D’var Torah – Reasons to be cheerful

Written by Rabbi Josh Levy — 24 June 2022

As a child of the 70s and 80s, there are aspects of the current moment that feel like stepping back in time: inflation at levels not seen since I was back in shorts; industrial action of the kind that dominated news throughout my childhood – even with Arthur Scargill on the picket lines; a threat from a belligerent Moscow; and to top it all, Kate Bush finding herself at number one for the first time since I was in what we used to call Infants.

Against this backdrop, this sense of regression, it is important to remember just how far we have come – the extraordinary progress that has been made both nationally and in our Jewish life. In a wide range of areas, we have moved far away from the narrowness of the 1970s, 80s and early 90s.

Indeed, the last two decades have been years of extraordinary social progress.
And, at the forefront of a lot of that change has been Progressive Judaism in this country.

To give you a sense of how far we have come, a few reflections on changes that have happened just in the years that I have been in the rabbinate.

When I received smichah, no same sex chuppah had ever taken place in a Reform synagogue in the UK; now, this is not only – almost – taken for granted, but we have the legal ability to conduct not only a Jewish but also a civil marriage ceremony for two people of the same sex.

When I received smichah, a Reform rabbi involved in the marriage ceremony of a mixed-faith couple would theoretically have been suspended from our professional body. Now, a community such as ours can – and does – celebrate with couples in which one partner is Jewish who have chosen to join their lives together while committing to building a Jewish home together:
100 of our members are non-Jews living wholeheartedly within the Jewish community – we celebrate their marriage, welcome their children, welcome them onto our bimah, can bury them together in our Jewish cemetery.

The children of such relationships are welcomed into our communities in more open and creative ways, irrespective of the sex of their Jewish parent. No longer do we operate a gendered inherited status policy for those with one Jewish parent, but one based on the commitment to live a Jewish life. This week, one of the last large synagogues in our movement to resist this move adopted the ‘new’ – now 5 years old – Inherited Status procedures of the MRJ.

We take it for granted now, but when I became a rabbi, our siddur used gendered God language in the translation – God as Lord and He. There was no place for the matriarchs in our prayer, and the book had no transliteration. It was simultaneously less connected to traditional liturgy and less connected to our core values of equality and inclusion.

So, a great deal has changed. For the better.

As you may know, this year is the 80th anniversary of the beginnings of the ASB – the Associated Synagogues of Britain.  Six founder synagogues – of which Alyth was one – came together to work collaboratively in what would become the Movement for Reform Judaism.

Inevitably, in those 80 years there have been periods of strength and of struggle. The Movement is currently not in the best of places. There are few of our synagogues – though Alyth is one – that continue to thrive and grow; this despite the fact that our values and behaviours are those of the modern world. We have, I would argue, lost our ambition and our focus.

Nonetheless, we should never understate how important we are –
important in modelling a form of Jewish life that evolves and grows;
important in creating Jewish homes in which our children can feel safe and welcome whatever their lives look like;
important in helping to shape the extraordinary development and progress of the last decades.

There is a great deal of work for us still to do.
But inflation, strikes and Kate Bush aside, there is also a huge amount for which we ought to be grateful, and much of which we ought to be proud.