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!

Chanukah in the Square – a call to the JLC, LFA and Mayor of London

I call upon the London Jewish Forum, the Jewish Leadership Council and the Mayor of London to insist that they will only attend and continue to publicise and fund the Chanukah in the Square if a woman speaks and participates in the religious activities – specifically a woman lay leader of the community and a woman rabbi – and that they are listed on the publicity. I urge you to do the same.

I am one of the rabbis of possibly the largest synagogue in Central London. In fact, we’re just a few minutes bus ride away from Trafalgar Square. The senior rabbi and principal rabbi are both women. The current chair of our synagogue is a woman. We have a community musician who leads our services with the rabbis, who is a woman. We are a proud Reform synagogue with a historic tradition of inclusion, of equality and universal outlook. We are leaders in enlightened progressive Jewish thought and fully engaged in the life of London, its residents and its visitors. If you want to be part of a religious community that encourages you to bring your critical faculties with you through the door and a community that has embraced the challenges and complexities of 21st century life, then West London Synagogue, like all Reform and Liberal Synagogues throughout the capital and up and down the country, is the place to be.

Last year (2014) I attended Chanukah in the Square, in Trafalgar Square, and the male dominated, Orthodox rabbinic leadership of the occasion was suffocating. This year there is no woman (rabbinic or otherwise) on the publicity or line-up. Thus the event starts to look like something that elevates an 18th century Jewish sect to be the religious norm and leaves their rabbis, who do not even accept me as a rabbi or some of my members as Jews, as the religious officiants in a public occasion. How can I condone an event organised with Jewish leadership organisations that, for the sake of the self-promotion of the Jewish community in public life, is willing to sacrifice the involvement of some of their most important stake holders and makes 51% of the community seen and not heard – women? And how can I remain silent when the Mayor of London, perhaps through some kind of curious orientalism, unknowingly consents to this veiled misogyny and exclusion of non-Orthodoxy because a black hatted rabbi on a stage and an all-male vocal group is, you know, a bit more ethnic, a bit more photogenic, a bit more authentic?

Last year, after the event, I wrote a letter of complaint privately and relatively quietly and I was fobbed off – a pluralist day school sang with mixed voices, but that’s hardly what I’m looking for. And school children are minors, not communal leaders and rabbis. If Chabad want to do the event on their own, let them go for it, but I don’t expect the London Jewish Forum, JLC (Chabad aren’t even members of the JLC) or Mayor to support it.

In the meantime, my synagogue is hosting a Chanukah extravaganza with live music from Daniel Cainer and Stacey Solomon, with full participation of all and a stunning contribution to London life. It will be an occasion to remember and if you’re interested then look us up and find out about it. West London Synagogue proves that Judaism can be vibrant and meaningful in the 21st century for our members, friends and visitors and West London Synagogue in the heart of London demonstrates that the Jewish community can participate in London life fully embracing the diversity and joy of our wonderful city, at Chanukah and throughout the year.


And as a slight addendum here is the 2013 commitment to end all male panels by the Jewish Leadership Council.

The JC write up of the decision.

And a friend, Matt Plen of Masorti Judaism, writing more recently in the Forward about it.

Advice for senior rabbinic figures that might help broaden the religious participation:

  • Rabbi Baroness Julia Neuberger – Senior Rabbi of West London Synagogue
  • Rabbi Helen Freeman – Principal Rabbi of West London Synagogue
  • Rabbi Laura Janner-Klausner – Senior Rabbi to the Movement for Reform Judaism
  • Rabbi Dr Deborah Kahn-Harris – Principal of the Leo Baeck College
  • Rabbi Alexandra Wright – Senior Rabbi of the Liberal Jewish Synagogue and Co-Chair of the Liberal Conference of Rabbis
  • Rabbi Jackie Tabick – First UK ordained woman rabbi and convenor of the Movement for Reform Judaism Beit Din.

But there’s also loads of other rabbinic colleagues who could be asked too – I’m sure someone could be found, if they weren’t already so put off by the after thought.