Yom Sheini, 22 Tishri 5780
Shemini Azeret Monday, 21 October 2019
Liberal Judaism offers a third way PDF Print E-mail

By Lucian J. Hudson

In the upcoming issue of lj today, you will find a summary of the annual report presented to this year’s Liberal Judaism AGM detailing the achievements of, and challenges facing, our movement. It shows much good news. Membership numbers are up, engagement is growing and finances are robust.

But the impact of Liberal Judaism is about more than just numbers. It is about principles, tested in good times and bad. Our ethical voice on big issues of the day – whether it is the Israel-Gaza conflict or assisted dying – can only help sustain our future as a religious movement.

 We also need to respond appropriately to long-term demographics. This is partly why I put such emphasis on engagement with the Liberal Judaism Strategic Plan. Choices now determine future outcomes.

Much of the interest and response to the recent community survey by the Institute for Jewish Policy Research focused on the growth of the Charedi and secular sections of British Jewry. Much less noted has been the growth, by almost a third, of those identifying as Progressive. These figures hide a huge ‘churn’. Nevertheless, they demonstrate the ability of Liberal Judaism - in the words of a once famous beer advertisement - to reach the Jews other denominations cannot reach.

This trend is confirmed by the increase in the number of Liberal Jewish communities. This year we have seen new Liberal communities established in Suffolk and York, bringing our total number to 40. More than 300 people attended the largest Biennial Weekend in our movement’s history.

Over the years, Progressive Judaism has broken numerous taboos: appointing the first women rabbis; the first openly LGBT rabbis; providing mixed-faith blessings and welcoming the children of such couples on an equal basis, regardless of the gender of the Jewish parent. Most recently, in the debate on changes in legislation on assisted dying, the public mood and parliamentary voices are moving in the direction that some Liberal Jewish leaders originally advocated.

I have supported this stance in Liberal Judaism, not to annoy more traditional sections of the community nor to modernise for modernity’s sake, but because I believe Judaism must be about positive action that speaks to the reality of our times.

It was not enough for Liberal Jews to bless same-sex couples in our synagogues. We put our values into action by playing a leading role in the campaign that has led to the introduction of equal marriage legislation for everyone. It is a matter of great pride for us that one of the country’s very first same sex marriages was blessed by a Liberal rabbi.

It is the same commitment to put Jewish values into action that has led us to become the first Living Wage certified synagogal movement in the country, for our communities to sign up for Fairtrade goods and for our synagogues and head office to go green.

This is a manifesto which may alarm other sections of the community. I hope that they will understand that, whatever our disagreements, they are “for the sake of heaven”.

The challenge that Liberal Judaism has accepted for itself and which, during my five years as its chairman, has shaped my actions, is to offer a form of Judaism which ‘opts in’ to the modern world. But we cannot opt in at the expense of opting out of the Jewish community. That is why I have made it a key tenet of my approach that Liberal Judaism plays its full part in the communal world.

So, as I enter my last year as chairman, these are the challenges I set for Liberal Judaism. First, we need to collaborate better within our own Progressive community - Liberal and Reform. Already, we represent over a third of affiliated Jews; the more we work together, the stronger our voice.
Second, we need to provide support for our young people premised not on what we are against but what we are for, the positive role of Judaism in society.

And third, we need to resist the temptation to see the Jewish community as a continuum from strictly Orthodox to secular, with Progressive Judaism somewhere along the route. Instead, Progressive Judaism has the potential to offer the ‘third way’, which enables Jews, wherever they live and however they identify with their religion, to continue to be fulfilled as both Jews and participants in the wider world.

• Lucian J Hudson is chairman of Liberal Judaism. This article is based on one published in The Jewish Chronicle and now updated in the light of recent developments and feedback.