Thursday 28 March 2024

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

Jonathan wearing a multi-coloured prayer shawl and holding a ram's hornShalom and welcome - I am glad you have visited!  My name is Jonathan Keren-Black, and I spent 20 years as the Rabbi at the Leo Baeck Centre in East Kew, Melbourne, Australia until 2023.  I am now honoured to be Emeritus Rabbi there, and have moved to live at the Narara Ecovillage on the Central Coast of New South Wales, from where I run the Online Introduction to Judaism course for Progressive Judaism Victoria, and have students from across Australia and New Zealand.

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 and in Jerusalem.  In 2003 my family and I moved to Melbourne, where I am remain part of ARC, the Assembly of Rabbis and Cantors of the Union for Progressive Judaism, Australia, New Zealand and Asia (big region!).  I was the Editorial Team leader for our beautiful prayer book introduced in 2010, the World Union Edition of Mishkan T'filah, and I 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. Most recently I also lead the development and introduction of  our High Holy Day book set, 'Mishkan T'shuvah'.  These books are all available from various places, including me (details below).

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.

Of course our communities 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.   Fifteen years ago, we decided to utilise advances in technology to make this course available on line, and I have been delighted to supervise students from all over Australia and beyond, many of whom have since gone on to become committed and involved members of their local Jewish communities.  You can try out the first two 'Foundation' sessions of the course for free, and see if it feels useful and informative to you:
email me at 'Jonathan (you know how to do @)'

To provide suitable support materials, I adapted an excellent book originally written by my colleague Rabbi Pete Tobias from the UK 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 from, ISBN 145-6-307576 or from me direct (cheaper and quicker!).  

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 from me, ISBN code 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 also 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, as, to a greater or lesser extent, 'through human agency').  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 the Jewish story - as a 'grand 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 around 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 perhaps even better: '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] or [Interfaith]).  So, on finishing 35 years' work in the congregational Rabbinate, we have moved to live in the Intentional Eco-community at the Narara Ecovillage on the Central Coast of New South Wales:  But as well as having the Honourary position of Emeritus Rabbi at Leo Baeck, I am now the Consulting Rabbi for the very small Progressive community on the Central Coast, which is our new Jewish home! 

Sunday 23 February 2020



See this fascinating blog:

Note that the first section about leaving stones mentions building a ‘cairn’, but omits the basic likelihood that the idea of covering the body with stones was to make absolutely sure that, once ‘dead’, it didn’t come back to life or get up and ‘haunt’ the survivors.  It was noty unknown for people to be buried when effectively in a deep come rather than brain-dead – hence some traditions would put a bell on the coffin with a string inside – should the buried person recover, they could ring the bell to announce it and be dug up and rescued!

Wednesday 25 December 2019

Does Progressive Judaism have a view on matters like Abortion, Euthenasia and Genetic Engineering?

  1. I am a bit confused.  Does Progressive Judaism have a communal view on abortion, euthanasia and genetic engineering? 
  2. Rabbi Jonathan responds: The Progressive Jewish approach gives permission for people to believe and act as they think God wants them to - to make EDUCATED choices for themselves.  There is no particular position on these complex matters (or any other non-ethical ones) though we would tend to the liberal end).  So on abortion, many of my colleagues would be entirely permissive - women's right etc.  On this I disagree.  Of course it is a matter of a life, so it becomes 'ethical' - but when is a life a life?  And when is it a viable life?  Tradition says that if the foetus is threatening the life of the mother, it can be killed to save her life (it is considered as a 'rodef' or persuer).  But once it's head has emerged, it is a full human being and cannot then be killed as it has full 'human rights'.  On the other hand, reflecting pragmatic realities of times past, a baby who dies in its first month does not have a full burial as it has not yet proved itself to be 'viable'.  I look elsewhere for guidance: Noting that there is a clear division in the US between Pro-Life and Pro-Choice, I find the Torah's instruction 'Choose Life'  (Deut 30:19) to be useful - it is the mother's choice - but the choice should be for life (whether that means the mother's quality of life or the possibilities for the baby). I see this as a 'middle way of moderation'.  On euthenasia, the tradition is very nuanced.  Traditionalists would claim that only God gives life and only God can take it.  I reject the idea that God takes life. God does not kill us,  Instead I feel God gives us all finite life, and when we die, God is waiting to 'receive us back'.  Even in ancient times there are stories of letting people die when it is time, and not extending their lives unnaturally (eg by making loud noises or putting salt on their tongue).  Today, medical practices have the ability to keep people alive long after they may have had enough and wish to die.  And so I have been supporting the Assisted Dying legislation which has now come into law in Victoria and last month in Western Australia.  On Genetic Engineering, the basic approach would be to develop any medical approach which helps healing and quality of life, as long as it is proven not to be harmful.  In some ways it is a high tech extension of plant and animal husbandry.  Of course it needs rigorous safeguards and I beleiev that these are generally in place in Western research and academia.  China, Russia etc are different questions! 

Working in Shabbat - Building a 'fence' round the Torah

  1. On page 248 of A Judaism for the Twenty-First Century (6th Edition), discussion on activities that are prohibited on Shabbat were so interesting how some were devised from 'what if' (ie a guitar may no be played, because what if a string breaks and it needs to be repaired...).  Would you say this 'what if' mindset is a characteristic of a Jew?  
  2. Rabbi Jonathan responds: Yes, it is called 'building a fence round the Torah' - so the tradition says chicken is not meat (as it doesn't give milk), but what if you THOUGHT you were eating chicken but it turned out to be veal?! So the Rabbis banned chicken, but did it as a rabbinic ban, not a Torah ban, as they knew it was only a safeguard. 

Is circumcision necessary for Progressive Jews and conversions?

  1. Why does Progressive Judaism insist on circumcision, and particularly for adult conversions?
  2. Rabbi Jonathan responds: Originally, the leaders of 'Liberale' in Germany felt it was not necessary - what has foreskin got to do with God? But the weight of Jewish tradition insisted, and 'what would teh orthodox say' is a powerful concern about legitimacy, so it was never abolished.  However I would say we do not always insist on it so strictly.  I suspect that in some parts (eg US) it probably goes by the way in some cases, and even in Australia, if someone put a cogent case, I'd be swayed by it (though the decision would be made by the Bet Din - Jewish Court of three people).  Also we will waive it for good medical reasons (and that includes psychological).  Finally, I would argue that if we treat girls and boys the same, and a girl and woman can be a perfectly good Jew without any physical alteration, then why can't a man?  But at the end of the day, we are balancing emotion, feeling, logic and tradition. Circumcision is biblically introduced (starting with Abraham) and described as 'a sign of the Covenant between God and 'man'). It's a tough one! 

Is the Purim Story (Scroll Of Esther) True History?

What makes you so confident that the Purim story of Esther is fictional?  It  seems it would be comparable to so many other extreme stories in the Bible? (This has always been my favourite story!) 

Rabbi Jonathan responds:

There is no evidence that the Jews of Persia were attacked, or that there was a Jewish Queen.  The story was a well-known Persian one, but recast with Esther and Mordechai as the heroes.  These names were not Jewish ones, but are allusions to the main persian Gods, Ishtar and Marduk.  I think the message is that these were great heroes, but NOT GODS.  Only the invisible God is God (and so invisible that it is only alluded to: 'help will come from another quarter' and not even mentioned in the story - one of teh reasons we dress up and disguise our identities).    But though it is not TRUE, there are KEY TRUTHS: In every generation, those will arise who hate and try to kill Jews for no good reason!  This truth makes it quite an adult festival even though everyone thinks it is for kids

Tuesday 10 September 2019

I have some Jewish background - can my children have B'Mitzvahs?

Thanks for your question.

Let me first emphasise that we try to be very open and welcoming to all, and especially to welcome back and support those with Jewish background etc.

You ahve told me that you had a Jewish father but no Jewish upbringing.

Our rules are in most ways more liberal and open than the orthodox part of the community.  Unlike them, we welcome and consider someone Jewish if they have only one Jewish parent - whether father OR mother - HOWEVER there is an important caveat - IF they have had a Jewish upbringing (and consider themselves solely Jewish) and that upbringing has been marked by 'Timely acts of Jewish life' - which would be things like circumcision, observing lighting Shabbat candles and Friday night dinner (sometimes), attending Passover Seders, celebrating the New Year and Day of Atonement, attending religion school, and having a Bar or Bat Mitzvah.

At this point I should explain that we go out of our way to treat both (and all) genders as equal. We have started using the term 'Beyt Mitzvah', 'House of Commandments' in place or Bar (son) or bat (daughter) Mitzvah because we recognise that some kids are gender fluid or have gender dysphoria and we do not want to add to the pressure to be something they don't presently feel fopr themselves.  However in one regard we have realised that we need to be (and usually are) slightly more lenient - otherwise we end up being 'more orthodox than the orthodox', which is not a situation we are comfortable with!  So if a woman has a Jewish mother - EVEN if she has had NO Jewish upbringing - but would be counted as Jewish by the orthodox, then in practice we will often also welcome her (though we would encourage and assist her to do some top-up studies to make her feel more knowldgeable and better equipped to take on her Jewish identity).   

Sadly, in your case with a Jewish father but no Jewish upbringing, we really can't yet count you as Jewish.  However we would recognise you had a Jewish father and wished to take on your Jewish identity, and would outline some reading and studies so that, in due course, you could go before the Bet Din (a Jewish 'court' - three friendly progressive Rabbis who are again there to support and welcome you back!).

In the meantime, however, your children are not Jewish and therefore we cannot offer them a 'Bayt Mitzvah'.  I am so sorry, and aware that this may sound harsh.

If all of you are really keen (and I of course believe that progressive Judaism is a wonderful framework for a modern, meaningful, spiritual life), then what I would propose is that we work out a program which you can all journey on together.  You would do the bulk of the work - reading, some coursework - the course is done at your own speed and takes a minimum of a year but as long as you wish - and you would interpret and relay it to the kids at their levels, discuss together, start doing some celebrations - and teach yourselves to read hebrew (I have an easy and fun self-learning book). This would include the children participating in Religion School.

At an appropriate stage, you would then go to the Bet Din together and all have your Jewish status confirmed - and then we get to start on the BMs (Bar, Bat and Beyt Mitzvah is simply the Jewish way to say 'teenage').  Once they have turned 13, children can be counted as part of the adult community and may lead the service and read from Torah. The first time they do this - which might be 14, 15 or older - we celebrate their involvement wity teh BM celebrations. 

After Religion School, the children would join the BM class to prepare the prayers of the service and some verses from the week's Torah portion. 

I fully realise that is a major commitment and undertaking for families.  But it is also a wonderful opportunity to kearn and bond and share something valuable for the rest of your lives, and there are not so many things you can truly say that about.

Let me know your thoughts, once you've discussed it, and if you want to proceed, I'll be absolutely delighted to assist!  


Rabbi Jonathan