Yom Sheini, 17 AdarI 5781
Monday, 1 March 2021
A radical mainstream Judaism PDF Print E-mail

AS LIBERAL JUDAISM develops its Strategic Plan, it will be articulating just why and how its voice is original and authentic. As chairman, I want to make the case that we represent ‘radical mainstream Judaism’. Liberal Judaism should not just be one legitimate expression of Judaism but its best, because it is both deeply anchored in tradition and gives that tradition a cutting edge, contemporary force.

As the late Rabbi John Rayner said in his 1977 Yom Kippur sermon, our founders “reformed Judaism in order to preserve it”. Rayner pleaded then for a “bigger” Liberal Judaism, a “more excellent Judaism”, both conservative and radical.

I belong to a generation for whom tradition is no longer the problem: modernity is. Liberal Judaism can make a valuable contribution to contemporary challenges because it appreciates that we have to manage both continuity and change. Change for us is to be embraced, not merely accommodated. One of our young leaders, Robin Moss, was taken by a recent conversation he had with Rabbi Charley Baginsky: we are neither Judaism-lite nor Liberalism-lite – we are Liberal Jewish, a distinctive yet increasingly relevant religious and cultural movement.

The same-sex marriage debate demonstrated that even though ours is just one voice, we can and do have the capability to punch well above our weight. We cannot underestimate that liberal, progressive values are striking more of a chord with more of the mainstream, even if many religious, political and economic institutions have yet to catch up.

Rabbi John Rayner’s Affirmations of Liberal Judaism is an outstanding document which continues to resonate. Core to its vision is its opening sentence: “Liberal Judaism is the dynamic, cutting edge of modern Judaism.”

Rayner aimed to identify both the common ground across all strands of Judaism, placing Liberal Judaism firmly within the Jewish mainstream, and the distinctive nature of our movement: “gladly welcoming all advances in human knowledge”; “responding constructively to changing circumstances”; and valuing “truth above tradition”.

On the one hand, Rayner argues: “Judaism has never stood still. It has always moved forward, sometimes slowly, sometimes faster.” This positioning argues that Liberal Judaism should set out to lay claim to mainstream Judaism, to attract the widest possible support and speak as the legitimate voice on behalf of much of the Jewish community.

On the other hand is Rayner’s assertion that Liberal Judaism “values truth above tradition, sincerity above conformity and human needs above legal technicalities”. This expression lays claim to Liberal Judaism’s role as a radical voice, in a prophetic tradition. We question and go beyond tradition in the face of science or rational argument. This goes well beyond the “balancing act” of tradition and modernity.

At its most effective, Liberal Judaism is assertive and influential, whether it is publishing its Affirmations or speaking in support of equality and the betterment of society, even when this might produce disagreement with our own members or other parts of the Jewish community. It is exactly this assertiveness which gives Liberal Judaism its “cutting edge” and allows it to go “beyond”. But it is assertiveness blended with being able to inspire, inform and influence. We need to win people, as well as win the argument.

We must not seek controversy “for the sake of it”, nor should we fear success or failure. At his ordination in 1953, Rayner said: “To fulfil the task of Liberal Judaism in our time, we must, in many ways, resist the tendencies, and swim against the currents, of our time.”

Under the joint leadership of Rabbi Danny Rich as chief executive, Rabbi Charley Baginsky as chair of Rabbinic Conference, Rabbi Andrew Goldstein as newly elected president and I as chairman, we are a responsible national organisation, pushing and renegotiating the boundaries. To do otherwise would fail Judaism and fail Liberal Judaism. Liberal Judaism should speak out when others do not. We should reclaim the prophetic Jewish voice, but not be outside the community.

Coupled to this is the opportunity for Jews to be themselves, think for themselves and reach their own decisions. Liberal Judaism’s role is to provide a framework for Jewish thinking, education and information, yet be respectful of decisions that people take for themselves.

Just as Liberal Judaism is a legitimate expression of Judaism, so a defining element of Liberal Judaism must be to recognise each member’s interpretation of their own Judaism as valid and meaningful.

The Protestant existentialist theologian Paul Tillich summed up “the courage to be” as the courage to be part of a larger whole, the courage to stand alone and the courage to accept the fact that we are carried by the creative power of being in which every creature participates. Liberal Judaism unapologetically takes the best ideas where it finds them, and offers some of its own.

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

This is the first article of a two part series.