Over the years, many people have approached me to ask what distinguishes Progressive/Open/Liberal/Modern Orthodoxy from the rest of Orthodoxy (Centrist-Orthodox, Ultra-Orthodoxy). There are many similarities, of course, such as a belief in Torah m’Sinai, the binding nature of halakhah, reverence for tradition, clinging to the Divine in all our ways, and a fervent commitment to prayer, Torah study, and gemillut chasadim. But what are the real differences? It is certainly a complicated question to answer since many differences are merely a difference of degree. However, after much thought, I’ve identified twenty-five essential elements and emerging trends that are growing and enabling the Progressive/Open/Liberal/Modern Orthodox movement to uniquely flourish:
- Finding Inner Sparks – Godliness is found primarily within observing the mitzvot, but there are sparks of holiness in everyone and everything. Core values must be revisited and exercised regularly. Just as the heart needs to pump fast to bring nourishment to the sinews, so does the heart need to express compassion to nourish the soul. Seeking to transform the mundane and secular into something eternal contains profound religious value. Where this seems possible, we run toward, not away from, the secular.
- Embracing Jewish Tradition – Jewish tradition and halakhah are transformative elements that enlighten as well provide guidance for day-to-day living. Each is responsive to the needs of individuals and inform our actions. At the same time, tradition needs new intellectual and spiritual pursuits to be renewed (chiddush!). In this way, we become more open to exploring differing and minority halakhic positions throughout history, and from today, which guide us, ultimately, towards higher truth and compassion. Stringency is not more holy.
- Engaging critically with Texts – The basic tenets of Jewish values are found within the ancient and modern texts. Each provides a roadmap of moral excellence and intellectual rigor. Thus, the importance of rigorous, yet inclusive, Torah learning means embracing contemporary and critical analyses to ancient wisdom. It is a vital service to not only occupy oneself with the text, but also to seek out fellow learners to foster debate about the meaning and lasting value of the passages. We challenge morally difficult texts (charitably and with reverence) rather than merely submitting to them or offering apologetics for them.
- Seeking Jewish Partnerships – The value of seeking out interdenominational partnerships and making allies and friends in our local communities enhances and celebrates the entirety of the Jewish people in ways that can be deeply rewarding. Indeed, we have much to share and much to learn from thinkers of other denominations and Jewish groups.
- Being Bold in Interfaith Dialogue – There is remarkable and often untouched value in approaching interfaith partnerships and friendships with humility and gratitude. Learning about other religions not only can build bridges of empathy, but it can also expand the knowledge base for Jewish learners. Together we can create social change more deeply and sustainably. We need not believe what other faiths believe, but we can find the points where we agree to foster fruitful partnerships that help our communities and society to flourish. There is nothing innately or spiritually different about Jews and gentiles nor do we strive to separate ourselves from gentiles. We celebrate the tzelem Elokim in all human beings that makes each of us fundamentally equal. Today, we, as Jews, are to play an “outside” role in society since we are called upon to stand with the marginalized minorities and yet we also play an “inside” role within the establishments where can activate a moral consciousness for the outsider.
- Supporting Israel – Adhering to a Zionism that vigorously supports military service and advocates for the rights to Jewish sovereignty and in support of the state of Israel (an entity that is more sacred when separated from the coercion of religion), while also allowing for robust political disagreements and criticism of governmental policies, is essential. Too many young people with ambiguous and ambivalent feelings about Israel are being turned away because they do not support every Israeli government policy. This is a shame, because Israel is a melting pot of culture, dynamic Jewish practice, and beauty. Allowing room for generative disagreement, while also fervently supporting the people of Israel, affords this generation the means to be leaders and steer the direction of Israel for millennia to come.
- Valuing Academic and Intellectual Pursuits – The value of academic study, even if it deviates from normative thought, is essential. In the realm of academic study, traditional and nontraditional views are given a platform, each with its adherents and detractors. Honesty and openness in belief can engender meaningful approaches to learning which will then benefit future generations of students who will surely debate the ideas that have come forth. There can be deep religious value to secular study. There can be real religious value to science and technology when it can save and enhance life.
- Embracing Inclusivity – Everyone’s voice deserves to be heard no matter their station or creed. Embracing a general orientation toward inclusivity is paramount if the Jewish people are going to continue to be leaders in spiritual innovation. Walls blocking accessibility need to be lowered, or even taken down at times, rather than built higher.
- Supporting Women’s Leadership in Communal Life – While the mechitzah and different gender roles in synagogue are here to stay in orthodoxy, supporting all possible platforms that maximize women’s leadership and scholarship within the confines of halakhah (including the ordination of women) allows for more vibrant communal and intellectual discourse. It is not a liberal leniency to be more inclusive and empowering wherever possible but indeed a crucial mitzvah that will ensure Torah can thrive in our time. The egalitarian ethical impulse is indeed a central part of the Jewish ethos.
- Caring for the LGBTQ Jewish Community – Openly embracing of the LGBTQ community is a way of honoring the Torah’s values and commitments toward eternal human dignity. Welcoming partners together honors Jewish traditional family values. Many of those in the LGBTQ community feel pushed to hide their identity and pain from the broader community, where they feel alienated and left to fend for themselves. This is mental abuse. Even more so, it negates the Jewish value of viewing each life with infinite value. The Jewish tradition urges us to celebrate the spiritual uniqueness of each individual.
- Nurturing Independent Thought – There is infinite value in the Jewish importance of questioning, doubting, struggling, and searching. Rather than merely re-affirming certainty, Judaism invites inquiry at every turn. Nothing should be left off the table, even if the topic is difficult, sensitive, and/or complex.
- Limiting the Centrality of the Rabbi – A rabbi’s role in the community is to be an educator, pastoral counselor and moral leader, rather than a binding and absolute authority on every issue of minutia. Rabbis are educated at great length but, of course, remain fallible like all people. Thus, a more empowered, grassroots structure is necessary, rather than a top-down power dynamic. Though we can turn to rabbis in times of great distress or need, communities shouldn’t feel themselves obligated to operate on the whims of rabbis. Rabbis are here to inspire, support, and teach, not flex power.
- Welcoming the “New” – Embracing the benefits that emerge from positive, new societal advancements does not hinder the traditional way of life. Instead, these benefits augment our lives for the better. Our question is not just to debate what is “kosher” to take from modernity, but to search for what we have to give to the world and ensure that anyone who can benefit from it should be given the opportunity to do so. We must be slow to change at times but also quick to adapt at other times.
- Loving the Convert – While still upholding the halakhic standards for entry into Jewish peoplehood, the barriers that stand in the way for those who wish to be deeply committed to observance of Judaism should be lowered considerably. Transparency with requirements and practices is essential, and fostering a positive post-conversion community ensures that all those who are deeply committed to joining the Jewish people are welcomed with loving and open arms.
- Separating Argument from Attack – Embracing the value of honest and holy argumentation and respectfully expressed differences of opinion (machloket l’shem shamayim) does not mean that we are enemies. On the contrary, allowing for the free exchange of ideas means that our community is healthy and ready to tackle the most pressing challenges of our contemporary condition.
- Engaging in Personal Growth – The commitment to fostering an understanding and appreciation of halakhah is to be fully inclusive to people at all stages of their Jewish journey. In this manner, those who don’t share the complete commitment yet but are attempting to, are an inspiration. And indeed, our role is to be inspired by their journey. Our goal is to inspire rather than do kiruv (outreach implying we have the answers and the less observant do not). We are not to be controlling or coercive towards those growing in their observance of the mitzvot.
- Caring for the Vulnerable – In our moral pursuits, we are to shift from the honoring of the most powerful, wealthy, and learned to honoring the most vulnerable. This includes taking time away from focusing on our own needs and diverting some time to those who are struggling, those who are alienated, and those who would otherwise be invisible.
- Welcoming Progress – Spiritual orientation toward progress (or ha’geulah) over a decline of generations (yeridat ha’dorot) ensures that Judaism remains dynamic spiritually, communally, and eternally.
- Striving to be our Best – God gave humanity free will. Thus, hishtadlut (human striving) must be balanced with, but also primary over, bitachon and emunah (trust and faith, respectively). G-d does not punish us for our sins in this world nor do we expect interventions as we wish. While G-d’s direct engagement has decreased, G-d’s presence has increased and human responsibility has multiplied.
- Valuing Careers & Community Service – Torah study may be the locus of Jewish educational interest, but it should be balanced with other worthy community pursuits and the importance of a career that contributes to society. Both men and women should be encouraged to find religious value in their secular work. Our religious learning is only valuable if it converts into character development and greater acts of service and kindness.
- Retreating from a Human-Centered Vision of the Universe – Humans may be the pinnacle of God’s creation, but we are not the only Divinely-created substance. We are to retreat from a deep-seated anthropocentric philosophy of the universe towards embraing a more humble role within the animal kingdom and the grandeur of the environment. Indeed, we are called upon to have reverence for all life and for all Divine creations.
- Bringing Back Ethical Renewal – Re-emergence of mussar (character development) and hassidut as vehicles to engage rituals not as acts of submission but as transformative moral vehicles. Torah does not just “work” on us when we are observant in some mystical way. Rather we must make Torah work. When it works, we will act as social justice advocates in a universal sense and as baalei chesed (agents of radical kindness) in a more parochial sense.
- Enhancing Human Potential – Human beings are fundamentally noble beings rather than lowly creatures. We don’t treat those who aren’t Talmud scholars as amei ha’aretz (the ignorant masses that can’t be trusted). We recognize our imperfections by acknowledging that they are a crucial part of our journey on Earth: In every way, we are to grow in our spiritual potential, actualizing every fiber of our being towards the ultimate Redemption of the world. One day it will happen, but we cannot be complacent. Every second, every hour, every day, every year gives us untold opportunities to become who we are meant to be. We must hear the call and grasp every opportunity that is presented to us. It is our test, our imperative, and our sacred duty. Each of us has a crucial role to play in bringing more light into the world.
- Being steadfast in the face of criticism – All new movements engender opposition. But just because there are those who seek to scrutinize every action or word you write doesn’t mean that they are correct. While it can be difficult to not be affected by loud hatefu voices, recognizing that what you believe in is just and moral is a standard of excellence that others can’t take away. The key is to not engage detractors who lack derech eretz (menschlikeit) in their opposition but rather to take the moral high road and remain focused on the Godly work. We strive to fear G-d, not man.
- Recognizing Universal Moral Truths – The value of natural morality, human intuition, and moral conscience are infinite and unique. They affect every person, whether they are Jew or gentile. It is our obligation to search for the best way to find the truth and make it tangible in our world.
Even though I have spent years studying Jewish texts and immersing myself in Jewish ethical philosophy, I still have a long way to go before mastering the material. So it is true for the Progressive constituent branches of Orthodoxy. We have a lot to learn from liberal denominations of Judaism to our left and from Centrist Orthodoxy and ultra-Orthodoxy to our right. Yet, we are also eager to develop this growing progressive orthodox phenomenon to fill the “vanishing middle” in Jewish life in order to serve God, the Jewish people, humanity, and all of creation in the best way we believe we are able.
Rabbi Dr. Shmuly Yanklowitz is the President & Dean of the Valley Beit Midrash, the Founder & President of Uri L’Tzedek, the Founder and CEO of The Shamayim V’Aretz Institute and the author of ten books on Jewish ethics. Newsweek named Rav Shmuly one of the top 50 rabbis in America and the Forward named him one of the 50 most influential Jews.