Photo by Michal Patelle (Women of the Wall) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons
A reader asks: “How can I defend progressive Jewish views?”
I can’t tell you why you are a progressive Jew, if you are one. All I can tell you is why I am a progressive Jew. I will start out by explaining my idea of how Jewish history works.
Judaism has adapted as it has moved through history. Biblical Judaism gave way to Rabbinic Judaism, with stops along the way to argue about Greek ideas (kept some, ditched others). Rabbinic Judaism emerged out of the chaos and disaster of the revolts against Rome. Judaism was fairly unified for a while, as the Geonim ruled from Babylon, but as centers of learning came into being in Spain, in Germany, and in Egypt, rules for Jewish practice began to differentiate by region into Sephardic, Ashkenazi, and Mizrahi Judaism.
Occasionally a group of Jews would decide that the Messiah had arrived. Some, like the proto-Christian Jews, spun off into new religions. Others, like the followers of Shabbati Zevi, were horribly disappointed when he proved to be merely an ordinary man (he eventually converted to Islam, in fact.)
One of the interesting things about Judaism is that we keep careful records of our disagreements. The Talmud is a huge library of disagreement, carefully preserving minority opinions. Disputation is one of the ways we train our rabbis: go into any rabbinical school (Orthodox, Conservative, Reform, or nondenominational) and you will hear disagreements going on, sometimes very loud, passionate ones. Machlochet [debate] is a process, and it is the way we get at the deeper meanings in Torah.
I trust the process of Jewish history. I do not know what Judaism will look like 500 years from now. I trust, though, that by participating in Jewish life in my own time, I am helping to move towards Jewish life in the future. Some Reform ideas have been pretty bad. We really blew it when some of us tried to move Shabbat to Sunday. Other Reform ideas have caught on with much of the rest of the Jewish world: egalitarianism is looking to be a success. Many Orthodox Jewish women are now studying Talmud, and some of them are serving in leadership roles in Orthodox communities. This was unthinkable 100 years ago, and who knows how the role of women in Judaism will develop over the next century?
Progressive Judaism (in its various forms) is only one part of the larger Jewish world. We, along with the various forms of Orthodoxy, are engaged in a process of scholarship, experimentation, testing, and development, moving toward the Jewish future. It’s not that any one movement or party is “best” or “true” Judaism. We’re all part of a work in progress.
Personally, I look at the rabbis of the Mishnah: Hillel, Rabbi Akiva and Yochanan ben Zakkai, and I appreciate the great creative spirit they brought into birthing Rabbinic Judaism. I think the best of the Reform movement echoes that spirit. They, too, made mistakes (horrible ones, sometimes) and that was part of the process. However, Orthodoxy, Conservatism, and Reconstructionism (and most recently, the Renewal Movement!) bring their own emphases and values to the discussion; without them, we’d be lost.
My guess is that in the future, Jews will continue to differ on what it means to live a life of Torah. To me, that’s what keeps Torah, and Judaism, alive.
A question for discussion: Which modern-day movement or understanding of Judaism is home for you? If you are a progressive Jew, why? If you are Orthodox, why?