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])

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