going on than in your average Black Pentecostal church.

What has happened to Reason as the defining attribute we bring to analysis of our ancient heritage? Instead the new buzzword is �spirituality�. Leo Baeck College and Hebrew Union College and for all I know Abraham Geiger College students, love talking about �struggling with the text� and finding �new meanings and fresh insights� in Biblical chapters about animal sacrifice or menstruation and ritual purity which they select for the weekly Torah reading to set before congregants, but which the founders of Progressive Judaism had fastidiously and rightly rejected for being of their primitive time and morally backward place.

I mean, reading about the waters of jealousy ordeal doesn�t exactly yield rewarding insights like struggling with a difficult text from Shakespeare or Goethe, does it?

Ritual and spirituality are what happen when people no longer believe in God, but don�t quite have the courage to say so. As the English writer G K Chesterton once famously remarked, �When people cease to believe in God, they don�t believe in nothing, they believe in anything.�