Progressive Judaism – has the rabbi ‘do’ Judaism too often (and the reason why is counter intuitive)

I’ve just finished studying Mishnah Rosh Hashanah with a group through the Lyons Learning Project and had not noticed the literary quality of the ending of the final two chapters until now. Chapter three concludes with a reflection on who is qualified to perform a mitzvah and, in so doing, release the obligation to do the same mitzvah in others who witness/hear it performed. Whereas chapter 4 notes the Shofar service of the ‘Shaliach Tzibbur’ (emissary of the community in performance of the liturgy) also releases others from their obligation. (For more discussion of these mishnayot see my teacher, Dr Josh Kulp’s brilliant exposition of every mishnah including these for the Conservative movement).

The whole massechet (Tractate) of Rosh Hashanah in the Mishnah moves geographically from the Temple to a Synagogue based religious world. At the same time, rabbis assume overall power instead of the Priests. And it is in these circumstances that the role of the ‘masses’ shifts from testifying regarding the new moon (about which there is a great deal made in the mishnah of not doing anything that might discourage witnesses from travelling to testify) to the hearing of the shofar.

It seems to me what we see here is an overall shift in the religious practices – the mishnah already indicates the evolution in the setting of the new moon, the format of Rosh Hashanah liturgy and so on. But it also points towards the maintenance of the hierarchy of Jewish leadership, whilst offering a new function for the rest of the Jewish population. In a sense the role for the ‘Jew in the pew’ contracts and becomes more passive from testifying regarding the new moon to hearing the shofar blown on your behalf by someone else.

It’s this that go me thinking as we concluded our study of the massechet. And here I’m drawn the innovation in liturgy that occurs in the 19th century in what becomes Reform Judaism. Rabbi Professor Jonathan Magonet writes:

A variety of issues affected decisions about Reform liturgy in the 19th century. The external one was the consequence of emancipation and the desire to become accepted as full citizens of European societies. This meant bringing the actual service into conformity with contemporary Christian ‘models’, including greater decorum, aided by the introduction of musical accompaniment; a shorter service, by removing repetitions; reading prayers in unison instead of individually; and the introduction of a sermon addressing contemporary issues.

The move to unison and increased conformity was later followed by a move to greater participation accompanied with a shift away from expecting someone to perform rituals in public and thereby release you from the obligation for them. The corollary of this is also the increase in musical accompaniment and the ‘participatory performances’ which summer camps have engendered in progressive synagogues today (though the most classical of progressive synagogues favour decorum over participation in their music, with professional choirs and organs). For more reflections on synagogue changes in music and services Larry Hoffman has a very accessible description in the book ‘Sacred Strategies‘.

Overall the theory, at least, is that everyone fulfils their obligation themselves and is not dependent on a shaliach tzibbur. So in theory, Reform Judaism should be full of people who are expert in praying – well I suppose we have developed many experts in singing the prayers but I wonder if there’s a difference.

Anyway, here’s where I got to in my reflections on Mishnah Rosh Hashanah – what if these trajectories towards notional ideas of democratisation, participation and ‘you have to read it together because no-one can say it for you’, has counter intuitively failed to produce expert participants. Progressive Judaism, with some wonderful and significant exceptions, has a rabbi ‘do’ more Judaism for their congregations than I suspect other philosophical perspectives – to the extent that in more than one community I have felt like a very over qualified page turner and reader of the siddur – five years of rabbinic training and I’m reading out loud to adults.

Of course this is slightly polemical – I doubt it is the case that there are ‘lots’ of Jews in other denominations all literate and expert in the liturgy able to be shlichot/shlichei tzibbur (emissaries for the community). That’s the romantic picture. But the counter-intuitive position does work both ways to an extent – in a community where there is a designated person who does something and releases you from that obligation there seem to be more people willing to take up that role and the rabbi is not the one who is always required to take up that function. The liturgy has a sense of being something obligatory and therefore you become skilled in it and it becomes second nature to the extent that you could lead the davening with little problem.

I wonder what other people think? And what the solutions might be?

(And I’m not looking for everyone telling me how great/rubbish their or someone else’s denomination is or isn’t)

As a post-script – we do have some confusion in progressive synagogues since some things are still performed by ‘someone’ – the shofar blowing for example. You can see the curious way this manifests itself in many synagogues where the whole congregation will participate fully in the singing of kiddush on Friday night and then respond with a hearty ‘amen’. I remember a conservative rabbi admonishing his congregation – if you said the blessing (the b’racha) you don’t need amen…one or the other!

Pentecost – Shavuot, Ramadan, Pentecost and healing after terror (Guest Post by The Revd Michael Redman)

(Pentecost – St Marylebone 2017: This sermon kindly reproduced here by permission from The Revd Michael Redman curate at St Paul’s on Rossmore Road – who responded to the terror attacks on London Bridge)

In the last days it will be, God declares, that I will pour out my Spirit on all flesh, and your sons and daughters shall prophesy, and your young men shall see visions and your old men shall dream dreams.

All of us have been shocked about last night’s events. We are now living in London with the reality of random terrorist violence on our streets. However our faith communities can point to another way. And we all have to take that way.

On Tuesday evening a crowd assembled in the Reform Synagogue near Marble Arch – the West London Synagogue (WLS). Some of you may have been there. WLS was a pioneering synagogue in welcoming refugees, promoting women’s ministry and now is actively engaged in interfaith work. On Tuesday, WLS was celebrating Shavout.

Shavuot’s date is measured by 7×7: seven times seven days. 49 days from the feast of Passover. The day after is Shavuot – the feast of weeks –sometimes known as Pentecost, the fiftieth day. The feast of weeks in the Bible is an agricultural festival in which the first fruits of the harvest are offered to God. Later it came to commemorate the giving of the Law – the Torah – and the 10 commandments – to Moses. And because the children of Israel did not listen to Moses but built the golden calf instead, Shavuot is marked by intense study. Study sessions go on all night and at dawn people congregate on the roof of the WLS to celebrate the arrival of Shavuot. But this year there was a difference in the celebration.

Shavuot coincided not only with the Christian feast of Pentecost but also the start of Ramadan. When I got to WLS, I was directed to a room in which Muslims were celebrating the evening salat or prayer. Then we were all invited to a communal meal – an Iftar in which Muslims break their fast once the sun has gone down. We were given traditional Arabic food but also cheese cake – traditional for Jews to eat at Shavuot. Then an Iman spoke about the importance of Ramadan.

The observance of Ramadan leads to Taqwa – God fearing. Fasting leads people to be dutiful to God. Fasting also makes one identify with people with no food or no clean water.

And the Iman firmly stated that the Manchester bombing was the opposite of adherence to Islam.

Sometimes an action is more important than words. The hospitality of WLS and the gracious acceptance by the Muslims present spoke louder than the words uttered. I learnt that Tuesday evening about two religious observances – Shavuot and Ramadan.

But we have a trilogy of observances because Christians celebrate at this time our own feast of weeks, seven weeks and a day after Easter Day, our own Passover. If we had to explain Christian Pentecost to our Jewish and Muslim friends what would we say? How would we describe our feast? And I have to say we start at a disadvantage.

Jewish customs about cheese cake and Ramadan celebrations to break the fast are firmly incarnated in their societies. The move from the Whit Monday Bank Holiday to the Spring Bank Holiday has down-graded our own festival, Whitsun, in people’s consciousness. How many people in this country could say what Pentecost or Whitsun signifies? But we need to recover why this feast is important as we too have something important to celebrate at this time.

On one level, we celebrate an event in the same way that the Jewish people celebrate the giving of the Law at Shavuot. The event we celebrate is the gift of the Holy Spirit. Jesus is no longer physically with us but he promised not to leave us comfortless but to send the Paraclete, the advocate, the Spirit to be with us. On this feast of Pentecost, we read that the disciples were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages as the Spirit gave them ability. But it is not the event but the significance of this event which is now important for us.

For Jews, Shavuot represents the coming down of the Torah, the written word. For Muslims, the Qur’an starts to be revealed to Muhammad on 17th day of Ramadan, 610. For Christians the revelation is not in the form of a book but in a person, Jesus, and this revelation to us is guaranteed by the gift of the Spirit to us at Pentecost. And we believe that Spirit is not only at work in Christians but in the whole world.

At the beginning of the Bible, we read that God’s spirit swept over the face of the waters at the start of creation. We can identify with our Jewish brothers and sisters in seeing Shavuot as a festival about the environment with the giving of the first fruits of the harvest to God. In Genesis, the spirit or wind or breath brings the beginning of life. So on this feast of Pentecost we celebrate the Spirit of God and the gift of our life –our breath – in our environment.

But we are all too conscious that the need for healing is very much for humans within our environment. In the reading, Peter quotes the book of Joel: the promise that God’s Spirit will be poured out on all flesh – you and me – so that:

  • Sons and daughters shall prophesy
  • Young men shall see visions
  • Old men shall dream dreams.

We not only have Shavuot, Ramadan and Pentecost all jumbled together but we have a general election as well amidst the slaughter of Manchester and last night in London. A general election provides an opportunity for politicians to set out their visions. And this feast of Pentecost provides an opportunity to celebrate the human capacity to have visions – to have visions of inspiration and endeavour.

But not all visions are of God, are of the Spirit as we witnessed graphically last night. All our religious traditions have dark sides which need to be exposed by the Spirit.

Christians and indeed people of all faiths need to differentiate those visions which may be of God and those which are certainly not of God. And we are helped to make that judgement because we have been given the Spirit. Our judgment as Christians must be based on the revelation of God we experience in Jesus. And if we think tonight of Jesus the healer, we can ask which of the visions on offer is likely to bring about the healing of the wounds in our society and the world.

And maybe we need to look at our non-violent tradition again and what has that to say today and reconciling that with the need for security and justice. The gift of the Spirit in Pentecost helps us to make that judgement.

But the feast of Pentecost makes us look at our own need for healing. Peter’s quotation from Joel contains the promise of salvation – another theme of Pentecost.

‘Then everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved.’

Here we have a cry and at the same time a promise for salvation, for wholeness, for healing by calling on the name of the Lord. A little later in the Acts of the Apostles, we hear that it is the name of Jesus which has made well the lame man at the Beautiful Gate. The gift of the Spirit makes us whole and brings healing.

We become at one with ourselves and with our neighbour. The healing stories of Jesus continue in the Acts of the Apostles. The Spirit continues to be at work. However, we interpret those stories, we may be able to see the Spirit at work in our own lives and those rather dark areas of our own lives being healed. So Pentecost for us concerns healing:

  • Healing for the nations and our big cities.
  • Healing for our environment
  • Healing for our relationships
  • Healing for ourselves.

Those who went to the WLS on Tuesday witnessed an event of healing with Jews and Muslims sitting around tables in sharing bread with one another. Here we had our observances of Ramadan and Pentecost bringing a celebration of joy and peace. WLS and the Muslims who came that night showed there is another way to bring about peace.

May this feast of Pentecost bring us to work in the Spirit for healing in our nation, in our environment, in our relationships and in ourselves.


I wrote to Michael and thanked him for this sermon and sharing it with me and was reminded of a piece I wrote some four years ago for the Jewish News in the aftermath of the Boston terror attack. In it I also quoted the same passages from the book of Joel:

PDF version: The Jewish News – article april 2013