Liberal Judaism

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Liberal Judaism is a term mainly used in the United Kingdom. In terms of beliefs and practices it is more or less the same as American Reform Judaism but is more progressive than UK Reform Judaism. According to the BBC: “Liberal Judaism, as the name suggests, is a progressive form of Judaism that aims to bring Judaism and modernity together. To use the movement's own words: Liberal Judaism is the growing edge of Judaism. It reverences Jewish tradition, and seeks to preserve all that is good in the Judaism of the past. But it lives in the present. . . It is the Judaism of the past in process of becoming the Judaism of the future. [Source: BBC, July 24, 2009 |::|]

“Liberal Jews apply Judaism's religious and cultural tradition in the framework of modern thinking and morality. They seek to live according to the prophetic ideal - to do justice, love kindness and to walk humbly with God. The movement has a strong intellectual tradition, and believes that Jewish texts should be reinterpreted in the light of modern scholarship and Jewish laws reassessed by their practical suitability to contemporary conditions. So, for example, there is no obligation to obey Jewish dietary laws, but one can do so if it helps one's internal feeling of 'Jewishness' to do so. This is typical of the Liberal belief that each individual should be encouraged to make their own decisions within the Jewish framework (and taking a questioning attitude to that framework), as opposed to the strict obedience to law that characterises Orthodoxy. |::|

“Liberal Judaism is non-authoritarian and the congregations that make up the movement are self-governing. In Britain, it is organised by an association of 30 autonomous synagogues, comprising what was formerly known as 'The Union of Liberal and Progressive Synagogues' and now simply 'Liberal Judaism'. The organisation is part of the World Union for Progressive Judaism, which estimated their membership to be around 1.7 million in 2009 and is the largest grouping of Jews in the world. Liberal rabbis are trained at the Leo Baeck College - Centre for Jewish Education, the main rabbinic seminary for progressive Rabbis. |::|

Websites and Resources: Virtual Jewish Library ; Judaism101 ; ; Chabad,org ; BBC - Religion: Judaism

Liberal Judaism History

According to the BBC: “Liberal Judaism was created in order to reverse the drift away from Judaism that had been produced by the Emancipation. It began in Britain in 1902 with the founding of the Jewish Religious Union by Lily Montagu (1873-1963) and Claude Montefiore. The immediate object was to hold Sabbath afternoon services in which English was used as well as Hebrew, musical instruments were permitted and men and women could sit together. The first public service was held on October 18 1902 at the Great Central Hotel in Marylebone Road, London. [Source: BBC, August 12, 2009 |::|]

“The first Liberal Jewish synagogue in Britain was opened in 1911 and the first Liberal Rabbi was appointed in 1912. The first Liberal synagogue outside London was opened in Liverpool in 1928. The Union of Liberal and Progressive Synagogues was founded in 1944. There were 11 affiliated synagogues by 1949, 28 by 1991 and 31 by 2005. |::|

“The movement's first Rabbi was Israel I. Mattuck, who established Liberal Judaism in Britain as a movement whose character resembled the radical end of American Reform Judaism. Lily Montagu Lily Montagu was a remarkable woman. She was one of ten children of a Jewish banker and Liberal MP, Samuel Montagu and was brought up in a strictly Orthodox home. |::|

“Her religious instincts developed early; by the age of 15 she was having difficulty with the Orthodox line and by 17 had started to run Sabbath classes for children. At 19 she co-founded an educational institution for women that grew into the West Central Jewish Day Settlement, based in the West End of London. |::|

“She felt that Orthodoxy was over-formal and that the demands of its rituals were too difficult for working people, who found it so hard to combine with their everyday lives. The industrial working hours and dreadful living conditions she saw around her in the East End of London where she lived contributed to this view. She also wished to help protect Jewish people living in East London from anti-semitism and enable them to blend more successfully with the community. In 1899 she wrote an article entitled "The Spiritual Possibilities of Judaism Today". This led in 1902 to the founding of the Jewish Religious Union (with the scholar Claude Montefiore) which then developed into the Liberal Jewish movement. |::|

“Dr. Ellen Umansky (the Carl and Dorothy Bennett Professor of Judaic Studies at Fairfield University) has uncovered evidence that suggests that Montagu was the real founder of Liberal Judaism in Britain. "She asked Claude Montefiore to become president, because she recognized that no one would take her seriously," Umansky says. "So he became president [of the movement] and she did all the work." |In 1925/6 she played the major part in founding the World Union for Progressive Judaism. Claude Montefiore became president and Lily Montagu was appointed honorary-secretary. Ms Montagu herself was President from 1954-1959 and later became honorary life president. Ms Montagu was the first Jewish woman to serve as a lay minister. She preached regularly at the Liberal Jewish Synagogue and had her own congregation, the West Central Jewish Congregation, where she officiated and preached regularly.” |::|

Liberal Judaism Beliefs

According to the BBC: “Liberal Jews see God as: One and indivisible, transcendent and immanent Creator and sustainer of the universe, Source of the Moral Law, a God of Justice and mercy who demands that human beings shall practise justice and mercy in their dealings with one another. [Source: BBC, August 12, 2009 |::|]

“Liberal Jews affirm the traditional view of humanity as that which is: “created in the Divine Image, endowed with free will capable of sublime goodness but also of terrible evil, mortal yet with a sense of eternity, able to enter into a direct personal relationship with their Creator, and to restore that relationship when it is broken, through repentance (t'shuvah). |::|

“Liberal Jews don't believe that the Torah was written by God on tablets of stone and given to Moses. They believe it was written by human beings and should be responded to as such. Many Liberal Jews do acknowledge that much of the Torah was divinely inspired. Liberal Jews regard the biblical writers as fallible human beings, anchored in the customs and societies of their time and place. They accept that while the Torah contains much that is spiritual and inspiring, it also contains 'plenty that is flawed, petty, and rooted in ancient politics and culture.' |::| “So, for example, Liberal Jews don't accept that God was responsible for some of the ancient concepts and laws, such as the stoning to death of a rebellious son or the permanent ostracism from the community of Israel of the members of ancient Canaanite tribes. They believe that these were human laws that were part of the culture and moralities of their time and that have no application today. |::|

“This re-evaluation of scripture doesn't devalue the Torah. Liberal Jews regard the Torah, together with Mishnah, Talmud and Midrash, as an inexhaustible source of wisdom, guidance and inspiration. However, they believe that the Torah and other works should be interpreted in the context of the present day, rather than literally. |::|

“Most Liberal Jews reject the idea of a personal Messiah at whose coming all the righteous dead would arise and live in unadulterated bliss and also reject the idea of physical resurrection. There is no consensus on an afterlife. |::|

Liberal Judaism Practices

1970 meeting

According to the BBC: “In a Liberal synagogue men and women sit together and take part as equals in all aspects of the service. Much of a Liberal service is taken from traditional Jewish liturgy, with revisions, omissions, modifications and 'many amplifications'. [Source: BBC, August 12, 2009 |::|]

“A part of the service is usually in English (although Liberal synagogues now use more Hebrew than in the early days of the movement). There may also be a choir and instrumental accompaniment. Liberal Judaism believes that all festivals and days of celebration or mourning be upheld in tandem with traditional beliefs. |::|

“It also shares the Orthodox conviction that traditional rites of passage must be endorsed. These include the carrying out of appropriate rituals pertaining to birth, circumcision, baby-naming, coming of age and marriage (see gender issues below), the consecration of a new home and death and mourning (see funerals). |::|

Liberal Judaism and Women

According to the BBC: “Liberal Judaism was the pioneer of gender equality in British Judaism. The movement has always regarded men and women as equal, and therefore men and women are not segregated during services as they are in some other forms of Judaism. Women may participate fully in synagogue life: 1) women can lead services; 2) women can be called up to the Torah; 3) women can become rabbis; 4) women can hold other synagogue offices. [Source: BBC, August 12, 2009 |::|]

“The movement's prayer book, Siddur Lev Chadash, uses gender-inclusive language in its translations. So, for example, masculine names for God, such as "Lord" and "King", are replaced by words such as "Eternal One" and "Sovereign", and the Matriarchs are mentioned in conjunction with the Patriarchs.Women are encouraged to study Judaism in-depth, so that they are properly equipped to make informed decisions about their religious life. |::|

Regina Jonas, the first woman rabbi

“Liberal Judaism rejects the traditional law of matrilineality, which teaches that a child must have a Jewish mother to be born Jewish. It accepts that children of mixed marriages should be treated alike, regardless of whether the mother or the father is the Jewish parent, and judged solely according to their upbringing. Children also receive equal treatment, with girls and boys having equal parts in religious rituals and equal status in religious education. |::|

“Both girls and boys can have a service of baby naming in the synagogue, in which both mother and father participate fully. Girls can go through the Bat-Mitzvah ('Daughter of Duty') ceremony, which is equivalent to the traditional male Bar-Mitzvah, when they're 13. This innovation is now available across most Jewish denominations. At the ages of 15 and 16 Liberal Jews undergo the unique ceremony of Kabbalat Torah ('Acceptance of Torah' or 'Confirmation'). Here the service and Torah reading are equally divided between the boys and girls of the graduating class. |::|

“Men and women are accorded completely equal status in Liberal Jewish marriage law and ritual. Liberal Judaism objects to the Orthodox 'bill of divorce' by which the husband 'sends away' the wife. Liberal Jews consider this law to be one-sided. |::|

Liberal Judaism Sexuality and Identity

According to the BBC: “Liberal Judaism regards traditional Jewish family life as the ideal way of life for the heterosexual majority. It believes this way of life is the best for raising children and for the practice and transmission of faith. Liberal Judaism disapproves of promiscuity or adultery and expects that both heterosexuals and homosexuals should restrict sexual activity to a context of lasting love and fidelity. [Source: BBC, August 12, 2009 |::|]

“While the movement strongly opposes any homophobia, or prejudice against gay men and women, and indeed demands "understanding and respect for those who are by nature or nurture so predisposed that they can find happiness and fulfilment only in a homosexual relationship", it's clear from the movement's literature on the subject that homosexuality is regarded as less good than heterosexuality and rather to be regretted. Nonetheless Liberal Judaism recognises that holiness may be present in committed same-sex partnerships and supports the creation of appropriate liturgy for same-sex commitment ceremonies. |::|

“Liberal Judaism regards Jewish identity as a matter of culture and upbringing, rather than genetics. So Liberal Jews regard as Jewish anyone who has a Jewish parent and who has been brought up in a Jewish environment, or who has converted to Judaism. While it is possible to be converted to Judaism by the Liberal movement, and the process is likely to be warm and welcoming, converts are not accepted as Jews by Orthodox Jews. Like all UK synagogue movements, Liberal rabbis will not conduct mixed marriages. |::|

Liberal Judaism Customs

According to the BBC: “Funerals: Liberal Jews permit a choice of cremation or burial, counter to the Orthodox prohibition of the former. Men and women have equal rights to play a part in funeral and mourning rituals. Liberal Judaism encourages organ donation where appropriate and does not insist on the customary speedy Jewish funeral if such a procedure is undertaken. [Source: BBC, August 12, 2009 |::|]

“Kosher: While Liberal Judaism recognises a religious dimension to the consumption of food, and encourages blessing and thanksgiving to God before and after meals, it leaves observance or non-observance of Jewish dietary rules to each individual. Some Liberal Jews regard these rules as entirely irrelevant to their religious lives and ignore them. |::|

“Other Liberal Jews regard the rules as a significant part of Jewish tradition and choose to obey them for one or more of the following reasons: 1) to enhance a sense of 'holiness'; 2) to identify with the Jewish past and with contemporary Jews who observe these rules; 3) to have a home where strictly observant Jews might eat; 4) to practise the ethical discipline of limiting appetite in a world where many go hungry and where many forbidden foods (frogs' legs, lobster meat etc) are obtained at the cost of intense animal suffering; 5) as an expression of the belief in one creator who, in Genesis (verse 26), granted man dominion over nature and thus to work in accordance with other attempts to promote animal rights and safeguard the environment |::|

Liberal Judaism UK logo

“Liberal Judaism is highly supportive of Israel, but regards the Diaspora as continuing to have a vital part to play in the present and future of the Jewish People. Liberal Jews regret the rigorous pro-Orthodox direction that religious (and indeed secular) life has taken in Israel and hope for an ultimately greater tolerance. The movement is strongly peace oriented and firm in the belief that there must be good relationships between Arabs and Jews in the Holy Land. |::|

Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons except diagram

Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons

Text Sources: Internet Jewish History Sourcebook “World Religions” edited by Geoffrey Parrinder (Facts on File Publications, New York); “ Encyclopedia of the World’s Religions” edited by R.C. Zaehner (Barnes & Noble Books, 1959); “Old Testament Life and Literature” by Gerald A. Larue, New International Version (NIV) of The Bible,; Wikipedia, National Geographic, BBC, New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Smithsonian magazine, Times of London, The New Yorker, Reuters, AP, AFP, Lonely Planet Guides, and various books and other publications.

Last updated March 2024

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