Why Liberals brought back barmitzvahs

Modern Progresssives have restored traditions their radical forebears discarded

By Rabbi Alexandra Wright, February 3, 2011
Reinterpreting tradition at the Liberal Jewish Synagogue, St John’s Wood, which celebrates its centenary this year

Reinterpreting tradition at the Liberal Jewish Synagogue, St John’s Wood, which celebrates its centenary this year

My grandmother, born in 1906, was 16 when she began attending services at The Liberal Jewish Synagogue, founded in 1911 and celebrating the momentous milestone of its centenary this year. Established by men and women drawn from the spectrum of Anglo-Jewry, the LJS has, in many ways, been in the vanguard of religious and social change during the century of its existence.

What drew my grandmother initially to the new synagogue was the dynamic and charismatic rabbi, Dr Israel Mattuck, who impressed all who heard him expound Liberal Judaism, with its emphasis on ethical conduct and informed conscience.

But a century after Mattuck had led the way in providing a form of worship that combined the spiritual and moral values of Judaism with the religious needs of his congregation, extended Jewish education for boys and girls until confirmation (later Kabbalat Torah) at 16, rejecting barmitzvah for boys at 13, where does the LJS now stand on the religious spectrum? How faithful has it been to the principles of its founders and how has it managed what seems like a reversion to some of the traditions originally abolished?

What would its early members make of the increased use of Hebrew in the services and a return to the traditional structure of the liturgy in its prayer books of the last 50 years? How would they have reacted to the pressure from members to introduce bar- and batmitzvah in 1981 or the more recent practice of both boys and girls to leyn from the Torah? How would they have regarded the wearing of kippot by the majority of the male members of the congregation and some of the women, a practice that Mattuck had declared optional soon after his arrival, or the voluntary undertaking of mikveh for converts?

Many of the changes have occurred in life-cycle rituals, where Liberal Judaism has been able to create a framework of new meaning, bridging past and present. Couples choosing to marry under the "floating" chupah at the LJS are probably unaware of early Liberal Judaism's negative attitude to rituals such as bedecken (veiling the bride) or the custom of the bride to walk round the groom seven times. Today, in choosing to re-adopt some of these rituals, Liberal Judaism has not simply reverted to ancient forms for the sake of tradition, but creatively reinterpreted them and provided new liturgy for different occasions.

What would its early members make of increased use of hebrew in services?

In that respect, we have maintained our radical approach to theology and Jewish thought. It is very clear that a marriage or any relationship between two people, who make a commitment to each other, cannot be based on the ancient and traditional idea of kinyan, the acquisition of a wife by her husband.

The relationship must be reciprocal and equal. In Liberal Judaism, liturgy and ritual must reflect that reality, so that bedecken is not a way for a husband to check that he has the right bride, in the tradition of Jacob who married Leah instead of Rachel, but is rather a coming together of a couple in a quiet moment of reflection and prayer before the public ceremony of marriage. Such changes simply mirror the existing rituals of reciprocity - the exchange of rings and both bride's and groom's declaration of betrothal.

And that is why, too, Liberal Judaism will never see the reintroduction of practices that marginalise members of the Jewish community or subject individuals to humiliating rituals such as mamzerut, chalitzah, or the giving of a non-reciprocal get. These practices simply contradict the ethical principles that lie at the heart of prophetic Judaism: justice, equality, human dignity and human rights.

The influences on the LJS in the area of ritual, liturgy and observance have come both from outside and from within. Outside, the American Reform movement has led the way to embrace more Hebrew and more tradition. But within the congregation, there was a growing recognition, particularly in the 1970s and 1980s, as Jews from the USSR sought to identify with Jewish institutions, Israel and Jewish practice, that the heritage and history of our people, could enrich us and connect us to each other even more than it had done already.

In addition and perhaps more importantly, our younger members, for whom their post-GCSE visit to Israel is so vital, are far more empowered than their parents or grandparents were at the same age. They lead the services and the singing, they teach at the religion school, they rejoice in and take for granted the hard-won battles of recognition for women, for couples in same-sex relationships and acknowledge the encouragement of Liberal rabbis to include in the community the non-Jewish partner of a couple who has "married in".

It is the younger generation who will take forward the principles of Liberal Judaism: its openness and its integrity, its emphasis on ethical and moral behaviour, its careful evaluation and cherishing of traditions that need to have meaning and purpose if they are to survive, its love of learning and respect for the highest degree of scholarship and a willingness to reinterpret ancient traditions in the light of contemporary experience and knowledge.

These are the things, as well as the warmth of community and its inclusiveness, that encouraged my grandmother to continue attending the LJS until her death in 2004 and, a few months earlier in the same year, inspired me to return to the congregation of my childhood as its senior rabbi.

Rabbi Wright will officiate at the LJS centenary service

Last updated: 2:08pm, February 3 2011