Liberal Judaism and the Third Way

Are you religious?

A question asked so often of me by non-Jews that I’ve had to come up with some creative answers.

“In my own way”, “quite religious”, “yes but not as you might expect.”

But it’s even more complicated with fellow Jews.

“You’re progressive but you keep Kosher!?”

“What do you mean you take the bus to Shul!?”

All very valid questions of course. The truth is, Liberal Jews have to be able to answer these questions in a satisfactory manner. Much as it’s a cop out to say “I keep Kosher because it says I have to in the Torah”, it’s also a cop out to say “I don’t keep Kosher because I’m Liberal and therefore I don’t have to.”

At the same time we are not and should not be apologetic about our liberal approach to religion in practice and as an identity.

Liberal Judaism in the UK has been lauded for its progressive positions on important social, not to mention Jewish, issues. It has successfully advocated for the introduction of same-sex marriage and is the first synagogue movement in the UK to implement the ‘living wage’.

At the same time, a shift towards observance over the past few decades is well documented. Whilst the various progressive movements dispensed with many a ritual in the early days – men often did not wear kippot to services, Kashrut was seen as an anachronism and various aspects of services dropped outward signs of religiosity (think bowing and kissing) – today practices and rituals are back in many Liberal synagogues.

Those used to more ‘classical’ interpretations of Liberal Judaism should not fear this embrace of ritual and tradition. Many are being adopted as a matter of conscious choice – a truly Liberal Jewish value. There is room for everyone in this movement.

This year, Liberal Judaism UK held its biennial conference in Reading, near London last week and the theme was ‘radical roots’. During services and various seminars, participants were encouraged to delve into Liberal Judaism’s origins to discover a movement with its own rich history and integrity, one with principled positions and liturgy. They were also invited to look to the future by chairman Lucian Hudson who told participants Liberal Judaism should not be seen as a “step on the path from orthodoxy to secularism.”

Liberal Judaism’s core values of social action, social justice and its liberal positions on various social issues have been embraced far beyond the movement. It is now in a position to focus on offering a compelling Judaism to young people in particular which not only allows them to carry out the social action projects and advocacy in line with their social sensibilities, but also allows them to engage in Jewish life and community and their own personal journeys of identity and practice.

While continuing to be an inclusive point of entry for many, Liberal Judaism is able to combine tradition, history, ritual, and social justice to embody an authentic choice with its own solid foundations, enabling Jews from diverse backgrounds and indeed places to truly engage with our community, culture and religion.

About the Author
International Affairs for the Board of Deputies of British Jews. Fluent Turkish speaker and LGBT rights advocate.