Sermon: On Hashkafah and Reform Judaism

Written by Rabbi Josh Levy — 1 May 2021

On Monday of last week, I taught my final class of the year (hopefully the last time on zoom) in the course I teach at the Leo Baeck College.

For the last six years, I have had the privilege of teaching fourth year rabbinic students a course called ‘Progressive Rabbinic Decision Making’. Together with, so far, 26 current and future rabbis, I have explored how we approach decisions about our religious and ethical lives.

Teaching the class has been a source of great joy and stimulation. We are blessed that intelligent, interesting, thoughtful people want to be Progressive rabbis; and I am blessed to have had the opportunity to teach and argue with them, and perhaps just to shape them a little bit in the process.

I am also blessed because the class has also allowed me to concentrate my own thinking and study on what is surely the defining ideological question for Reform Judaism, a question which, after 200 years of this special intellectual exercise, we are yet to fully answer:
On the one hand, we do not give authority for our lives to a halachic tradition which very often does not share our sense of what is divine will for us, the basic theological assumptions of which we do not share; Yet on the other hand we do not wish to collapse into a ‘free for all’ antinomianism, with no shared norms, no boundaries, no robustness in our decision making.

That being the case, how do we make, and in fact what do we even mean by, ‘Jewish’ decisions.


One of the caricatures sometimes presented of Progressive Judaism is that, when faced with a difficult religious decision, we in fact, do not make Jewish decisions. That we privilege our secular selves over our Jewish selves.

One of the strong emphases in my class is that this is a fundamental misconception.
Progressive Jews – like all serious Jews from across the spectrum – have to begin from within our tradition. When we do not do so, then the answer we might come to may well be ‘right’ – it may well be ethical, honourable, good for our communities – but it cannot be called a Jewish decision. As one of my students once put it, to be a Jewish plant it needs to grow from Jewish soil.

But, to continue the analogy, the exact mixture of our ‘Jewish soil’ is slightly different.
While other parts of the Jewish world will begin with halachah – with rules received as normative practice what I have come to think is that we rather begin with what I refer to as hashkafah.

Hashkafah is one of those concepts that is used and argued about in Orthodox Judaism, but is much under-appreciated in ours, despite its extraordinary relevance to our lives.
The word comes from the root shin koof peh, which means to look over, or look down – as in the request made of God by the pilgrim in the ritual of first fruits: ‘hashkifah mi’m’on kodsh’cha, min hashamayim’ – ‘look down from Your holy abode, from heaven’.

Hashkafah means to take a step back and look broadly, rather than to be drawn into the narrow. It means ‘outlook’, ‘world view’, what we might call values, our core defining principles. That is, what Torah or the Rabbis are really getting at – the ideals that they seek to express.


If we think back just over the Torah portions of the last couple of weeks, what we find articulated there, nestled within the detail, within the sometimes very alienating, sometimes very troubling, laws of Leviticus, are principles – ideals of behaviour which shape our Jewish world view.

Last week, we read ‘u’shmartem et chukotai v’et mishpatai… v’chai bahem’ – You shall keep My laws and My rules… to live by them. The hashkafic ideal our tradition draws from this verse is one in which life is valued, in which religion should be life enhancing, not life-threatening, that it should never supersede our care for the well-being of other human beings. This ideal has shaped much of our response and our behaviour over the past 14 months.

In the next chapter, we find another hashkafic principle: ‘k’doshim tihyu ki kadosh ani Adonai elohechem’ – ‘you shall be holy for I, the Eternal your God am holy’. Here is an ideal: that we should seek to live our lives in holiness, to mark out that which is special and distinctive from that which is mundane through our ritual lives, to aspire to holiness in our ethical behaviour.

This week’s sidra, Emor, contains another defining hashkafic principle. In our portion, we read about blasphemy, the punishment for the misuse of God’s name. But a couple of chapters earlier, we find a broader underpinning ideal: “lo t’chall’lu et shem kodshi v’nikdashti’ – ‘You shall not profane My holy name that I may be sanctified’.

The Torah makes a broader demand – that our actions and our words sanctify rather than desecrate God’s name. These words have been applied to questions of martyrdom, but there is also a broader idea. That, as Jews, one of our primary responsibilities is to behave in such a way that God’s name is sanctified, rather than to bring God’s name into disrepute by behaving in a way that is a chillul hashem, a profanation of the divine name. It demands that we behave in a way seen as good by those around us.


The idea of Hashkafah – of which these are just three examples – is an important one.

It allows us to read Torah and rabbinic literature in a way which is sensitive to ideals rather than only to law. It is this way of reading that you will often find in shiurim, study, chavruta in this community – the focus being on the ideas being articulated in the text.

Even if we are law-focussed, law alone is not enough. In his commentary on the hashkafic instruction “kedoshim tihiyu,” – ‘you shall be holy’, the medieval Spanish commentator Nachmanides asks why such a statement is even necessary when we have the laws that follow. His answer is that it is possible to follow all of the technicalities of Jewish law and still not be holy. As he puts it, it is possible to be a “Naval bir’shut HaTorah,” a scoundrel with permission from the Torah – someone who adheres to the letter of the law and yet doesn’t reflect its spirit – doesn’t reflect the hashkafah. And we know that this is true from our lives, from encounters with those who might live religious lives but also fail to sanctify God’s name in the world.

There is another, significant role for hashkafah, especially important for us as Progressive Jews. Which is as a corrective for our legal tradition. Sometimes hashkafah and halakhah end up in tension with each other. For this reason, not all Orthodox authorities believe that hashkafah, as distinct from law, is a legitimate concept at all, don’t believe in the concept of values or principles distinct from the laws themselves. One tradition links it with the Hebrew word mashkof, lintel – the thing which the door smashes against. Sometimes halakhah smashes up against hashkafah.

When this happens, for Orthodox denominations, halakhah takes precedence. I would argue that what defines us as Progressive Jews, is that for us it is the other way round. For us, if our texts present us with a law that is in tension with the core hashkafah of Torah, the law must be the problem, not the principle.

A great example of this – that I have spoken about from this bimah before – is the question of organ donation. Some Jewish authorities continue to forbid the donation of organs of those who have died, due to a technical question about the definition of death, and the difference between the halachic and medical definition. As a result, they end up seeking to save the life of someone who is dead, while not preserving that of someone who can be saved. It is a halakhic anomaly, and an example of halakhah smashing up against the underlying hashkafic ideal – v’chai bahem.

One consequence of this position is that while we are willing to receive organs, willingness to donate among Jews is disproportionately low. And many would describe this as contravening another hashkafic ideal – as a chillul hashem, an example of bringing God’s name into disrepute in the world.

In places, the divergence between hashkafah and halakhah pulls us in very different directions.
To me, most often, where we have ended up in a substantially different place to Orthodox practice, it is a result of an emphasis on hashkafah over halakhah.  That is, importantly, not that we have a western, liberal model that we impose onto Judaism, but rather that we have a Jewish ideal being fully expressed in our Jewish life.

So, for example, a core hashkafic ideal is the belief that we are all created of equal worth. It is an ideal that comes out from our texts, from a belief in createdness, that God cares for all creatures, ahavat habriyot. It comes out of Torah. As a result, we seek to build ritual life and community which does not differentiate on the basis of sex, sexual orientation, gender identity, ability or disability, race; we seek to be open in our status procedures. It is hashkafah – a Torah worldview – that leads us to this place.


I am in danger of trying to squeeze a year-long Masters course into a Shabbat morning sermon.
In fact, I should probably bear in mind an underlying rabbinic principle – one which has been quite important to us over these past months – ‘tircha d’tzibbura’ – that Judaism should not be allowed to become a burden on the community.

Which is yet another example of what I’ve been speaking about, what I’ve learned over these years of teaching, that the defining feature of Progressive Judaism is that we begin with Hashkafah.
So, this is the task – we must, I think, find a way to claim this concept of hashkafah as our won. For, as a wise student of mine would have put it, it is the very Jewish soil from which our very Jewish plant grows.