Progressive Judaism: Just Be Yourself

by Maskil on February 18, 2009

Last week I posted an entry regarding Hanukkah, suggesting that it’s time to become more assertive about a Hanukkah “moral” that’s more in keeping with the ethos of progressive Judaism, as well as being aligned with what we know about the personalities and events of that era.

The blog post was based on an item by Andy Ratto on MetaFilter entitled “The True Story of Chanukkah”. One of those who commented on the original piece was user Ghidorah (Jeremy Wilgus), who had this to say:

As a former conservative Jew, I’d go along with the Hassidic/Reform split. When I pretty much left the fold, it seemed to me that the conservative movement was falling all over itself to be more religious, that people in the conservative movement were adopting Hassidic practices as a form of one-ups-manship. It was pretty sad to me. I mean, the conservative movement had solid practices and rules, but through whatever kind of insecurity, or keeping up with the Lipschultzes, they were just throwing it away. As someone who had, at one point, deeply believed, yet struggled with certain things (keeping kosher, no TV on Saturday), it was another thing (of many) that pushed me away from Judaism.

A youth group I was in had a special, super-duper religious sub-section, for truly observant teens. They had an open meeting at one event a year, where anyone could come, and there would be a talmud discussion. While it’s odd to say it, I kicked ass at talmud. Liking pepperoni on my pizza, however, kept me from being allowed into the club, though. That, and not wearing a kippah full time, among other things…

Although Ghidorah referred to Conservative Judaism, there’s a lesson in here that all of the progressive Jewish streams (what I’ve referred to elsewhere as ABO – Anything But Orthodoxy) need to take to heart. The lesson is that progressive Judaism needs to be centred on itself. It must not allow itself to internalise (or externalise) the belief or perception that it fits somewhere on a scale of observance or strictness, where more observant or stricter is better, less observant or less strict is worse.

Progressive Judaism is not “less observant” it is “differently observant”!

When I started to become a regular shul-goer again a few years back, I was surprised to find many rituals that were not around in the Reform Judaism of my youth had now become a part of it. While I’m quite happy that many of these beautiful traditions have found their way back into progressive Judaism, this careful and considered adoption of certain rituals should not be allowed to generate into the “observance-envy” referred to above. Down that path lies irrelevance and eventual extinction for progressive Judaism. We cannot outflank ultra-Orthodoxy and Hassidism on the right, and any attempt to do so would be tantamount to theological suicide.

Remember what your mother used to say about those awkward social situations: “Just be yourself!”

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