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Liberal Judaism

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Little more than thirty years ago there was established in London, chiefly through the efforts of Claude G. Montefiore and Lady Lily H. Montagu, an organization of Jews who felt the need, for themselves and for others, of a new interpretation of Judaism. It was called the Jewish Religious Union for the advancement of Liberal Judaism.

Some noted members of the Anglo-Jewish Community have been among its first and later members. Out of it have sprung several congregations, the chief of which is the Liberal Jewish Synagogue in London, probably the largest Jewish congregation and synagogue in Great Britain.

The services in these synagogues look different from those in other synagogues. Many of the prayers are in English, men and women sit together, and in some of them men pray with uncovered heads. None of these things occur in orthodox synagogues.

In themselves these external changes may be more or less important, but they indicate an important change in attitude. They show readiness to depart from tradition under the influence of religious needs and modern thought.


The services are largely in English because this is the language in which English Jews express their feelings most naturally; though, to maintain the connection with the past, the most familiar prayers continue to be read in Hebrew. Men and women are not, as in orthodox synagogues, separated for worship.

Such a practice is out of accord with modern Western ideas about the equality of the sexes. So, too, there have been changes in the contents of the prayers and the Prayer Book to make them expressive of, and for, modern thought.

These changes in the services show the fundamental distinction of Liberal Judaism. It aims to harmonize the essential beliefs of Judaism with modern thought, to relate the traditions of Judaism to modern life, to combine tradition and progress in religion. That aim implies one fundamental change of thought. It is a change in the idea of revelation.

In the beliefs about God, the human soul, the witness of Israel and the destiny of the human race, the new Judaism follows mainly the older Judaism, sometimes developing its ideas, sometimes changing their mode of expression, but always retaining them essentially.


The important distinguishing idea of the New Judaism is that it maintains the right to develop religious ideas in accord with growing knowledge and to alter religious practices out of consideration for the religious life of the present. It justifies that right by its view of revelation, which shows itself concretely and, therefore, perhaps most clearly in the Liberal Jewish attitude to ceremonies.

Ceremonies have occupied in Judaism the place which Christianity has given to creeds. The difference between the new and the older Judaism in their attitude to ceremonies shows the difference in their ideas about revelation.

For a long time Jews have looked upon the ceremonies and ritual practices in Judaism as commandments of God. But it has not always been so. Isaiah and Jeremiah and other prophets thought differently. They not only denied that God commanded ceremonies; some prophets went so far as to say that He “hated” them.

Many generations of Jews have held the later view that all the ceremonial laws in the Pentateuch and in the Talmud were commanded by God, and that all of them were, therefore, obligatory on Jews. The New Judaism returns to the prophetic view, but does not go so far as to reject ceremonies altogether; it realizes that some of them can be a help in religion.

But it teaches that they are valuable only in so far, and so long, as they help to maintain, strengthen and deepen the spiritual life of the individual and the community.


It therefore insists on the observance of the Jewish Holy Days, but leaves many details of ritual observance to the spiritual conscience of the individual. According to Liberal Judaism, it is the task of every individual Jew and of every Jewish congregation to ask about all ceremonies the question: “What is best for the religious life of the individual Jew, and for the life of the Jewish community today?”

From this it will be seen that there is among Jews, as among Christians, a difference in the view of revelation. Jews who hold the traditional view believe that at one time in the past God gave a complete and perfect revelation.

It is the law, which is therefore valid for all time; the adherents of the New Judaism, following Biblical science, hold the view that the law itself was a development, and that man’s knowledge of God’s mind and will has come, and continues to come, through a process of gradual learning; in other words, that revaluation was not an act, but an evolutionary process, a progressive development.


The New Judaism is, therefore, distinguished by the claim that development in religious thought and practice is in accord with the spirit and history of the Jewish religion, and demanded for the sake of its truth and present power. It maintains that only by changes, made reverently and thoughtfully, will Judaism retain its influence in the life of the modern Jew.

Miss Montagu, who is one of the pillars in the Liberal Judaism movement, is the daughter of the late Lord Swaythling who was for many years a distinguished figure in English life. Lord Swaythling’s children and various members of the family have played important roles in English Jewish life. Miss Montagu herself has a wide range of interests, philanthropic, literary and religious. In all these fields her creative energy has made original and signal contributions.

A number of years ago Miss Montagu organized the West Central Jewish Settlement House. Although she bears the modest title of honorable secretary of this institution, it is rumored that she is the chief supporter of its activities.

The settlement house, like similar institutions, maintains a clinic, visiting nurses, an employment bureau, a play center and evening continuation classes for working girls. It aims to provide amusement and recreational facilities for girls and to encourage social intercourse between women of varied education and occupation.


It also does another thing which is not altogether usual, although not unknown in American Jewish settlements. It tries to develop the Jewish religious spirit among the girls who attend. It is reported to be unusually successful, which should not be a matter of surprise to those who know the winning spirit of Miss Montagu.

In 1902 she was responsible for the founding of the Jewish Religious Union, after she had called together a group of Jews and Jewesses who, while believing in the essentials of Judaism and in the mission of Israel, were not satisfied with the teachings and services of the Orthodox synagogue, and who wished to make their Judaism a religion which would guide and inspire their lives and come into line with modern thought.

Five congregations of liberal Jews are affiliated with the Jewish Religious Union today. The first of these, founded in 1911, was the Liberal Jewish Synagogue, where Rabbi Israel Mattuck, a graduate of the Hebrew Union College has been in the pulpit for seventeen years. Miss Montagu frequently preaches in the Liberal Jewish Synagogue and in the West Central Synagogue as well. In the latter, services were held under her sole guidance for nearly ten years. Later Rabbi S. E. Starrels, another graduate of the Hebrew Union College, was called to this pulpit.

For the last few years, Miss Montagu has been devoting most of her time and energy to the cause of the World Union for Progressive Judaism, of which she was one of the organizers. Under the auspices of the union, the first international conference of Liberal Judaism was held on July 10, 1926.


At this time Miss Montagu said that the Jewish Religious Union hoped to cooperate with liberal congregations all over the world to form a union for furthering progressive thought in Judaism. Today that desire has become a reality. The World Union is functioning as a channel whereby the Jews of diverse lands may help one another to establish and to strengthen the influence of Judaism in modern life.

Seven organizations are affiliated with the World Union for Progressive Judaism. They are The Union of American Hebrew Congregations; Central Conference of American Rabbis; Vereinigung fuer das Liberale Judentum; Vereinigung der Liberalen Rabbiner Deutschlands; Union Liberale Israelite de Paris; Jewish Religious Unions of India and Jewish Religious Union of England.

Miss Montagu has the distinction of being the first woman Justice of the Peace in England and the first woman to receive the honorary degree of Doctor of Hebrew Law at the Hebrew Union College. The degree was conferred upon her in absentia at the forty-fifth graduation exercises of the college, “in recognition of life-long, valuable service to Judaism.”

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