Progressive Judaism: A View from Tradition

Photo by Michal Patelle (Women of the Wall) [CC 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?



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Rabbi Ruth Adar is a teaching rabbi in San Leandro, CA. She has many hats: rabbi, granny, and ham radio operator K6RAV. She blogs at and teaches at Jewish Gateways in Albany, CA.

8 thoughts on “Progressive Judaism: A View from Tradition”

  1. That reader’s question is kind of weird, it’s lacking all kinds of context – are they defending progressive Judaism from regressive or orthodox Judaism, or from secular atheists, or from Buddhists, or evangelical Christians? Those are all very different conversations.

    I also appreciated the link about Sunday Shabbat, I hadn’t known about that – but based on that article, I don’t at all understand your saying “We really blew it when some of us tried to move Shabbat to Sunday.” I assumed the link would be about assimilation and syncretism (the Christians do Shabbat on Sunday so we should too), but that’s not the case.

    Sunday services were a pragmatic solution to an economic hardship, a 6- day workweek with only Sunday off. The pragmatic thought ‘better to do this imperfectly but keep Judaism alive’ makes perfect sense… And guess what, they DID keep Judaism alive long enough to get the economic clout to pressure unions into getting a 5-day work week. That sounds like Reform didn’t blow it at all with the Sunday service; quite the reverse in fact.

    1. Had “Sunday Shabbat” services been something the Jew in the pew liked, we might still have them – those services died because they were never anyone’s first choice. The same thing happened when some Reform rabbis declared that brit milah was no longer essential – that was another innovation resoundingly rejected by the community. Innovations happen for a lot of reasons, but they stick when they “feel right” to the ordinary Jew. When that happens, what we see is that the changes don’t stop with the Reform movement – other American Jews find reasons to adopt the innovation or something similar to it.

      As for the question, that’s how it was asked. The ambiguity of it gave me the freedom to choose my own direction with it. If the question was actually something else, I’m sure I will hear from that person!

  2. I describe myself as “Ortho-Conserva-Form.” I was raised in a far-right Conservative shul in the 1950s. As I have learned more about Judaism, I have come to realize that even Orthodox beliefs and practices have changed over the millenia. Just one of innumerable examples: Exodus 35:2 states that whomever works on Shabbos shall be put to death. So we can cast aside the belief of the Orthodox that they practice “genuine Judaism” (whatever that means). In other words, they are progressive! Swinging far to the left, it is easiest to describe Reform as the most progressive, if by progressive one means adaptiving to modern society (i.e., the very origins of Reform in Germany in the early decades of the 1800s. The Conservative moment is in the middle…always changing, but not quite sure in which direction. And as a physician, don’t get me started on the issue of organ donation!

    So, let me share why I am Ortho-Conserva-Form: I love the majestry of the all-Hebrew service, but I am definitely Reform in my practices. I am curious how many others of my age (late 60s) find themselves similarly without a clear “label.”

    1. I love the Ortho-Conserva-Form label! I suspect many Jews don’t fit tidily into any one pigeon hole. For myself, I prefer a Hebrew service, but my opinions and practice need the “elbow room” that Reform provides.

      I’m curious to see other replies to this question, too.

  3. I’m just learning, though I, too, am in my late sixties, because I converted two years ago. I am studying Hebrew, but am a long way from fluency, so a Reform congregation works well for me, because it conducts services in English and Hebrew. I am also preparing for my Bat Mitzvah, with a cohort of women who did not have this rite of passage in the fifties, because they were just girls. My rabbi is a woman. I like this, because a woman is my role model for how to observe and practice my religion.

    1. Anne, you are on such an interesting path and it is a pleasure to witness your journeys, especially now that you’ve found a comfortable congregational home!

  4. Thank you, Rabbi Adar, for this clear, and helpful answer to a vital question!
    Might you be willing in a future essay to discuss “Mishnaic Mistakes” (how’s that for a title)? I think it would be most instructive especially since both as individuals and as a people one of the hallmarks of our faith is an ability to acknowledge what we do wrong, make amends to the extent that we can, and move forward with the knowledge of our experience able to do better in the future.

  5. thanks to all of you for the opinions.Just sometimes i have a deep inside feeling to take a tallith.I don’t know from where this feelings comesMay be from a past live,when i prayed with a tallith as a man? Opinions left and right,up and down,i don’t care.I just have this deep feeling to wrape me in a talith.So i like this women how they did.Yael

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