Five years ago, I interviewed to start rabbinic training. Over four days, I went into different rooms, where rabbis, academics and lay leaders quizzed me about why I wanted to be a rabbi.
It was intense. In one interview, one of the rabbis asked me: “what do you think you most want to learn while you are here?”
I said: “I’d like to learn what we stand for.”
My interviewers scrunched up their faces. I imagined them thinking, “are you sure you’re in the right place?”
How could I not know what we believe? We are Progressive Jews; we stand for Progressive Judaism. Perplexed, she pushed me: “can you think of any principles of Progressive Judaism?”
I thought, and said: “informed choice.” We do what we like, in conversation with Jewish tradition.
The rabbi sat back and took notes. I wasn’t sure whether I had given a correct answer, and she was confused how I could say I didn’t know what we stood for if I had that grounding, or if I’d missed something more important.
What I was trying to ask was: surely we don’t just choose whatever we like? A Progressive Jew can’t make the informed choice to commit murder. We don’t look at that central commandment and think: ‘ah, but it was for its time.’ We have a shared assumption that the prohibition on killing applies to every time. So how do we make these informed choices? What decides for us which choices are right and wrong?
Permissiveness is not really a value. It’s something you do out of indifference. There must be something stronger than that motivating our congregants to get out of bed and labour for the welfare of their community.
Apparently, I am not alone. Throughout my time as a student, going to congregations across the country, people have asked me that very same question in different ways.
What are the values of Reform Judaism? What does living by Progressive Jewish values actually mean?
After 4 years of study, well… I still don’t have the answer. But I feel much closer to it than I did when I started. And the answer begins with this week’s parashah.
At the end of Masei, we hear the story of the daughters of Tzelafchad. They come forward before Moses and assert their rights to inheritance. Their father, they say, was a good man who had no sons. As it stands, his property will be passed on to nobody, and these women will be left destitute. They argue that they should be the ones to inherit his estate. Moses talks to God. God agrees.
This is a big deal in Torah terms. It shows that a law can change. Decisions are not fixed in stone but can adapt with the times. It fits exactly with the Progressive mindset. We look at the laws again, and work out if they are still relevant. Moses looked at inheritance law, saw that it wasn’t working, and decided it was time to set a new precedent.
This is at the heart of Progressive Judaism. We progress. We treat the Torah and our traditions as our basis, but we are always willing to review it, and find new ways that better suit our reality.
The case of the daughters of Tzelafchad is a great example. It fits with our intuitions about what is right and wrong. Of course these women should inherit.
But does that mean every time a law changes, it’s an improvement? In the course of the Torah, laws also change to take rights away from people. Laws can change that make people’s lives worse.
The reason why we consider this legal change so praiseworthy is because it makes life better for people. In particular, because it makes life better for women.
It fits with the feminist lesson we have learnt from history. Through the last century of the women’s liberation movement, our religion learned the importance of giving everyone their full rights and abilities to participate in Jewish life.
We have our own hashkafah: our own way of looking at the world. We see progress in terms of what gives people the most equality, dignity, and justice.
Other strands of Judaism may give priority to tradition, nationalism, or conservatism. We say that what matters is equity.
We did not decide to pursue this egalitarian cause because we thought it would make things easier. Quite on the contrary: it made things harder for many people. At the start of our movement, people were disowned by their families and ridiculed by the religious establishment because of their conviction that equality mattered. They took the more difficult course because it was the right one.
Since the early days of Reform Judaism, we have prioritised gender equality. This week, I met with one of the founder members of SWESRS, who said that in their very first days, the community discussed what they wanted from a synagogue. Even in the 1950s, they insisted that equality between men and women would be of the utmost importance.
This synagogue has gone on to create a legendary legacy. The UK’s first woman rabbi, Jackie Tabick, was raised here. This is a place with a proud history of putting forward that great principle of Reform Judaism: that equality matters.
That is how we approach the question of whether and when to change a law. We are not beholden to tradition, forced to do everything today and tomorrow, just because we did it that way yesterday. Nor will we go along with every change, just because it feels fashionable or convenient.
At every stage, the question we ask ourselves is: is this right? Is this just?
We seek to make changes that will make people more equal, more empowered, and more dignified.
So, now, if I am asked what we stand for, I have a much clearer answer.
We stand for equality.
We stand for the emancipation of all of humanity.
We stand up for the oppressed and stand beside the marginalised.
We stand in the footsteps of Moses, who changed laws because he could see that justice mattered.
We stand before God, proud to inherit a tradition; and courageous enough to change that tradition for the better.
That is where we stand.
This sermon is for South West Essex and Settlement Reform Synagogue, Parashat Matot-Masei, 10th July 2021