Yom Shlishi, 16 Iyyar 5779
Tuesday, 21 May 2019
The future of Liberal Judaism PDF Print E-mail

by Lucian J. Hudson

WHEN I was at school, we had an inspiring teacher whose handwriting was distinctive yet sometimes unreadable. When he wrote on the blackboard, the letter “d” would look like an “s”. He introduced our class to the concept of “paradox”, but to this day I can only remember how we reacted in mirth at the sight of “paraSox”. For me, paradox has always meant “pair of socks”.

The question of why the UK has two Progressive Jewish movements – Liberal Judaism (LJ) and the Movement for Reform Judaism (MRJ) – never quite goes away. It is a paradox because both movements recognise that there is “not much” difference between them. But “not much” is “enough” to keep us on different, yet often parallel, tracks.

Because LJ and MRJ hold Biennials in the same year, and within months of each other, each invites the other’s leadership to attend. For the past two Biennials, we have used this as an opportunity to explore the similarities and differences between us.

Last year, on these pages, I floated the idea that the choice is not just between merger and carrying on as we are, but also exploring federation, where each community keeps its distinctive identity within a combined national framework. While it is possible to collaborate on specific areas, there is no groundswell for closer union.

LJ and MRJ already pull together on training our future rabbis. The Leo Baeck College is living testament to the fact that what we have in common far exceeds what differentiates us. But the differences matter. The challenge is to ensure that the differences are for the right reason.

I would like both movements to achieve a Copernican Revolution and not justify the present in relation to the past, but in relation to the future.

We have to be clear where being part of one thing – Progressive Judaism – is important, and where being apart – two movements – is equally important. I do not see this as inconsistent, but the appropriate response to what it is to be a Progressive Jew. The challenge of the 21st Century is not a forced simplicity, but working with complexity.

This means collaborating and yes, where appropriate, competing. The key test is if LJ and MRJ did not exist, would we create them both? My provocative answer, at this point, is an emphatic yes. If I took a strategic view of what it would take for Progressive Judaism to flourish, I would invent two separate movements and welcome the creative tension.

I know what Liberal Judaism brings, or could bring, to the mix – and this is too valuable to lose.

At our best, we reveal an independence of spirit and a radical take on society as we find it. This is not party political, but it is political. Power relations should matter to a Liberal Jew. Whatever ideological battles we win, we move to the next one.

Rabbi Danny Rich calls us “constructive irritants”. Rabbi Pete Tobias emphasises the importance that we attach to the Prophets. Rabbi Charley Baginsky says that Liberal Judaism was founded out of a combination of ideology and pragmatism. I take from my conversations with Charley that we face a pre-identity crisis, where we need to articulate our authentic and original voice more clearly.

Our very size makes it easier for us to sharpen our impact and, when it comes to fresh ideas, to lead from the front. I think that this is much more difficult for MRJ to do.

The future is hybrid, even more than we can now possibly imagine. I sincerely hope that when the next Chief Rabbi of the United Hebrew Congregations is appointed, the mainstream British media will wake up to the diversity and plurality of Judaism’s evolution and recognise that to be a Jew is to exercise choice.

The Ancient Greeks said that character is destiny. Let us be true to our character, and fulfil our destiny – and make something of our paradox.

• Lucian J Hudson is chairman of Liberal Judaism. You can contact Lucian by emailing This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it