The spirit and character of Liberal Judaism

Lucian J Hudson
1 September 2015
The Guardian

In my final commentary as Liberal Judaism chairman, I would like to focus on how holding office has informed my spiritual journey as a Liberal Jew, and thank all those who have worked with chief executive Rabbi Danny Rich and me to build on our success as a movement.

Together we are tackling some of the many challenges we face as an integral part of the Jewish community, in the UK and internationally. We sometimes fail, but that’s good: we should fail more often, rather than not try at all.

I am more of a Liberal Jew now, than when I took on the role six years ago. I am more appreciative of the breadth and depth of commitment and ideas in Liberal Judaism, and our collaboration with the rest of UK Jewry generally and the Movement for Reform Judaism (MRJ) particularly.

I am very proud of the closer working relationship we have formed with Reform’s leadership, and the cross-fertilising of ideas among rabbis of both movements and our youth movements.

We are non-party political as a religious organisation. The term “liberal” can be a barrier, as well as a lever, in our communication. Whatever the future of the Liberal Democrats, liberal, progressive values have never been more important. Liberty is not just one of many values: it is a prerequisite to our understanding of ourselves as exercising different degrees of freedom and embracing our responsibility to use it well.

There is no quality I value more in people than generosity of spirit. Generosity derives from a vision of one humanity accepting that life never stands still. Being a Liberal Jewish chairman has taught me the benefit of being open to unforeseen challenges and opportunities, yet learning from tradition and experience.

Equality and fraternity (I am not being gender-specific) work with liberty in combination. The French Revolution hijacked that spirit of the enlightenment to give those values a republican flavour, but the values of liberty, equality and fraternity permeate our civil society, and the four nations of the UK.

Liberal Judaism is political with a lower case ‘p’, working in a new political landscape across the UK, ensuring the voice of our movement is heard and contributes to building a tolerant, cohesive and sustainable community, in which our type of Judaism can flourish for generations to come.

There are those who say that the difference between Liberal Judaism and Reform is so minimal on doctrine that other differences are negligible. They therefore argue that merger is necessary and right. I disagree.

Maybe it has taken a relative outsider such as myself to notice – I converted to Judaism only 10 years ago – but doctrine alone, especially in the context of a British empiricist tradition, is only part of the mix.

It is healthy to be business-like and I hope a bit of this has rubbed off in my approach to leading a civil society organisation. Too many internal issues arise from members not accepting or appreciating the importance of fulfilling defined roles and managing boundaries. Our very informality can be as much of a curse as a blessing.

I hope whoever revises our Siddur in years to come creates enough space for silence and the mysterious, recognising private and collective worship.

Our community is made up of individuals who need to travel at their own pace in their own way. Liberal Judaism should work at every level of the human spirit. This is not universally recognised. We do little to find out why members do not participate and leave.

More important is the character of Liberal Judaism, partly constructed and partly lived out, consciously and unconsciously. When appropriate, we need to continue to home in on the big issues of the day, and communicate a distinctively Liberal Jewish perspective. British Jewry’s stance on Israel has shifted in the six years I have been chairman, partly because voices like mine have challenged the binary choice of either keeping quiet or delivering knee- jerk criticism.

From the many conversations I have had, I know some of our members have a problem with authority in its different guises, and sometimes see opportunities to challenge or differentiate themselves from the status quo. I am pragmatic about the status quo: sometimes it serves us well – at other times it needs to be confronted and challenged.

How radical have I been as a leader? A gentle, tenacious wind often achieves more over time than sudden or ostentatious change. Practical, deliberate steps are enduring: legal incorporation has refocused all our trustees to understand their roles and responsibilities, and hold our chief executive to account more systematically.

We are historically tasked with being innovative as a movement, but this does not mean change for the sake of change. Liberal Judaism at its best thinks through the consequences. We need to resist our tendency to follow fads or to rest on our laurels. Our leadership on same-sex marriage, the Living Wage, asylum and palliative care are examples of where we have led from the front, and rightly so. We should not lead just from the head or the heart, but the two in concert.

Finally, God. I am unabashed in adopting the Book of Esther approach to God. We need not mention God at every twist and turn to acknowledge the power of God in our lives. That power emerges when we engage creatively with the world, especially when it feels daunting to do so. What we do working with and through others can make the difference, whatever the frustrations.

Thank you, everybody, for helping me be the leader I have become. These six years have been a truly memorable and meaningful time of my life.