Tuesday, 7 October 2014

Progressive Judaism is 'the cutting edge' and I don't believe orthodoxy is 'more authentic'

Dear Rabbi Jonathan,

I’m 51 yrs old, happily single and self-employed. I have an engineering education and background.  I’ve been brought up as a Christian but that did not suit me at all during my mature adult life for various reasons. The reasoning behind the thought of converting to Judaism and specifically progressive rather than other expressions is because I feel that it is more relevant to  how we live life now. The orthodox way is a good way of keeping the authenticity of the old ways intact and that does suit a lot of believers but I prefer a religion that can change with the times and is more relevant to the present. After all these years of not practising any form of religion whatsoever I feel I need something in my life as a guiding light so to speak. Why Judaism? you may ask. Well, it is a bit familiar from my Christianity, but it has a singular base rather than the multitude angles of Christianity, namely Pentecostal, catholic, protestant, apostolic, etc. So I hope that explains a bit about me and my thoughts, Rabbi Jonathan.
Thanking you kindly, 


Dear Simon

I got all my High Holyday sermons finished, and you will find them at lbc.org.au - I suggest you read them over the coming days as if I may say so they should give you a fairly broad snapshot of how we (I) see and prioritise Jewish life today - so you'll find information about spirituality - and trying to be more spiritual - about self-betterment, about concern and responsibility for the environment, about the complicated but crucial relationship with the State (and land) of Israel, and finally about our own finite lives and facing an end and death as a reality of the human condition.

One thing I'd clarify about your distinction between orthodoxy and Progressive (The orthodox way is a good way of keeping the authenticity of the old ways intact and that does suit a lot of believers but I prefer a religion that can change with the times and is more relevant to the present) is that Judaism is ever-changing and developing.  No-one really thinks that orthodox Judaism is the same as when Abraham or Moses were around - or even the Rabbis of the Mishna - everyone knows it is not the same as before electricity or even heart transplants!  Today orthodoxy is struggling particularly with two areas - women's involvement if not equality, and homosexuality.  And there is nothing wrong with struggle - indeed 'Yisrael' (Israel) means 'struggling with God' and that is our task - we are 'all Israel' (it means Jewish people as in 'Sh'ma Yisrael') and life is a struggle 'with God' (ie to try to do the right thing - what God wants us to do, in often very complex situations (eg should we be encouraging Australia to fight IS, or to keep out of further bloodshed and 'other people's business'?).

So I somewhat reject the idea of 'the authenticity of the old ways' - and if you are talking about the black coats and fur hats and side curls, they are nothing particularly Jewish - that is the clothing of the sixteenth century Polish nobles that the Jews of the area copied.  There is a general feeling that orthodoxy is more authentic, and I don't think that is borne out by the facts.  Judaism has always developed - and still is - it is just that today, orthodoxy tends to drag behind and deny that Judaism develops, whereas Progressive Judaism tends to be the 'cutting edge', seeking a 'Jewish position' on, and even influence into, contemporary issues.  For example, Progressive Judaism has been involved for years with social action, and interfaith relations - two areas that in Melbourne the orthodox are now moving into and 'claiming as their own'!  Actually, that is the usual pattern - for example we have been treating boys and girls equally for generations, having women Presidents of congregations, ordaining women rabbis - and now you find Bat Mitzvah in orthodox shuls - occasionally even reading from the Torah - and on Saturday - albeit still AFTER the service - and women Presidents and Board members - and even women 'almost' rabbis serving in religious legal capacities in Israel.

Between 'ultra orthodox' (Chasidism) on the one extreme and Progressive (Reform) toward the other end, you'll find traditional orthodox, modern orthodox and Masorti or Conservative - acknowledging in some regards that Judaism is an ever-changing tradition, but claiming that it only does so within the strict framework of 'Halacha' (the way), which they, of course, are, more or less, the 'guardians' (controllers) of!

Having explained this (in shorthand we say 'two Jews, three opinions'!), I must disagree that Judaism 'has a singular base rather than the multitude angles of Christianity'. As you can see, we too have a wide range of approaches and though some recognise diversity and work respectfully and coherently together (Conservative/Masorti, Reform, Progressive, Renewal, Reconstructionist), understanding that 'there are many ways to be Jewish', this is sadly not the case (yet) across the whole spectrum (that will be an indication of the arrival of the Messianic times'!).

Which all makes Judaism is a wonderful and rich tradition - and indeed I strongly believe that Progressive Judaism is the most accessible and adapted to modern life - so welcome - and keep reading and studying!


Rabbi Jonathan

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