What is Progressive Judaism?

Men and women pray together at the Beutel leadership seminar in Jerusalem, which draws young Progressive Jewish leaders from all over the world

Judaism is built on the history and laws set out in the Torah (Five Books of Moses). It emphasises ethical behaviour and prescribes a way of life, telling us how to behave, work, rest, eat, celebrate and much more.

We put particular emphasis on Tikkun Olam (repairing the world), the belief that through social or environmental action, we are partners with God in creating the world as it should be.

Progressive Jews believe that the Torah comes to us from God, but it is our task to apply its teachings to our times. Halachah (Jewish law), is not a static set of decisions made by past rabbis, but a vital process requiring continuing engagement with our core beliefs in the context of our current world.

Individuals are responsible for developing a personal understanding of what God wants of them. This means Progressive Judaism emphasises education, requiring each person to engage with Jewish texts and traditions.

In line with contemporary understanding, men and women are equal partners. There is no division of seating in our synagogues and women participate equally in services, including serving as rabbis.

Our prayers and rituals are essentially the same as other streams of Judaism. There may be adjustments according to what is meaningful to a community. Many Progressive synagogues use the vernacular as well as Hebrew, shorter services are common and musical instruments may be played.

Contrary to common misconception, Progressive Jews do not reject Jewish law, Shabbat observance, dietary laws or anything else. Progressive congregations have set aside Shabbat and festivals and holy days as sacred time. We re-interpret Torah to emphasise meaning for our lives today. We accept that this may include driving to synagogue on Shabbat or for other celebrations to make the time meaningful for us and our families.

Jews-by-choice, those who convert to Judaism through a Progressive framework, undergo a 12-20 month period of learning, integration and personal reflection. As in other streams of Judaism, the process includes milah (circumcision for men) and may include mikvah (ritual immersion) for both women and men. (See Minhag SA, Conversion: points 5 & 6.)

Some essentials

Personal responsibility, egalitarianism, community and local tradition are the hallmarks of Progressive Judaism.

Each human being is responsible for the choices he or she makes. For a Jew, this responsibility entails an awareness and reflective consideration of the Jewish values and principles that emerge from Torah. It is not enough to learn what Jewish texts or traditions say; we are also bound to critique what we learn with our God-given reason and act accordingly.

All human beings are created in the image of God so should be treated with equal respect and dignity. Men and women have equal rights and responsibilities in Progressive Judaism, the foundation for an egalitarian approach that is sensitive to other differences, including different expressions of Judaism, different sexual orientation and the differences between Jews and non-Jews.

COMMUNITY (Kehillah)
To be part of a community is to give up areas of individual control for the well-being of the whole. This is the democratic approach to governance, something we learn from modernity. In the Progressive community, the rabbi is less an authority figure than a resource person and a source of entry into Torah and Jewish learning.

(Adapted from a document of the Australian Union for Progressive Judaism)

Havdalah on Kibbutz Lotan in the Arava desert, IsraelPictures: Darryl Egnal

Our philosophy

Our practices of Progressive Judaism are anchored in Jewish thought and tradition.

We are committed to a Judaism that changes and adapts to the needs of the day

We are committed to the absolute equality of women in all areas of Jewish life

We are committed to social justice

We are committed to the principle of inclusion, not exclusion

We are committed to a true partnership between the rabbinate and the laity.

Rabbi Eric. H. Yoffie

President of the Union for Reform Judaism

Minhag South Africa

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

Questions and answers on Progressive Judaism

Ten questions and answers about South African Progressive Judaism, as described 20 years ago by the late Rabbi Dr David Sherman of Cape Town. (Note that some of these practices have since changed).

Caring for our environment

Our movement encourages a progressive attitude to environmental issues, and has joined an inter-faith initiative dedicated to environmental and social justice