Why Reform-Liberal union stands a better chance of success

Attempts to unite the two Progressive movements have faltered in the past but the climate is more favourable


Today the Movement for Reform Judaism (MRJ) and Liberal Judaism (LJ) announced their plan to join forces in a unified Progressive movement. It is not a new idea - some 40 years ago a similar ambition was being actively discussed but the differences between the two UK denominations proved too large to bridge.

Now the mood music suggests a much great likelihood of it finally coming to fruition - some would say, more than a century overdue. Crucially, the two streams, which both belong to the World Union of Progressive Judaism, are closer religiously than they once were. 

Forty years ago, when unification was then on the table, the Liberals were unique in being the only UK denomination to recognise the child of a Jewish father and non-Jewish mother as Jewish (as long as the child was raised as Jewish). MRJ held to the more traditional belief that Jewish status derived from the mother: but eight years ago it closed the gap when it too accepted the validity of “equilineal” descent.

The Liberals led the way in introducing ceremonies to celebrate same-sex unions and enabling rabbis to bless mixed-faith couples. The Reform inched quietly towards a more liberal position and followed suit a few years later. 

Historically, Reform was always considered more traditional and the Liberals more radical. But while differences remain, it is now more a question of nuance than theological substance.

Meanwhile, the emergence of the smaller Masorti movement has offered a more traditional non-Orthodox option to Reform, perhaps leaving the latter more ready to identify with the religious left.

The climate for consolidation seems much more propitious today, particularly against a backdrop of greater organisational collaboration within the UK Jewish community in the wake of the pandemic. But the momentum for union - the word “merger” is being studiously avoided, with its connotations of takeover - has perhaps been building over a longer period. Over the past couple of decades, it has become more common to see rabbis swap pulpits from a Reform to a Liberal community -and vice versa: the two movements have shared in support for the Progressive training academy at Leo Baeck College, their most important joint venture to date.

It must help that the chief executive of Liberal Judaism, Rabbi Charley Baginsky, and Reform’s ceo-designate, Rabbi Josh Levy, who are fronting the move towards union, are Leo Baeck contemporaries (he graduated a couple of years ahead of her). The leadership of both movements are openly embracing the prospect in a way that was less obvious 40 years ago.

Both recognise that a unified movement can help create a stronger national platform for Progressive Judaism as a whole - and enable it to better compete for the attention of the growing ranks of unaffiliated Jews.


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