Monday, 24 April 2023

Welcome to Progressive Judaism - A Judaism for the Twenty-First Century

Shalom and welcome - I am glad you have visited!  My name is Jonathan Keren-Black, and I am a Rabbi based at the Leo Baeck Centre in East Kew, Melbourne, Australia
I grew up in the Progressive Movements (Reform and Liberal) in the UK and became a Rabbi in 1988 after 5 years training at the Leo Baeck College in London.  In 2003 my family and I moved to Melbourne, where I am a part of the Moetzah, the Rabbinic Council of the Union for Progressive Judaism, Australia, New Zealand and Asia (big region!).  I was the Editorial Team leader for our beautiful new prayer book introduced in 2010, the World Union Edition of Mishkan T'filah, and also developed and adapted 'A Judaism for the Twenty-First Century' (see below), which is one of our course text books, to suit our region (both available from office(at), +6103 9819 7160, or contact us for stockists).

Of course, we believe that Progressive Judaism is one of the best frameworks for a modern, spiritual life, and it is always a pleasure when people who have not grown up as Jews decide to join the journey, and often end up deciding to be Jewish themselves.  One of the most satisfying things we Rabbis do is sit on a Bet Din (a Jewish Court), hear people's stories about how they came to Judaism, and welcome them formally to be part of the Jewish people (often with tears of happiness all round!)

This blog is to record enquiries (anonymously) and my responses (starting below).  You may find something that reflects or informs your own situation.

Here in Melbourne we have run formal 'Introduction to Judaism' classes for many years, for members interested in learning more formally and broadly about Judaism, for non-Jews who are interested in understanding more about Judaism 'from the inside', and for those who are thinking of becoming Jewish.   In 2010, we decided to utilise advances in technology to make this course available on line, and I am delighted to supervise students from all over Australia and beyond, a number of whom have since gone on to become committed and involved members of their local Jewish communities.  You can try out the first two sessions of the course for free, and see if it feels useful and informative to you:

To provide suitable support materials, I have revised an excellent book written by my colleague Rabbi Pete Tobias from the UK called 'Liberal Judaism' to make it an ideal fit for the slightly different needs of our region - our version is called 'A Judaism for the Twenty-First Century' and it is available both in print and electronically from, ISBN 145-6-307576 (printed version) or from the Leo Baeck Centre.  

Although Hebrew is not necessary to complete an Introduction to Judaism course, it is if you wish to participate in Jewish community life, and certainly if you wish to become Jewish, and so I have also produced a teach-yourself book for adults called 'Hebrew from Zero', which utilises lots of tricks and devices learned from my own teachers and developed and refined over the years to make learning to read Hebrew, quick, easy and fun!  Again, Amazon or us, ISBN 146-6-462183

It is important to understand that there are a variety of approaches  within the Jewish world, just as there are in all other faiths (but perhaps even more so - we have a saying in Judaism 'Two Jews, three opinions!).  The 'continuum' of Jewish belief extends rightwards from Progressive Judaism to the orthodox and ultra-orthodox, and leftwards to secular and atheist Jews (although both secular and atheist Jews might sound strange, Judaism is not only a religion but a people and a culture, so there are in fact many who put themselves in those categories, including very many Israelis, who consider themselves 'khiloni' or 'secular' Jews.

The dividing line between 'Progressive Judaism' and 'Orthodoxy' comes down to how we view Torah.  If you are orthodox, you believe it is the five books dictated to Moses by God at the top of Mount Sinai.  It must therefore be 'true and without fault'.  Progressive Judaism (Reform, Liberal, Reconstructionist) believes that Torah is a human attempt to record 'what God wants from us' but is therefore naturally limited by its time and context (other groups such as Conservative or Masorti view it similarly).  The various styles of language, different names for God, internal contradictions, duplicated stories with different details (for example the two consecutive accounts of Creation and humanity) do not have to be forcibly reconciled, but are signs of our rich and wide human experience.  We might view Torah - and indeed 4000 years of Jewish tradition - as a symphony of traditions. 

It is only fair to say, though, that although individuals often have good and strong relationships with other denominations of Jews - and most families will include Progressive, orthodox, mixed-marrieds and non-believers - the formal structures of Judaism sometimes have more difficulty getting along!  Although Rabbis may have colleagues and friends in other  denominations, there is a rule within parts of orthodoxy not to share a public platform with Progressive Rabbis, and they will not officially recognise our rabbinic status, nor therefore anyone who converts with us!  Since Progressive Judaism is the largest synagogue grouping in the world (World Union for Progressive Judaism -, this does not need to be a major issue, though it can occasionally lead to some difficult family situations - sadly beyond our control.  Never the less we need to warn people from the start.

In Britain, I was used to the argument that Judaism is 4000 years old, Christianity is 2000 and Islam is 1300 - with the implication that older is better (I will question that in a moment)!  But moving to Australia, we are very aware that Indigenous faith traditions go back at least 40,000 and perhaps 60,000 years in this land, which makes even 4000 pale in comparison.  But one of the principles of Judaism - and particularly emphasised in Progressive Judaism, is respect for other faiths - we believe there are many paths to God.  So I have always been very involved with interfaith relationships and understanding, and helped to establish the Jewish Christian Muslim Association of Australia ( in 2003.  All three traditions actually have very similar values, which is hardly surprising given our common stories and heritage!  And, put simply, I'd call the biblical period 'Mark 1 Judaism' (or some would say 'Israelitism'), out of which stemmed two new expressions, Rabbinic Judaism - or 'Mark 2 Judaism', and Christianity.  Christianity made certain changes which may in due course have led to the start of Islam, which returns to a stricter ethical monotheism.  And all have changed and developed into multiple expressions, some more moderate, others more fundamentalist, at times working and learning and living together and from each other, at other times antithetical and destructive to the others.

So that's my starting point.  We need to work together, with respect for difference and diversity, both between traditions and within our own.  There is no 'one true path' - and even if there was, only God would know it!  And, to finish with a new note, each of the traditions believes God put us here to look after God's creations - the earth and its creatures.  And we've made a real mess of it - and if we don't immediately work together to save God's world, there will be nothing left to argue about!  (See, [Jewish] [Interfaith])

Wednesday, 22 August 2018

​Where does Progressive Judaism view Torah as coming from if not given by God?
And why is this so important?

Progressive Judaism regards the Torah as unique but written by many HUMAN hands rather than handed down 'DIRECTLY FROM GOD' to Moses (as the orthodox believe).  

This is the 'fundamental' difference between us - and it is a big one! We don't accept that God says 'stone to death your rebellious sons' or 'burn your daughter in fire if she charges someone for sex' or 'kill the Canaanites when you enter the land'.  We don't find prohibition about driving cars or turning lights on in the Torah!  We might understand how, in their time, these things got in - but they are not the fingerprint of a caring, loving, kind, forgiving God!

On a test paper, the question was 'What is the Talmud?'  
The answer given was 'It is the exegesis (explanation) of the Torah, consiting of the collected works of the Mishnah'.

This is a fair, brief answer, but the student was bright and keen to understand more, and elsewhere more comprehensive, so I took the opportunity to set out in more detail the differences between 'Biblical' and 'Rabbinic' Judaism. 

The Talmud is not exactly 'the exegis of the Torah', though that's what the Rabbis want you to think!  Torah (and Te'NaKh more widely - this is the whole Hebrew bible which is pretty much the same as teh Christian 'Old Testament', a term we don't like and don't use because it implies that it has been superceded by the new one!) are the great written works of the Biblical period ('Israelitism', centralisation, hereditary, selected minority as priests, sacrifices).

From the crisis and trauma of the destruction of the first Temple (586 BCE - Before the Common Era - equivalent to BC - but we don't think Jesus was any more or less a child of God than the rest us, and don't accept him as 'Christ' - annointed or chosen one - so we don't date by 'Before Christ') to that of the second (70 CE, Common Era, equivalent to AD but we don';t acceoty Jesus as lord so we don't say 'year of our lord'), a new, non-hereditary, non centralised, non sacrificial, peer-led, 'REFORMED' and 'LIBERAL' interpretion of the inherited stories and traditions was needed, and thus was 'Rabbinic Judaism' born and ready to step in and take over when the romans destroyed the Temple (but another variant also stepped up, and eventually separated to become Christianity!).  Because the new leaders of this 'Rabbinic tradition' (the Rabbis) needed authority on which to claim leadership and interpretation, they developed the story that when God gave the written Torah, an 'oral Torah' was also given - how the Torah laws should be applied... and without which the Torah was pretty useless as a rule book.  (Another group, the Karaites, disagreed and thus rejected the Rabbis rulings - though in fact they also made their own, since often Torah rules were unclear, insufficient or contradictory).   They said (and pointed out) that the oral law had never been written down (I wonder why not?!) - and should never be (this is a great idea as it allows for flexibility, adaptation and development to the needs of the times etc).  

Sadly, in about 220, Rabbi Judah HaNasi (often simply known as Rabi) gathered the teachings of the Rabbis - usually based on - or at least 'hooked on to' the written Torah, and wroite it down.  This is the Mishnah - the first (written - and hence fixed) Rabbinic text.  As soon as that was copies and distributed, a wide variety of questions were raised about it (where it seemed its own rulings were unclear, insufficient or contradictory!) and that process of study and debate and argument continued for several hundred years - in two places, Tiberias (they weren't allowed to live in Jerusalem), and Babylon, and two colections were eventually produced - known as the Talmud (the Palestinian or Yerushalmi, which was stopped a hundred years earlier and is incomplete) and the Babylonian or 'Bavli' which became the authoritative version. So basically the Talmud is the great and major work of the Rabbinic period.  (Several hundred years later, after various scholars had continued this process even around the Talmud once it was published, Maimonides came along and decided to 'cut to the chase' and draw out all the salient conclusions' without the citations and tirtuous and lengthy debates, and produced teh Mishneh Torah, for which he was castigated and his books burned - but which are now core subjects of study in many yeshivas for advanced Jewish learning - see Maimonides in this blog).
The great Jewish scholar, philosopher and doctor to the Sultan Saladin in Fez (Fostat - old Cairo), Egypt, Maimonides, is also known by his acronym, RAMBAM.  What was his great work and how was it received?

Maimonides was born in Muslim Spain (in what is sometimes known as 'the Golden Age') but when he was only 13 he and his family had to flee from the vicious Almohad Berber Muslims in 1148 of the Common Era (Christians tend to call it AD but since we don't consider Jesus as our lord, we don't date things by 'the year of our lord!). But CE dates are exactly the same as AD ones!
Maimonides most importantly wrote the Mishneh Torah commentary which he described as his 'Hibbur hagadol' or greatest compilation (magnum opus). It is a comprehensive guide to the halacha. Though it was radical in leaving out lengthy discussions and citations, and his books were burned by other Jews (the 'Maimonidean controversy' raged on for 100 years), it is now a central work for intensive yeshiva study around the world!

On a test, we asked 'What is 'Aliyah'?
The thorough answer submitted was: a) to go up (to the bimah - reading desk) in synagogue when the Torah is being read to receive a blessing, and 
b) to go up (to Israel) - often preceeded by an 'aliyah' in synagogue to receive a blessing for a safe return'

Because the ansers were so comprehensive, I took the opportunity to add some extra learning information: It is good that you named the two types of Aliyah. However the second is not used for going (up) to visit Israel - someone may have an 'Aliyah' (call up) before any significant journey, but it doesn't matter if it is Israel or Timbuktoo!  To MAKE Aliyah is to go and LIVE in Israel (and it has an opposite (problematic to my mind - because it is so values oriented), YERIDAH, going down, leaving Israel after living there.

On a test, we asked 'What is the Kaddish?'
The answer submitted was 'Mourner's prayer, in praise of God's creation, that brings the service to an end. Also recited by the oldest son for the death of a parent. 

Because the answers were so good and thorough, I took the opportunity to add some more detail and responded:  Actually there are about 7 different kaddishes, and we often find 'Hatzi Kaddish' (meaning half- or short-kaddish) as a pause to praise God (all kaddishes are doxologies) before moving on to the next part of the service (eg before Barechu and the Sh'ma section of our service).  But you are right that when people mention kaddish they usually mean 'the Mourner's kaddish'.  The Mourner's kaddish doesn't mention death - rather it is effectively saying that we still have faith in God and the cycles of the universe, including life and death, even at times when we are desperate and desolate.  However it can and should be said by all mourners (even in the orthodox), not only the oldest son - but all sons and daughters (though in the orthodox a male mourner usually leads).
What does the Tetragrammaton (four letter name of God in Hebrew, YHVH) 
mean, in the Sh'ma (declaration of faith)?
I was sent this answer: 'Adonai is One and we should love him'

I responded: I appreciate the care to write 'Adonai' rather than 'Lord'.  However, though it is better than a clearly gendered term it is not a great rendering of YHVH.  That is why in the Siddur (prayer book) for our region (Mishkan T'filah World Union Edition) we have used 'Eternal' or 'Eternal One'.  Our best understanding of the Tetragrammaton is that it contains the letters of the verb to be, in past (HaYa), present (HoVeH) and future (YiHYeH), thus symbolising God's 'always-ness' or 'Eternality'.

Though traditionally used in Hebrew when we see the tetragrammaton, Adonai is also not ideal in translation since it is not only gendered (the root is 'Lord'), but it is also technically plural ('my LORDS') - my LORD would be 'Adoni'! 

However, having said Adonai, you then went on to say 'we should love him..' God is far beyong our human understanding, but one thing we can be confident of is that God is not male (nor female) and a central plank of Progressive Judaism is equality, which means removing references to God as male, which is both wrong, and subtly reinforces the belief that men (and boys) are superior to women (and girls).

and 'Please translate the first part of a blessing, Barukh atah Adonai,
eloheinu melech ha'olam':
This was answered: 'Blessed are you Adonai, our God, master of the universe. (it is our convention to use capitals, eg for You in the above example).

The hebrew you have translated as master' is Melech.  Melech is usually 'King' but because Hebrew has no neuter, it can also be 'Sovereign' or 'Ruler' (gender-free).  As an anaolgy, when we translate 'Bnai Yisrael' we render it 'Children of Israel', not 'Sons of Israel'.


Rabbi Jonathan