There’s a story I tell when explaining the difference between Orthodox and Liberal Judaism. It goes something like this.
A person buys a chicken and wants to know if the chicken is kosher. He takes the chicken to an Orthodox rabbi who will inspect it and tell him whether or not it is kosher and give him his answer. If he comes to a Liberal rabbi (if that Liberal rabbi is me) we will look at the biblical origins of the laws of kashrut , discuss the ways these laws evolved to include chickens and debate whether or not such regulations make for a meaningful Jewish life for the owner of the chicken. If, at the conclusion of the conversation, the person still wants to know whether or not the chicken is kosher, I will tell him to go and ask the Orthodox rabbi.
There’s a paradox here which, I think, lies at the heart of the challenge facing the Liberal movement in its attempt to reach out to young Jews who seem to want to (re-)connect with their tradition. I think that non-Orthodox Judaism is the best equipped to adapt itself to meet the needs of such young people (and, I think, Liberal Judaism is particularly so but then I would say that) because of its intellectual honesty and ability and willingness to challenge Orthodox traditions and beliefs. But it is becoming increasingly clear that people searching for some kind of Jewish content in their lives want something cosy and traditional rather than intellectual and challenging – especially if that challenge is directed towards the very cosy traditions they are looking for. Using the story above, they want to know whether or not the chicken is kosher, not how and why kashrut came into being.
Liberal Judaism prides itself on its intellectual stance towards Judaism. But I think the problem is that if people want intellectual challenges, they don’t see a Jewish environment as the place to find them. A similar example to the chicken story comes to mind. I was visiting a family in Glasgow who had just suffered a bereavement. They asked me whether they should cover the mirrors in their home. I explained that from a progressive point of view, the choice was entirely theirs and offered brief suggestions for and against the custom. They weren’t interested. They just wanted to know whether they should cover their mirrors and they expected me to give them a definitive answer.
I think the grassroots Jewish renaissance is not just a rebellion against or rejection of established synagogue structures. I think it’s young people in search of something that will give greater meaning to their lives – perhaps based on a vague memory of a ‘partially’ Jewish childhood and an absence of something in the modern world that leaves them feeling bereaved and hungry for something they cannot define or express. They want to be told to cover their mirrors and whether their chicken is kosher.
My Liberal Judaism has always operated from a position of challenging orthodox regulations, restrictions and assumptions. There is no doubt that the rigidity of Orthodoxy can cause injustice, and many of its regulations and stances are archaic, misogynistic, misconceived and theologically unsound. And let’s be honest, if it were not for Orthodox Judaism, emerging from the rabbinic Judaism of two thousand years ago, there would be no Liberal Judaism – indeed, no Judaism at all. Whether we like it or not, in the UK in particular, we are defined at least as much by what we are not as by what we are, by what we reject as much as by what we practise. And people who are looking for some kind of religious structure and framework in their lives aren’t interested in things not to do
I find myself a bit bewildered by this. My objective as a Liberal rabbi is to provide a viable and fully justifiable alternative to the rigidity of Orthodoxy. My introduction to Liberal Judaism was a revelation and I love everything about the services, the synagogue structure, the movement and its theology – to no mall extent because it was the antithesis of the Orthodoxy I had grown up with.
But this clearly is not what young people are looking for. Indeed, many of those who have come from just such a structure feel they have been short-changed in their encounter with Judaism , while, as already pointed out, those who do not are not looking for ways to challenge their Orthodox Jewish roots but rather to integrate them into their lives in a more meaningful and relevant way. Thus Liberal Judaism finds itself in a difficult situation.
The type of Judaism most likely to appeal to this new generation of young people seeking to rediscover their roots is a conservative, modern orthodoxy that will incorporate traditions without questioning or challenging them too stringently, and probably rejecting them for reasons of expediency rather than intellectual rigour (e.g. a decision to drive on Shabbat will be made for reasons of convenience without any recourse to halachic debate – and probably with a soupcon of traditional Jewish guilt, to make it even more familiar!)
What, then, is Liberal Judaism’s role in this renaissance of more traditional Judaism? Is it to try, as I think we have to some extent been doing, to introduce more traditional practices and other elements into its services in an effort to claim it share of these earnest young people who want to be told to cover their mirrors and whether their chickens are kosher? I think that such a direction is a betrayal of the principles of Liberal Judaism, best summed up in these words of the late Rabbi Dr John D Rayner: ‘Integrity was perhaps the outstanding quality of our founders. They imprinted it deeply on our Movement and we have tried… to maintain it ever since. As Rabbi Israel Mattuck said… “To sacrifice principle to conformity would jeopardise our cause.” The temptation to do so is ever present: to follow fashion, to court popularity, to play to the gallery, to swallow scruples for political gain. All these temptations we must resist, fully knowing and accepting the cost. For integrity is not cheap… It may entail accepting a lower rate of numerical growth than we should have wished. It may mean remaining a minority for a long time to come, or even for ever. That too is a price we must be willing to pay, for it is better to be few and right than to be many and wrong.’
What, then, should be Liberal Judaism’s role in connection with this young people’s non-synagogue based Jewish renaissance? If we are not prepared to bend our integrity to offer the traditional Judaism that seems to be desired, are we not doomed to extinction? I think the essence of Liberal Judaism has always been its emphasis of the prophetic elements of Judaism over the rabbinic, the ethical over the ritual, the intellectual over the spiritual. I realise that the last of these antonyms is somewhat contentious, but with the possible exception of the occasional LJY-led havdalah, Liberal Judaism is a far more earthly than heavenly movement. And we still have to provide services – literally – to those of our members who still require b’nei mitzvah, weddings and funerals in the Liberal tradition of Judaism. The number of people requiring these services is diminishing (witness the fact that there are now perhaps just 5 rabbis employed full-time by congregations) and, as already described, we are not well-placed to attract those young people engaged in the chicken and covered mirror search.
I think that Liberal Judaism has a role in emphasising what it has always excelled at: asking the questions about and making the intellectual challenges to both Judaism and the state and behaviour of the world in general. Or, to put it another way, the role that the prophets played in ancient Israel and Judah. Our strength has always been our intellectual and challenging approach to Judaism and the role it should play in educating the world, and although continuing to emphasise this may not do much to attract the chicken and mirror crew, it will give us a specific direction and purpose that I feel we are currently lacking. I believe that a Liberal Jewish response to the grassroots activities should be to provide a discussion forum for the place a thoughtful, socially aware, modern Judaism should occupy in our current society, a Judaism liberated from a nostalgic yearning for tradition.
Rabbi Pete Tobias