Questions and answers on Progressive Judaism

Questions and answers on Progressive Judaism

1) What is the basic idea of Progressive Reform?

The basic idea is the principal of growth. There can be no life without growth. Progressive Judaism maintains that Judaism has not reached the end of its road. It is not and never was, something fixed, static and changeless, but something vital and dynamic.It is still capable of growth and adjustment in terms of the changing needs and conditions of life.

Historically it can be shown that Judaism is not all of one piece – the same today as in the time of Moses. The Judaism of the Talmud is different from the Judaism of the Bible. Instead of the Temple with its animal sacrifices, the Talmud substituted the Synagogue with its service of prayer in order to meet the challenge of Diaspora living.

In the 12th century, Maimonides gave to Judaism a new philosophical formulation in answer to the intellectual questionings of his day, and in a similar manner, Progressive Judaism represents an answer to the challenge of our modern scientific world outlook. Judaism survived because it never stood still; because it had the power to adapt itself to the requirements of each new challenge as it arose.

2) How has Progressive Judaism improved the status of the Jewish women?

Traditional Law (Halachah) is patriarchal in structure. The rabbis have heaped praise and flattery on Jewish woman, and they have also tried to protect her against certain abuses. But they cannot give her a position of equality in Law.

In the Synagogue, she is segregated in the women’s gallery, and cannot be counted for a minyan. She cannot be called up for the reading of the Torah nor sing in the choir. In Jewish Court (Beth Din), except in certain special cases, her testimony cannot be accepted.

Progressive Judaism has abolished all these disabilities and given the women a position all equality in the Temple, including as women rabbis and cantors.

Even more important are the disabilities faced by women in connection with the Jewish Laws of Get, Agunah and Chalitaz.

An Orthodox rabbi will not remarry a divorcee unless she obtains a Get (ritual divorce) from her former husband through the Beth Din. As only the husband can initiate the Get, the woman is at a serious disadvantage. A wife can also refuse to accept the Get, which puts the husband at a disadvantage. For humanitarian reasons, Progressive Judaism is prepared to provide relief in all such cases.

Similarly, Progressive Judaism adjusts to the situation of the Agunah (the deserted wife who can never remarry until the husband returns to give her a Get or is officially declared deceased). Chalitzah originally intended to protect the childless widow, now often leads to victimisation and abuse.

Before the childless widow can remarry, she is involved in a humiliating ceremony with her husband’s brother. Consequently Progressive Judaism has abolished the practice of Chalitzah altogether.

Rabbi David Sherman (left) lands at Cape Town airport, 1944, to be met by the movement’s founder, Rabbi Dr MC Weiler, as he takes up his post as rabbi

3) What is the Progressive Judaism’s attitude towards ritual and ceremonial practice?

Ancient religions made no distinction between moral Laws and ceremonial ritual Laws. In Orthodoxy, both are of equal value. The obligation to lay tefillin is just as important as the commandment, “Thou shalt not steal”. Progressive Judaism makes a distinction between the great moral and spiritual principles we cherish as the permanent element in Judaism, and the ceremonial forms which we believe can and should be changed in accordance with modern requirements.

This does not mean that we are opposed to ceremonial practices. We believe that they perform an important function, adding grace and dignity to the religious life as well as inspirational value, and they call attention to great spiritual ideals.

The test of ceremonial therefore, is its inspirational potential. If it still has the capacity to inspire us, we practise it.

4) Is Progressive Judaism just a religion of convenience?

Progressive Jewish practice may seem more convenient because it is more closely related to the real needs of the modern Jew. The test of Progressive Jewish practice is not based on any question of convenience, but rather on its relevancy, its relatedness to the actualities of present day life.

On the other hand, to speak of Progressive Judaism as choosing the easy way is to ignore the history of the Progressive Jewish struggle.

In the early days of our Movement, the Reformers were a small handful, waging a lonely fight against an entrenched and militant Orthodoxy. They were banned and denounced by the rabbinic authorities. Indeed, even today in certain parts of South Africa and in Israel, it takes courage and self sacrifice to carry on the struggle for Progressive Judaism.

5) What is the attitude of Progressive Judaism to the State of Israel?

How does it stand on Zionism? In the early days of Zionism there were Progressive Jews as well as many Orthodox Jews who were opposed to the idea of Jewish state. In the last 50 years however, the overwhelming majority of our rabbis have been pro-Zionist and many of them have taken a leading part in Zionist work. Among them we had such outstanding figures as Rabbi Abba Hillel Silver and Rabbi Stephen S. Wise, who played an important role in the establishment of Israel.

The official attitude of the Progressive Reform Movement is best indicated by the fact that our Prayer Book contains a prayer for the restoration of Zion, and the Guiding Principles of Progressive Reform Judaism affirm the obligation of all Jewry to aid in Israel’s development. Toward this end, the World Union for Progressive Judaism (WUPJ) has transferred its headquarters to Jerusalem. Our movement arranges Israel tours for Temple youth and promotes Aliyah (immigration to Israel). It has established two Progressive Reform Kibbutzim in the Arava desert [and others throughout Israel].

6) Is there a tendency to eliminate Hebrew from the Siddur (Prayer Book)?

No. Hebrew is the traditional language of Jewish worship and serves to unite us with our people all over the world. It helps to preserve the traditional character of our service, and conveys certain emotional values that cannot be translated.

Although some Hebrew prayers have been shortened, modified or translated, we retain others intact which are most expressive of the great basic ideals of Jewish worship. We have also included new prayers in English, which make the Service more beautiful, particularly for those of our Congregants who do not understand or read Hebrew fluently.

7) What is the Progressive Reform attitude to the Chumash? (The Five Books of Moses)

Can we regard the Bible as the word of God? We in Progressive Judaism believe that the Bible is a record of the religious experience of the Jewish people over a period of many centuries. It contains great religious truths and ethical insights which serve as an inspiration to the whole civilisation. But it also contains Laws and customs that were intended for people at an early stage of their development. Progressive Judaism believes that God reveals Himself gradually in terms of our ability to grasp the significance of His revelation. Hence all truth is not limited to the Bible and not everything in the Bible is necessarily binding on all, for all times.

8) What is the Progressive Reform attitude to Kashrut?

Here again we must refer back to the distinction between moral Laws and ceremonial Laws. Progressive Judaism does not regard the dietary Laws as having the same force as the moral principles of Judaism. This does not mean that we are opposed to the dietary laws as such. There is no commandment in Progressive Judaism that says you must not keep kosher. Many Progressive Jews find spiritual value in keeping kosher and we respect them for this. But we do not consider those who fail to observe these laws as guilty of a serious moral offence.

At congregational functions, however, we do not serve any forbidden foods, as an example of Jewish practice, and out of respect for those who do want to observe these laws.

9) Why do some Progressive Reform congregations differ from others?

The basic idea of Progressive Judaism is adjustment to the particular needs of the community. Every community has its own local customs, which has always been the practice in Jewish life. Moreover, as you travel around the world, you will also find wide differences of custom and practice in Orthodox congregations. These differences between Progressive Jewish congregations are highly exaggerated, as all use pretty much the same sort of Prayer Book, follow the same pattern of congregational organisation and conduct similar programmes for Jewish education. Some communities celebrate two days Rosh Hashanah – to recognise the tradition – while others celebrate one day only. Although you may find minor differences of detail here and there, the basic principles are pretty much the same.

10) Is Progressive Judaism a half-way house to assimilation?

On the contrary, one of the purposes of Progressive Judaism is to combat assimilation by making Judaism more meaningful in terms of the experience of the modern educated Jew. Progressive Judaism has brought back to Judaism those who left it, and has involved them in active participation in the life of the Jewish Community, particularly the Youth.

I asked God

I asked God to take away my pain.

God said: “No. It is not for me to take away, but for you to give it up.”

I asked God to make my handicapped child whole.

God said: “No. Her spirit is whole, her body is only temporary.”

I asked God to grant me patience.

God said: “No. Patience is a by-product of tribulations; it isn’t granted, it is earned.”

I asked God to give me happiness.

God said: “No. I give you blessings. Happiness is up to you.”

I asked God to spare me pain.

God said: “No. Suffering draws you apart from worldly cares.”

I asked God to make my spirit grow.

God said: “No. You must grow on your own, but I will prune you to make you fruitful.”

I asked God for all things that I might enjoy life.

God said: “No. I gave you life so that you may enjoy all things.”

I asked God to help me love others as much as He loves me.

God said: “Ahhh… finally you have the idea.”


Have you bought a copy?

“Judaism: A growing tradition”A selection of the writings and sermons of Rabbi Dr David Sherman, Z’L.
Imaginatively illustrated in full colour and easy to read.Copies available @ R130 per copy (incl. postage in Southern Africa) from Temple Israel, Cape Town offices: Green Point +27 21 434-8901. Wynberg +27 21 762-1745.

A quick guide to Progressive Judaism

Progressive Judaism embraces our traditions, and works to make them meaningful parts of contemporary life. Personal responsibility, egalitarianism, community and local tradition are the hallmarks

Minhag South Africa

Document outlining the current practices of congregations affiliated to the SA Union for Progressive Judaism (In PDF format:100kb)