Why Reform and Liberal Judaism are stronger together

The two movements have more which unites than divides them


Rabbi Charley Baginsky, head of Liberal Judaism and Rabbi Josh Levy, head of the Movement for Reform Judaism

March 27, 2024 15:39

Excuse me, Rabbi,” someone I met said, “but what’s going on with you lot?”

What he meant — because he belonged to an Orthodox synagogue — was the talk about Reform and Liberal synagogues linking up to form a single Progressive entity.

It is an idea that has long been mooted and whose time has now come. Its origins date back to 1840, when the Reform movement began as part of a desire to change what many viewed as the stagnation into which Jewish life had sunk.

Services were not only far too long, but also entirely in Hebrew and incomprehensible to many Jews. In addition, the prayers reflected beliefs that people no longer held, such as the return of animal sacrifices. If you do not believe them, why pray for them?

The problem was that, as often happens in all walks of life, radicals grow set in their ways and become the new establishment. By 1902, another group of Jews felt Reform had lost momentum and they wanted greater changes, such as men and women sitting together (which Reform didn’t do at that time) and set up their own group — the Liberals.

Since then, an enormous amount has changed, with Reform and Liberals aligning on issues such as full equality for women, making mixed-faith couples welcome, using inclusive language in the services, agreeing on status issues and having a shared relationship with Israel.

The fact that Reform and Liberal rabbis train at the same place, Leo Baeck College, speaks volumes about how both movements share the same practises and values. This is reinforced by the fact that many rabbis switch seamlessly between synagogues in each movement throughout their career.

A few differences remain, but they are insignificant compared to what unites us, while common sense and goodwill — two oft-ignored but vital religious qualities — should enable solutions to be reached.

Most crucial of all, their core principles are identical: both try to marry the best of the past with the realities of today, forging together the wisdom of tradition with the insights of modernity.

Linking up will make a massive difference to sharing resources at HQ level and having a more powerful voice in the direction of British Jewry. This is especially important at a time when the Charedi birthrate means right-wing influences are becoming much louder. We need a strong moderate counterpart.

But what my Orthodox enquirer did not realise was that this will not greatly affect the everyday life of individual communities. Reform and Liberal synagogues are independent and autonomous, and so will retain their own minhag (customs) and identity. Their name will not change; their prayer book will be the same and familiar practices will remain. Just as we have pluralism within British Jewry, there will be pluralism within the new Progressive entity.

“So, will you be known as ‘Reform Jews’ or ‘Liberal Jews’?”, he asked. Frankly, individuals can call themselves what they want. What counts is having a strong Jewish identity, set of values and translating them into action.

What will change is that they will be part of a much strengthened form of tolerant, inclusive, modern Judaism, not only serving existing Reform and Liberal communities, but also reaching out to the unaffiliated.

It will take discussion and consultation, and each community will be able to voice its opinions before a final decision is made. My personal hope is that it will go ahead and that common purpose will trump historic differences.

I am also certain that, if achieved, we will look back and say: “Why did it take us so long?”

Jonathan Romain is rabbi of Maidenhead Synagogue and convenor of the Reform Beit Din. He is writing in a personal capacity

March 27, 2024 15:39

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