Sermon: On Progressive and non-Progressive Judaism

Written by Rabbi Josh Levy — 5 January 2013

I have deliberated long and hard about this morning’s sermon – about how to give it; whether to give it.
I’ve, very unusually for me, written and discarded four drafts.  Four attempts to find a way into a topic that is hugely important for me personally, for us as a community and for Anglo-Jewry as a whole.

And in the end, I’ve decided that, even though I am speaking only with friends this morning, I can’t say what I want to say.

To speak critically about other sections of the Jewish world, however respectfully, went out with, well, with the current Chief Rabbi.  Being ideological is no longer considered fashionable in a pluralist, post-denominational age.  Ideology is seen as petty, maybe.  To feel right is now more important than to be right.

Even though my Judaism is deeply, deeply ideological – ideological commitment is one of the wells from which it springs – still the sermon I want to give, I really can’t give.

But, if I were more courageous, this is what I would have said to you this morning.

To start, I would have told you that on Thursday I, along with all other interested stakeholders, received a copy of the proposed new Akiva admissions policy.
For the first time, no additional weight is to be given by the only progressive day school – once with a big P, now with a little p – in the country, to those families who attend the Progressive synagogues of North West London.  This means that the primary determinant of admission, after the normal children-in-care and siblings, will be geography.

I would explain that this is largely a result of legal considerations, and that the real impact of this on admissions is, as yet unclear.  But I would also point out that the main result, if only because of geography, is likely to be to increase attendance from the synagogue on the same site as Akiva, a synagogue whose association with Akiva is a historical anomaly coming from the discovery and development of the Sternberg Centre site, rather than reflective of shared ideology and values.

And I would suggest that we should be worried – not because it might reduce the chances of our members, those who wish to do so, sending their children to what used to be ‘our’ school, but because it presents a potential threat to the Progressive ethos of the school, and therefore to Progressive Judaism in this country as a whole.  That it is part of a weakening of an ideological – there, it’s that word again – a weakening of an ideological distinction which I believe will ultimately be to our cost.

At this point, if I were giving this sermon, I would make an admission.
I would recognise that when I speak about Masorti Judaism, I do so with the zeal of an ex-smoker.  It was my home for a period in my early adult life – before I, as I would describe it, saw the light.
I would also emphasise my deep respect for many of its leaders.  I was fortunate enough to sit at the feet of Rabbi Dr Louis Jacobs – one of the greatest Jewish scholars of the Modern Age.  Indeed, being reprimanded by him for changing Birchat HaMazon so that it included the matriarchs but with insufficient finesse was an event which was hugely formative in my Jewish development.
I would emphasise that there are Masorti communities that are shining examples of community development, of adult Jewish learning, of social action.  There is even at least one Masorti synagogue which is an example of gender equality, the rabbi of which I am, most of the time, proud to call my brother.

But then I would stress that all these considerations aside, it should be concerning to us that a Masorti synagogue is now going to be, even more than before, the major stakeholder in the only Progressive Jewish school in this country.
Because, despite our willingness in the past to treat them as such, Masorti Judaism is not a form of Progressive Judaism – there are progressive, small P, elements within it, but ideologically, in its historical origins in the UK, and in its practice, Masorti has never claimed to be anything other than a form of aspirational, non-judgemental Orthopraxy, if not Orthodoxy.

When Masorti Judaism has come into conflict with Orthodox authorities in the past, including when the current Chief Rabbi condemned it as ‘intellectual thievery’, at its root has been a question between them of who has the claim to be the true heirs to Anglo-Orthodoxy.  This is not my argument, though, for what it is worth, I would argue that Masorti really is the natural heir to the Orthodoxy of my grandfather.
And, while it has therefore been politically expedient for us to consider them partners over the last few decades, we need to be very clear that Masorti Judaism is very different to Progressive Judaism.  We are ideologically, theologically, in values and in practice utterly distinct.

If all we had to go on was the respective names of the movements that would be enough to show this.  Reform and Liberal synagogues are part of a worldwide movement for Progressive Judaism – known in Hebrew as Yahadut Mitkademet.  The imagery from the Hebrew root meaning is to move forward, to advance, or progress – Judaism that progresses.  The word Masorti, normally translated as ‘traditional’ is from a root meaning to hand over, deliver, to transmit – a Judaism about the stuff being handed over, where the crucial element is the transmission of a received text.  Very different images of Jewish life – and not, I would argue, compatible models.

The distinction is clearest because at the heart of Masorti Judaism is a claim that we do not, can not, make.  One, if I were being bold this morning (which I am not) I would tell you I believe to be unjustified – that it is possible to exist as both a modern, ethical actor, fully engaged with modernity and to give supreme authority to our formative texts. This is not my claim, not our claim, and I believe it is a false claim.

To support my view, if I had stated it – which I haven’t – I would then bring out a wonderful book, John Rayner’s Jewish Religious Law – written by the other great Jewish intellect of our age with whom I had the privilege to study.
John presented three critiques of Masorti ideology:

Firstly, that even though it does not accept Torah Mi-Sinai, it still, and here we go into John’s language “fudges the key issue of the authority of Scripture, which needs to be faced squarely” – that is, it does not contain any mechanism by which it can privilege one section of Torah or Law over any other, even though it is clear to us that some are, again to quote John ‘so plainly human… that to hold God responsible for them… is a ‘profanation of God’s name’;

John’s second critique is that Masorti “greatly overestimates the adaptability of the Rabbinic Halachah”.  It asserts that it is possible to live a modern ethical life from within halachah while this is not actually the case.  However much one seeks to stretch the law or liberally interpret it, it is actually quite clear that “the room for manoeuvre in the traditional halachic system is… nowhere near adequate for present needs”.

And finally – and for me, this critique means that even if Halachah were as adaptable as claimed, I still could not live in that context: that it involves (and again John was far bolder than modern times allow) “pretending that the Halachah has an authority which, for non-fundamentalists it cannot have”.  In asserting the authority of the text, Masorti Judaism ignores the fact that the theological assumptions, premises and context of the rabbinic exercise were all very different to our own.
That is, not only is it not possible, as Masorti Judaism claims, to live fully both within modernity and within the halachic structure, but the nature of rabbinic literature means that nor should we aspire to do so.
I will defer to my teacher’s wisdom when he states that, “the whole position is intellectually untenable”.

I would also, were I brave enough to give this as a sermon one Shabbat morning, suggest that in practice as well as ideology, Masorti Judaism, by binding itself to the text, has allowed itself to be deeply flawed.
That, for example, it continues to use liturgy which contains passages with no place in a modern religious setting – such as prayers for the restoration of the Temple.  That it has utterly rejected the sort of liturgical reform necessary in a modern religion.

And most powerfully for me, of course, that – in a way that I, as an optimistic part of the leadership of that movement 15 years ago could never have imagined – it continues to hold the unjustifiable, unethical, position that equality in religious life is just one option rather than the right and only way to reflect divine will for humanity.
These features of Masorti Judaism, too, make it a very, very different sort of religion to ours.

And finally, I would state that this is why I am a Progressive Jew instead.
– because I believe in the possibility, the necessity, of progress in Jewish religious and ethical life;
– because, while I consider halachic literature to be incomparably beautiful, to be the formative matter of Jewish life, I cannot ascribe to it a level of authority that it does not have;
– because while, to be a Jew, I have no choice but to seek the guidance of the text – it is the essence of who we are – I do not feel that I need to stretch it, sometimes beyond legitimacy, in order to respond ethically to modern life;
– because I believe utterly and completely in equality – not as one option, but as the only option.
And this is the Judaism that I want my children, our children, to encounter in a progressive school.

That is what I would have said this morning – if I were courageous.
But I am not.
I don’t want to rock the boat.
I don’t want to upset my friends, my teachers, my relatives who have found a home in that Judaism.
I don’t want to seem too ideological in a post-ideological age.

I have deliberated long and hard about this morning’s sermon
And, you know, I should probably just discard this version, too.