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Expanding the conversation

Elisabeth Holdsworth, Australian Book Review RAFT Fellow, shares an article she wrote in response to a debate recently initiated by UPJ President Roger Mendelson in his "My Good News" column in the UPJ's Weekly News & Drash. 

Expanding the discussion                                 

Whats in a name? That which we call a rose/By any other word would smell as sweet.
William Shakespeare Romeo and Juliet, Act II, Scene II, (1599)

I first encountered English and Shakespeare’s words and works when I arrived in Australia as a teenager. All of my working life I delved in, out and behind the meanings of words. Words built our concepts of God, the Torah and our other foundational documents. Through words, Moses who strides across the books named for him, became the first fully formed human character of ancient times. The Deuteronomist, writing perhaps as late as 621 B.C.E.[i]uses the character Moses to deliver a valedictory credo to those of us who will inhabit the future.  

The next time that a human being so compelling, so like us, takes centre stage is in 1603, in Shakespeare’s Hamlet. Hamlet’s words are still as much a part of our lexicon as are the words we attribute to Moses.[ii]

To pursue more words to contain in a book on progressive Judaism I attended the 2018 UPJ Biennial. And if possible, to interview Rabbis Daniel Freelander and Lawrence Hoffman.

The debate ignited by the president of the UPJ, in the newsletter of 25/12/18 is of great interest to me. Roger Mendelson’s articulate cri-de-coeur, ‘proudly and assertively Progressive’, rejects other possibilities such as pluralistic or a non-denominational Judaism.

Rabbi Jeffrey Kamins of Emmanuel Synagogue in Sydney was the first responder.  Rabbi Kamins espouses a pluralist view as the most likely predictor of a Jewish future. He is not interested ‘in propping up institutions, ‘whether they be called “Progressive”, “Conservative”, “Renewal” or even “Pluralist”.’ Further, Rabbi Kamins stated:

Labels by their nature are divisive, especially when they misappropriate to their exclusion beliefs and practices held far beyond their self-declared bastion.

The Movement Rabbi, Fred Morgan, was bound to reply. For Rabbi Morgan ‘Judaism’s sacred literature is like a shoreless sea; containing everything that Jews need to construct a Jewish life.’ But in any give age ‘different groups will focus on certain sets of values, while other values . . . are downplayed or even dismissed as “not Jewish”.’ He sees a progressive stance as restoring Jewish values that have been overlooked.

Continuing the conversation, Rabbi Nicole Roberts from North Shore Temple Emmanuel stated that ‘The UPJ stands for something specific and important that is not quite captured in the word “Pluralist”.’

In his contribution Rabbi Jonathan Keren-Black (LBC) proposed the possibility of dropping the adjective (progressive) altogether; that in doing so we might attract other congregations presently uncomfortable with that word. ‘We are Jews, bringing Jewish values to bear in modern life.’ He also reminded us that the current Chair of Rabbis of the UPJ is David Kunin from the Masorti (Conservative) Jewish Community of Japan.

Rabbi Freelander, soon to retire as President of the World Union of Progressive Judaism, is the corporate face of some 1.8 million Jews, of which 1.6 million call themselves ‘Reform’. Rabbi Hoffman, a renowned liturgist, gave us stirring and motivational addresses throughout the conference, yet always referred to ‘Reform’.

I mentioned this fluctuation of descriptors when I interviewed the rabbis. We agreed Israel, the United States, Canada, South America – all speak Reform. It becomes trickier, for various reasons, when you get to the United Kingdom, Europe and Australia.

In the Netherlands, Belgium, Luxemburg, France and Germany the most widely used term for Progressive Judaism is Liberal or Liberaal. Dutch Progressive Judaism dates back to 1931 and the establishment of the Verbond van Liberaal Godsdienstige JodenorUnion of Liberal Religious Jews. The Dutch tried calling themselves Progressive (progressief) for some years, but recently reverted to Liberaal Religieuze Joden.  

In the UK Claude Montefiore is acknowledged as the founder of British Liberal Judaism and is lauded as the first president of the WUPJ. But navigate the website of the North West Surrey Synagogue, for instance, and you will read that this is a progressive Jewish community affiliated with the Movement for Reform Judaism and identifies as being more traditional than the American Reform Movement.

So what’s in a name? Quite a lot it would appear.

Progressive Judaism in our region is an outlier.

Throughout the conference Danny Freelander and Larry Hoffman affirmed over and over that we must own our space. Freelander suggested that we become radicals and devise for ourselves a set of behaviours to suit. Hoffman described the siddur in terms of drama; ‘We are the playwrights in the grand drama of our people’s history.’ I note he often refers to Shakespeare, especially As You Like It.

I think of myself as occupying a rational middle ground in most things. I have sympathy for a view that sees a Jewish future as one without descriptors – Just Jews. I have equal sympathy for a proud, assertive Progressive Judaism prepared to stamp out a rational geography. Friends think carefully about the future. Don’t bequeath to the next generation a Jewish world: Sans teeth,sans eyes,sans taste,sans everything.[iii]                 

[i]See Robert Alter, The Five Books of Moses, W.W. Norton & Co, New York, 2004
[ii]See Harold Bloom, Shakespeare: The Invention of the Human, London, Fourth Estate, 1999
[iii]William Shakespeare, As You Like It, 1599

Dutch born Elisabeth Holdsworth is an award-winning essayist, internationally published novelist, poet and short story writer. She was the 2017 Australian Book Review RAFT Fellow. Her fellowship paper If This Is a Jew – Progressive Judaism Around the World was published in ABR, November 2017. 

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