Is Progressive Judaism Authentic?

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Did you know that Progressive Judaism is not just a passing fad but has formally existed for over 200 years and its roots go back to the earliest rabbinic period, over 2000 years ago? Did you know that our movement includes over 1200 congregations across the world with over 1.7 million signed up members? Did you know that all Jewish movements including Orthodoxy have adopted some of the initiatives brought in by Reform movements across the world?

Many people seem to hold the belief that Progressive Judaism, Progressive Jews, our rabbis, synagogues and services are ‘not really Jewish’, ‘watered-down Judaism’ or ‘Orthodoxlight’.

I am currently running a second series of shiurim teaching why the opposite is true. That Progressive Judaism is an authentic Jewish movement grappling with the major issues of living as a Jew in the 21st Century. As my teacher, Rabbi Jonathan Romain, put it in his book Faith and Practise:
“Progressive Judaism is a dynamic expression of Jewish life today. It provides a way of comprehending the mystery of Creation, communing with God, relating to fellow human beings, making sense of life and death, and living according to ethical criteria. It sees Judaism as all-inclusive, a guiding force for every aspect of one’s life, which colours one’s outlook and actions. It is an heir to nearly 4000 years of Jewish tradition and religious experience, and seeks both to preserve it and develop it, harmonising the wisdom of the past with the realities of the present. It has a vision of Judaism that is not only rich in history but which also appeals to Jews today and responds to modern needs. It regards other expressions of Judaism as equally valid attempts to achieve the same goals, albeit in different ways.”

Most critics of Progressive Judaism are unaware of what Progressive Jews stand for. Anyone who walked into a Progressive synagogue on Shabbat morning would be handed a Hebrew- English siddur and a kippah; would see Jewish men and women davening the morning service, called up to the Torah in a tallis and discussing the portion of the week.

We celebrate the same festivals from the same calendar, marry under a chuppah, recite Kaddish for our dead and train our children to be educated, ethical Jews. While there are many aspects of belief and practice that distinguish Progressive Jews from other paths of Judaism, there are more commonalities that bind us to k’lal Yisrael, the community of Israel. The ‘Jewishness’ of Progressive Jews is hardly an issue for debate, but rather whether they represent a less serious, watered-down version of ‘true Judaism’.

In that respect, Progressive Jews in South Africa are at a distinct disadvantage. While most of the Jews in this country do not differ in their beliefs or practice, the majority of Jews have historically affiliated to Orthodox synagogues. In the United States, where Reform and Conservative movements have long dominated American Jewry, respectful coexistence is the norm rather than the exception, and when my family lived in Philadelphia I was privileged to work for a communal Jewish education agency which sent consultants into Orthodox, Reform, Conservative, Reconstructionist, Renewal and secular-humanist Jewish synagogues, cheders and day-schools.

I davened in a shul that ran three Shabbat minyanim — one that followed the Orthodox siddur, one liberal Conservative and one a Reconstructionist minyan. All in one building, with members going to their preferred minyanim.

The Harvard University Hillel in Boston is a horseshoe-shaped glass building with three services taking place downstairs (Orthodox, Reform and Conservative) and then all going upstairs to share kiddush together after shul, like those who went to the first Limmud Cape Town last year enjoyed.

That is not to say that there are not Progressive Jews who attack other Jewish movements as ‘inauthentic’ or ‘fossilised’, claiming Progressive Judaism as the true heir of the rabbis of the Talmudic era. I do not support these attacks at all — Progressive Judaism is neither superior nor inferior to Orthodoxy. We provide a different approach for those who are unable to follow an Orthodox practice but who are still committed to dynamic living Judaism.

Progressive Judaism is an equally authentic expression of Judaism today, and I would like to see the Jewish community in Cape Town working together to strengthen all Jewish movements as important paths to the same goal – an active, educated and responsible Jewish community.

Anyone who is interested in learning more about Progressive Judaism can take advantage of our Tuesday evening adult study forum in Temple Israel in Green Point, or you can join me for my current series of shiurim on Thursday evenings in the West Coast.

Call 021 552 2484 for more details or
e-mail ravgreg@templeisrael.co.za

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