Image: Rabbi Don Levy.

I came to Australia from the USA, less than a year-and-a-half ago to take up the position of rabbi of a Progressive Jewish congregation on the Gold Coast.  So what is Progressive Judaism, you ask?  What makes it different from Orthodox Judaism?

Well, the ‘trappings’ are a bit different; when people meet me, they are surprised to find that I’m a rabbi, because I don’t present myself in the stereotyped appearance (i.e., dark suit, hat, long beard).  I guess I look like a ‘regular bloke,’ but that’s not really what’s at the heart of Progressive Judaism…

Progressive Judaism represents an evolving effort to reconcile the classical sources and enduring values of Judaism, with what we know about the world around us from other sources.  It is not secularism dressed in Jewish symbols.  It is meant to be a profoundly religious, Jewish struggle between the rational and mystical impulses that exist side-by-side within all of us.

Struggle is an absolute and constant in Jewish life.  The actual, proper name of the Jewish people is the People Israel, after the name that the patriarch Jacob took after wrestling with himself.  But ‘Israel’ means ‘he who struggles with God.’  It’s as if, by struggling with ourselves, we necessarily struggle with God.

The primary difference between Progressive and Orthodox Judaism, as I see it, is the degree to which we embrace that struggle.  But the fact of the struggle is universal:  to Jews, and in reality to all humankind.

In Progressive Judaism, as in Orthodoxy, our cornerstone text is the Torah, known as the Five Books of Moses:  the biblical books of Genesis through Deuteronomy, which our tradition sees as an essentially unified text.  They are not seen as individual, discreet books.

When a ‘fundamentalist’ reads the Torah, they read it as a sole repository of all knowledge and wisdom.  It is meant to be taken literally, and anything not revealed therein is to be regarded as foreign ‘wisdom,’ unworthy of our consideration.

It’s this fundamentalism that creates the tension between religion and science.  But ‘fundamentalism’ comes from the side of science as well.  Many scientifically-minded individuals are as stuck in an intellectual rut as some religionists are.

But in Progressive Judaism, as in the ‘progressive’ variants of other religious traditions, we do not accept this either-or proposition.  The Torah is a book of profoundest wisdom, but it is understood to be a book with a very specific purpose.  And that is, to present the God of the universe as an accessible figure, as a personage possessing many characteristics to which we, as humans, can relate.

The Torah presents the sacred narrative of the people Israel, of their interactions with God and history.  The Torah is not intended to be a geology text; its purpose is not to teach us geo-physics; or history, at least in the purest sense.  The Torah definitely has a ‘bias.’  It is a morality text, to show us a path to a balanced and complete life:  as individuals, as the People Israel, as one humanity.

How we contextualise this moral message, how we take it in and let it guide the way we live, is the Torah’s quest.  Although it does present a commentary on how the world came to be, and on certain realities of our lives, we see it as exactly that – a commentary, an attempt to grasp at the essentially unknowable.

The Torah prescribes a distinct way of life that encompasses how we eat, how we sleep, how we marry, and how we procreate among other things.  We Progressive Jews don’t view these legislative passages as some kind of prison to which our religious tradition would consign us.  Rather, we see them as providing a way to lift our lives above the mundane.  To give them sublime meaning.  To help us to see that we are not here on earth solely to produce.

Our worth is intrinsic; it derives not from our accomplishments that we should feel obligated to accomplish and accomplish and accomplish all the time.  Our value comes from our very lives, and from the value ascribed to us by our Creator.  Our unique way of life stems from our identification with that Creator, with the God who revealed Himself in specific ways to our ancestors.

For example, when we observe and keep the Sabbath we are reminding ourselves that even God took time off to rest and contemplate what He had done.  And it reminds us that God took our ancestors out from Egyptian servitude to live as free men and women.  We therefore need not feel ourselves enslaved to our lives of producing seven days a week.

Really, this pretty much encapsulates that, which is at the heart of Progressive Judaism.  It is a ticket to freedom.  But freedom from tyranny, not freedom from responsibility.

This is part of a megastory on religion in Australia today. Visit the megastory here.


This article has been commissioned by Griffith University’s Multi-Faith Centre. For more information on the centre and its upcoming International Symposium on Religion Journalism, please go to it website:

Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported.

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  • Cas Allan

    A hugely insightful and thought provoking article. Thanks Rabbi Don.

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