Why Progressive Judaism exists by Rabbi Richard Jacobi

21 September 2023 – 6 Tishri 5784

This sermon was given by Rabbi Richard Jacobi at East London and Essex Liberal Synagogue (ELELS) on Erev Rosh Hashanah 5784:

When we welcomed in the new year and announced its number, 5784, I’m pretty sure that no-one here thought that we were stating that the world is celebrating its 5784th birthday since creation. Hands up if you didn’t? Are there any hands that did?

So, you might ask, why do we bother to keep up the year count and to announce the year as we did earlier? Further, and I’m sure some of you know this, the practice of announcing the year was a ritual innovation in Gate of Repentance, our 1973 High Holy Day prayer book, which was copied into the American edition, and which we have continued in Machzor Ruach Chadashah.

My eminent predecessors of blessed memory, Rabbis John Rayner and Chaim Stern adapted the traditional blessing for the new month so that we can announce the new year and express our hope that it should “bring to us and to the whole House of Israel life and peace, joy and happiness, redemption and comfort.”

This answer is one small example of the role of Progressive Judaism within the over-three-thousand-year history of Judaism itself. I feel it is timely this evening to take these few moments to remind ourselves of why Progressive Judaism exists.

It exists because 19thcentury Jews found themselves unable to reconcile the beliefs and practices of Judaism with the new knowledge emerging through the Enlightenment. Advances in all areas of science and arts, notably Darwin’s theory of evolution and the advent of bible scholarship, challenged the normative statement of pre-modern Judaism. Many Jews needed a Judaism that better matched what they learned in schools, universities and general life.

Judaism gradually split between those who wished to reform and evolve Judaism more speedily and those who wished to conserve it as it had been or, at best, develop it slowly. In that period, and even more so in our time, such advances accelerated and were wider reaching in their implications. That spectrum of approaches continues to exist today and I, personally, regret that we allowed the conservers to take the title ‘orthodox’, suggesting that their approach is normative and ours is a breakaway minority.

There were those back then who, faced with a choice between traditional Judaism and what was going on in the world, chose to abandon Judaism completely.That is still the reality today, yet we offer an understanding of Judaism that enables Jews to both engage with the wider world and have their Judaism inform that engagement.

Our role, and the Liberal movement has for 120 years been in the vanguard of change, has been to use our best endeavours to determine what new wisdoms emerge into our world and how they demand that we evolve our Judaism by each new step.

Thus, equality for women, allowing all to sit together in services, recognition of people in the LGBTQI+ communities, access for people with disabilities, interfaith initiatives, social action and campaigning for social and economic justice have been and are areas where we lead and others follow.

We don’t always get things right – no experimental and leading group can – but we seek to continually update the balance of continuity and change. Nor do we always apply our principles fully, as tradition can exert a powerful influence. But it is in the effort, the challenge, that our approach to Judaism sits.

We take upon ourselves to regularly re-ask the question of Deuteronomy “V’ata Yisrael, mah Adonai Elohecha sho-el mei-imach?” (“And now, O Israel, what does the Eternal your God ask of you?”) What is it that the force for what is good and right in this world needs us to say and do in this age?

The prophet Micah suggested in answer to the Torah’s question principles and underpinning values that are timeless – “to do justly, love kindness, and walk humbly with our God.”

The manifestations of this answer are also timeless – how do we address and ideally eliminate poverty; how do we treat the stranger, the outsider, the refugee, the asylum-seeker; how do we prevent corruption; how do we eliminate discrimination; how do we improve our stewardship of planet Earth; and so on.

As Jews in the best of Progressive tradition, we begin this New Year questioning what we can do differently and better in 5784 than we managed in 5783. In our Rosh Hashanah Shofar service, we read the words “Hayom Harat Olam” – translated as “This is the birthday of the world.” We might benefit this year from a more literal translation – “This day is pregnant with eternity.” On this day, going forward into the new year, anything and everything is possible.

In the best traditions of our legitimate, authentic, and much-needed form of Judaism, let us make steps in the coming year towards the world as we would like it to be. Let’s seek, even demand, global steps around climate change. Let’s contribute towards national steps, both in the UK and in Israel. Let’s make local steps, within and beyond our ELELS community.

May we individually and collectively make the coming year a good and sweet one. May this be God’s will, as it is ours, Amen.

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