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Jewish Chronicle carries an article by Rabbi Dr Maurice
Eisendrath, President of the Union of American Hebrew Congregations,
entifled "Whither Reform judaism?” There is also an'editorial
the heading "Reform Jewry in Transition". From the titles,
as well as
the conténts, of these and many similar articles, which have
as long as I can remember, one would think that Progressive
Judaism was
in a continual state of turmoil, always having second
thoughts, constantly
changing direction, never quite kfiowing where it is going.
If that were
so the ordinary Progressive Jew might well feel
bewildered, perplexed and
But it is a gross exaggeration.
Of course there is variefiy between
country and country, between congregation and congregation, and between
family and family.
Perahps, as Dr Eisendrath thinks, there is too much
Perhaps an attempt should be made to échieve a greater measure
of uniformity.
Nevertheless let us not overlook the large area of common
ground which exists.
All Progressive Jews bgiieve that Judaism is'dot a static and eternally
unchanging and unchangeable system, but one which has developed in the past
and which must develbp in the future. They all believe that Judaism must
take account of modern life and thought, and that its traditxnal fqrms
require much modification in order that they may be fieaningful and
effective today.
They all believe that Judaism has’a message not pnly
for the Jews but for mankifid; .They all conceive the Messianic Age
“yd V243 AL
terms of the Sfigéfiaei redemption of humanity rather thanLnational
restoration of Israel. They have all‘repudiated the hope for the
>of the Temple with its saafificial ritual, and therefose the distingtions
between priests, levites and Israelites.
They have all raised the status
of women in religious education and congregational life.
They have all
made important changes in the Rabbinic laws governing marriage and divorce.
They have all revised the liturgy in the light of these principles. They
have all instituted the use of the vernacular, in addition to Hebrew, the
employment of intrumental music, and the desegregation.of the sexes, in
Synagogue worship.
This catalogue could be prolonged.
With all this common ground, where do the divisions lie? Superficially
the differences are differences of practice. Some congregations use more
Hebrew and some less.
more radical one.
Some use a more traditional Prayer hook and some a
Some require the worshippers to cover their heads and
some do not.
Some employ a cantor and some only a Ghoir. Some encourage,
the observance of the Dietary Laws and some attach no importance to them.
Some have Barmitzvah at thirteen, some have Confirmation at sixteen, and
some have both. Some do, and some do not, observe the minor festivals,.
such as Purim, Lag ba—Omer and Tish-ah be—Av.
Some do, and some do not,
require circumcision and baptism for proselytes. Some do, and some do not,
issue a marriage certificate similar to the traditional Ketubfiah. Some do,
and some do not, demand the Get before the remarriage of divorced fiersons.
Some follow the Rabbinic law according to which in a mixed marriage the
religious status of the KKXXK mother determines the religious status of
the child; according to others the child's religious upbringing is
Tfiat is virtually a complete account of the existing differences in
practice. And now it is suggested: Let us all get together and iron out
these differences.
Let us produce a uniform code which will be accepted
by Progressive Jews throughout thé world, or at least a guide which will
exert a unifying influence.
Then Progressive Judaism will flourish and
exercise an irresistible attraction on those who are not yet identified
with it.
But it makes two fundamentally erroneous
That sounds splendid.
In the first place it assumes that the greatest need of
the modern Jew is to have presented to him a well defined and authori-
tatively sanctioned system of religious practices.
Give him that, and
he will at once become a faithful and observant Jew.
But that is an
The questions which really perplex thg modern Jew are not:
observe the Dietary Laws?
'my car on the sabbath?
cover my head?
Shall I use
These questions, if he was seriously concerned
about them, he cohld answer easily enough for himself, With or without
official guidance.
The questions which really perplex him, consdiously
or unconsciously, are of quite a different kind. They are: How qan I
believe in God? How can
How can
be sure that Judaism, which
is only one of many religions, deserves my allegiance?
differ from Christianity?
How does it
What significance éoes it ascribe to the
great events of our lifetime: the massacre of European Jewry, the
establishment of the State of Israel, the creation of the United Nations,
the conflict between Capitalism and Communism, the discovery of nuclear
engrgy and manSS adventure into outer space?
What contribution dogs it
have to offer to the solution oét%ig practical préblems of our age,
the prevention of war, the struggle for social justice, the improvement
of race relations?
And what does it teach about the eternal riddles of
human.existence, pain and sgffering, guilt and anxiety, right and
wrong, progress and regress, life and death?
If we can convince the modern Jew that Judaism is relevant to these
issues, that itfiis megningful and helpful in relation to these problems,
than we have achieved, not indeed everything, but nearly everything. Then
it is still necessary to offer him a Jewish way of life, a discipline of
domestic devotion and communal worship embodying, expressing anfl stimulating the teachings and ideals of Judaism.
But at least he will then be
willing to lead that kind of life, to submit himself to that discipline.
The major part of the battle, therefore, will be wnn. The greatest and
most urgent task of Progressive Judaism, tfiefizégne, is not to tell people
what they should do but why they should dm it, not to legislate but to
educate and to inspire.
Certainly Progressive Judaism must be constantly
concerned to develop the best possible system of religious prabtice, and
where it has discarded traditional Observances which can, after all, be
used to good purpose, it must hamg the courage to reinstate them, even as
it must have the courage to create new observances where these are needed.
But ité primary concern must continue to be, as it has been all along, with
theology; fbr it is at the theological level, however unconscious he may
be of it, that the modern Jew is perplexed. When Maimonides wrote his
Guide for the Perplexed he devoted the greater part of that work to
theological questions.
Only in the last few chapters does he deal with
the mitzvot, and then with the moral laws before he géts on to the ritual
The same must be our manner of approach to the perplexed of our age.
But there is another aSSumption, which unfortunately is also false,
impiied in the demand for the standardisation og Progressive Jewish
practice: namely that there is a common approach to the problems which
have to be dealt with, so that it is only necessary for the Rabbis to
get together in order, with a little give and take, to arrive at
decisions acceptable to all.
Unhappily that is not the case.
For all
the cémmunity of outlook whidh undoubtedly exists, there is not
éufficient clarity of thought, let alone unanimity, to deal effectively
and fiarmoniously with thbse problems — and they are the ones that matter
for this purpose - which constitute the area of controveréy.
very evident to me earlier this week when
That was
attended a Cbnference of
European Progressive Rabbis at Amsterdam.It was very noticeable at that Conference that there are within
Progressive Judaism two different trends or schools of thought, which
want briefly to describe.
There are, first, those who believe in
makifig only those changes which are obviously and inescapably nécessary.
They believe inladjusting traditional Judaism where it is palpably in
irreconcilable conflict with modern conditions and needs. But apart
from these, relatively minor, adjustments, traditional Judaism stands
and is to be preserved intact.
The advocates of this view point out
that the ancient Rabbis were also progressive.
They tqo adapted and
adjusted Jewish Law when circumstances so required.
Hillel, for example,
by means of the Prosbul, abolished the Biblical law of the release of
debts in the seventh year.
The very word Halachah, which comes from a
verb meaning ‘towalk', implies movement.
Unfortunately the Halachah
ceased to move in the late Middle Ages.
There was instead a Hafsakah,
The Task of Progressive Judaism, therefore, is to maké
the Halachah move again; to continue the tradition of Rabbinic Judaism
a standstill.
but to revive its original dynamism, its capacity for development and
We must do for our age what men like Hillel did for theirs.
The other view goes much fUrther.
to now two
On this view there have been up
major phases in the history of Judaism.
The first was the
Biblical phaée, dfiring which the foundations were laid. The second wag
the Rabbinic phase which, taking the Bible as the revealed will of God,
erected upon it a éomprehensive and elaborate superstructure of laws and
doctrines. Rabbinic Judaism worked splendidly for about two thousand
But then, at the time of the Emancipation, it broke down.
lost the XXXKEXHKEK effective allegiance of the great majority of Jews.
And it dié so, not only because of external circumstances and social
pressures, but because Jewry had moved into a new world, a new intellectual
environment, in which it was no longer possible to believe in that doctrine
which had constituted the basis of Rabbinic Judaism, namely the conception
of a perfect and eternally valid Torah divinely revealed at Mount Sinai.
It is true that the ordinary Jew at the time of the Emancipation may not
have been consCiously aware of this theological issue. But even at the
unconscious level the belief in $2332 gig hashamaxim, in the divinity of
the Torah, disappeared and with it the willingness to submit to its
discipline. Consequently the great majority 6f Jews either became non—
observant or kept up the customs of their parents only as a matter of
habit, as an outward behaviour—pattern devoid of inner swirit.
Those who adopt this View are well aware of the progressive character
of early Rabbinic Judaism. But they point out fhat Rabbinic Jndaism
possessed only a limited capacity for development, limited by thé belief
which it never questioned and which it always maintained atlleastfiin
_ 7 _
theory, that the Torah is divinely authoritative.
Even Hillel, who
lived at the threshold of the Rabbinic period, did not really abolish the
law of release; he merely devised a method of circumventing it by a legal
We rejoice that the early Rabbis were as progressive as they
were, and to that extent we are in accord with them.
But we need a
larger freedom in order to effect the cganges which our age requires.
There is no point in using the methods of Rabbinic J;daism which are
founded on a premise which we no ionger accept.
Our task is not to
develop the old Halachah but to estabiish a new Halachah, founded on a
different basis and operating with different criteria.
shall be guided by the Bible and Talmud.
has to say is not necessarily dec$$ive.
Of course we
But What the Bible or the Talmud
We shall also_consult the results
afix of modern knowledge, the trends of modern thoughté, the conscience of
the modern individual, and the needs of the modern community;
We shall do
this openly and frankly, and therefore we shall not pretend that we are
merely capryfing on where the Rabbis left off.
The question for us is
always, as it was for them, What is the will of God?
But we can no longer
answer that question EX Simply by consulting Scripture, because Scripture
#s not to us what it was to the Rabbis. Other criteria are involved. It
is for us a more complex and more difficult task.
IR short, the Rabfiinic phase of Judaism is ended, and we must regard
oursélfies, not as successors of the Rabbis, but as pioneers of a new_phase
in the history of Judaism. We must say farewell to Rabbinic Judaism, with
the affectionate regret of one who says farewell to an old home, where he
has been happy and which has served him well, but which is no longer
Our new home, however, will not be all that different from
-5We shall fiake with us all our most cherished possessions;
we shall use every piece of furiniture and every brick which is still
the old.
sound; but we shall build on a new foundation; and we shall have larger
windows; and we Shall decorate our home in contemborary style.
Our task
is not merely to continue in traditional Judaism, with a few minor
modifications gere and there, but to reconstruct it.
It is to the immense credit of the outstanding leaders of Liberal
Judaism, Abraham Geiger, David Einhorn and Claude Montefiore; that they
had the courage and the vision to see the task in these large terms.
their view is not shared by all sections of Progressive Judaism.
And until
it is shared, 0v at least until there is clarity of thought on these funda-
mental issues, while representatives of the two divergent trends can work
harmoniously together, and while there can be and is a large measure of
agreement on many of the practical changes which Judaism requires, there
is no possibility of the kind of unification and standardisation which is
For both reasons, therefore, our primary concern, at least for a long
time to come, must be with theology: because thét is the area of the modern
truly united
Jewés perplexity, and because it is the precondition of finy Knxxnxm approach
to Jewish practice.
The great question, which the forthcoming Conference of
the World Union for Progressive Judaism will help to answer,‘is whether we
have the courage to face the big issues and not only the little issues,
whether we possess the historic vision to construct a new Judaism, which
will preserve and revive all that is of abiding value in Biblical J;daism
and in Rabbinic Judaism, but which will yet be different from both. By
our response to that awe—inspiring challenge future ages will judge us.