In my last column, I portrayed Progressive Judaism as a big tent. It allows for a wide range of Jewish practice and belief. While Progressive Judaism, like Abraham’s tent, is indeed open, this is not to say that there are no limits. Last month, I outlined what’s Progressive about Progressive Judaism. This month, I will describe what’s Jewish about Progressive Judaism.
The Jewish People. In a world filled with nations, tribes and groups, we belong to the Jewish People. Jews around the world are family to us. We feel the ties of kinship to Jews throughout our long history. Further, we recognize that our future is bound up with the future of all Jews and that an insult to any Jewish person is an insult to us. The Jewish nation has never been monolithic; there have ever been cultural and ideological differences between us. Despite these, we are one people, and we cast our lot with our fellow Jews, come what may. At the same time, we affirm that all people—and all peoples—possess infinite worth.
Hebrew. The Jewish soul speaks Hebrew. Although we are full citizens in countries around the world and speak many languages, Progressive Jews—like all Jews—recognize that our inmost yearnings, like our collective story, are best expressed in the Hebrew language. The great literary works of the Jewish people are full of ideas and teachings and story and wonder. The treasure of Jewish culture, they are our inheritance and they are composed in Hebrew.
Whether we are native speakers or struggle to identify letters, the Hebrew language has a hold on us that defies explanation. It connects us to other Jews, the Jewish tradition, and to God.
Israel. The Land of Israel is the beating heart of the Jewish world. We are proud of the accomplishments of the Jewish State, feel more secure in our homes because of its existence, and are committed to its continued flourishing. All Jews should experience Israel. Yet Israel does not get a free pass from ethical behaviour; as lovers of Zion, when we criticize the State of Israel, it is because we want it to fulfil its promise as a Beacon of Justice to the world.
Torah is our story. Like all Jews, Progressive Jews find ourselves in the Torah. The Five Books of Moses do not only contain the stories of our ancestors, but also our own stories. We find precedent for our struggles, models for our aspirations, instructions for our lives. The words of the Torah speak to us directly; they belong to us as much as we belong to them.
Ethics based in Torah, Prophets and Rabbinic Literature. All people ponder the best way to live. We are daily—no, constantly!—offered choices of how to relate to the world around us, other people and ourselves. As Progressive Jews, we draw guidance not only from the dictates of our own desires and conscience, and not only from the secular values of contemporary society. We consider the wisdom of Judaism, with its ethics articulated in Torah, the Prophetic Writings, and Rabbinic Literature. For Progressive Jews the prophets’ call for Social Justice rings especially loudly in our ears. Certainly, we experience these through the lens of our own realities (as has ever been true!), but if Kaplan is correct that “tradition has a vote, not a veto,” it is through our active engagement in the study of Jewish text, the application of the wisdom of the sages to our own lives, that it gets its vote.
The Jewish Year. Our years are marked in Jewish time. As the earth makes its orbit of the sun, our souls and intellects move through the stages of the Jewish year: repentance on Yom Kippur, dedication on Hanukkah, liberation on Pesach. With the entire Jewish world, we begin our story again on Simchat Torah, and remember our vulnerabilities on Sukkot. The holidays bring us joys and sorrows, and opportunities to reflect on our lives.
Ehad Ha’Am observed that “More than Israel has kept Shabbat, Shabbat has kept Israel.” Although most Progressive Jews do not celebrate Shabbat, it remains the cornerstone of Jewish religious life and a taste of a better world. Many engaged Progressive Jews find profound sustenance in their rest, study and socializing on Shabbat. For some, Shabbat has become a “day on,” rather than a “day off”—a day to engage in the betterment of the world.
The Jewish Lifecycle. Our lives are marked in Jewish time. We celebrate our sons’ births with brit milah; our daughters are welcomed into the community on Shabbat. We come of age in synagogue, teaching Torah and assuming our communal responsibilities through Bar and Bat Mitzvah. Our marriages happen under the chuppah, and wouldn’t be complete with out the breaking of the glass. And when the time comes for us to die, we yearn for a plain, wood box and someone to recite kaddish for us.
In this, as in so much, we are like every other Jew.