"Da Lifnei Mi Atah Omed: Who are We and What do We Stand For?"
Rabbi Allison RH Conyer
Etz Chayim Progressive Synagogue
On this Yom Kippur, I stand here this day before G-d and you, my congregation, as I am, as a Jew, as a woman, a mother, a wife, a daughter, a granddaughter, a friend, and as your rabbi. I stand here before you, my community, as I am - not necessarily who I want to be, nor who you want me to be, but as I am — flawed and fallible, strong and determined, human and imperfect.
This past year has been a challenging year. So many of my personal friends have reached the stage in their lives when they are asking themselves if they want to continue doing what they’ve been doing in terms of their careers, their relationships, and their indulgence or neglect of their own self-care. They’ve been asking themselves who they’ve become and if it is the person they wanted to be or thought they would be at this stage in their lives. They are asking themselves who they are and what they stand for.
This past year has also been a challenging year for our congregation.
We have had a courageous Board, willing to take a chance on something big, something risky, something outside the box with incredible potential and no certainty. They pitched the idea to the community that Etz Chayim partners with King David school to build a common future. The community, too, took that leap with our leadership, risking giving up what we have today for the possibility of something far greater in the future. And that possibility was extinguished… But something amazing happened.
Instead of becoming despondent or disillusioned, the community stepped up. More people stood for our Board than we’ve seen in years. More people came to us with ideas of programs and activities we could run. More people from outside our congregation approached us as a venue for great programming.
More people brought their friends and families to events and celebrations, so excited to share what we have to offer to others. Members and non-members alike literally put their money where their mouths were and have given more generously both in time and money showing their faith in us and their commitment to ensure our success. Together, we are building our future and our community.
But, before we achieve our success, we must ask ourselves as a community who are we and who do we want to be. The Board has begun working on a new mission statement that reflects our values and the fundamental principles with which we align ourselves, that defines our character, that makes up the fabric of who we are as a Progressive Jewish community. But what does that really mean for us as a community and for each of us individually?
Many times, over the past year, or years, people have approached me asking me questions: What does Progressive Judaism say about X? or “I was talking with my friend or relative who is Orthodox and they said X and I didn’t know how to respond.” Or “I know what they do, but what do we do?” My favourite comment is “That’s what the Orthodox do. Why are we doing that?” Many people approach me feeling embarrassed or ashamed that they don’t know the answer to something. They feel ignorant and judged for practicing Judaism in a particular way without ever learning why they do what they do. Like many Jews from all streams of Judaism, we’ve inherited certain traditions without actually understanding what they mean, where they come from, how or why they’ve changed?
So today, on this Yom Kippur, as we all stand honestly before G-d, our community and ourselves, I’d like to examine what it is we stand for as Progressive Jews. I’d like to look at our strengths and our weaknesses, and suggest a way to move forward in our relationship with the rest of the Jewish community with unabashed pride & confidence in who we are, our values, our principles, our commitment to Judaism, and our affiliation with the Progressive movement.
Since I have arrived in Melbourne, some people in our congregation and beyond have questioned my commitment and adherence to Progressive Judaism. Some have challenged the decisions that I’ve made since my arrival as being “too Orthodox.” Aside from appreciating the irony of the comment, that a female Progressive rabbi, wearing pants and a kippah and singing my heart out in shul, is being accused of being “too Orthodox”, I am regularly reminded that just because we affiliate with a Progressive congregation does not mean that we actually understand what lies behind the principles and practices of Progressive Judaism.
The Board and my rabbinic colleagues are also accustomed to me arguing against the use of the term “Progressive Judaism,” as I do not believe that Progressive Judaism is a separate form of Judaism, but rather the “Progressive” provides a different approach to Jewish beliefs and practices from some other Jewish expressions, such as Orthodox, Conservative, Secular, or Cultural Judaism. Throughout time, Jews in different countries and eras have approached and expressed their Judaism differently, all inspired and connected to the same source – shalshelet ha’kabbalah – the chain of tradition. That being said, I do appreciate the human need to seek out like-minded people with similar expressions and practices to form groups. In that way, the label, Progressive Judaism serves its purpose – to unite those of us with similar beliefs, approaches, and expressions of our Judaism. I do, however, deeply believe that we are all just Jews, approaching and expressing our Judaism in a way that is most meaningful to us.
All too often, I hear Progressive Jews on the defensive, feeling the need to justify our positions or practice without the knowledge supporting the Progressive movement’s position, or compromising their principles and giving in to “the frumest common denominator,” not because of their beliefs in the truth of the accepted decision, but because of uncertainty of their own position.
I know Jews who think Progressive Judaism is “Jewish lite,” taking in all the good flavours of Judaism without the extra weight of the mitzvot observance (adhering to the commandments).
It's time, as a community and as individuals, to understand who we are and what we stand for as Jews with a Progressive approach to our Judaism – our strengths and our weaknesses as a movement.
Progressive Judaism is first and foremost about informed decision making, which means that each of us as individuals are asked to inform ourselves about our traditions – why they are, why we do them, how Jews do them differently, and then decide for ourselves how to practice our Judaism.
I once heard a story about a young Jewish couple who was looking for a rabbi to marry them. They came first to the local Progressive rabbi and asked if he would accept the bride-to-be as Jewish. She was raised in a non-practicing Christian family and found out only recently that her maternal grandmother was Jewish, thus technically, or halachically, making her Jewish.
The Progressive rabbi said that he would only marry them if she attended the Introduction to Judaism classes, thus affirming her Jewish identity. The couple went to an Orthodox rabbi who married them immediately. The Progressive rabbi was criticised for not welcoming the girl into the Jewish people immediately and performing the wedding. Yet, he stood by his principles, and the principles of the Progressive movement, guided by halacha, but not bound by it.
For he believed that one’s Jewish identity was more than a birthright, but an active and conscious decision to learn more and live Jewishly. So, you see, Progressive Judaism isn’t always the easy way out.
As Progressive Jews, we stand by the integrity of our principles and the autonomy of our informed decision-making. And yet, this very strength is one of our biggest weaknesses, as from person to person, community to community, our principles and decisions may differ.
I was recently reading about the difference between collectivist and individualist cultures. Most Western countries like Australia have individualist cultures whereby the needs of the individual exceed the needs of the group. Competition, individual advancement and recognition, separation between work and personal lives, and independence are highly valued. One’s sense of self is completely independent of the group, putting the needs of the self above the needs of the group. My club may be super competitive, but I’m not. I just like a good game. I’m too busy to go support my team today, so I won’t. Many people belong to different groups all of which shape and contribute to their individual identity. Not only are we living in the “Me generation”, we’re living in the “Me” culture.
In contrast, most Eastern countries like Japan have collectivist cultures whereby the needs of the group exceed the needs of the individual. Cooperation, group harmony, group recognition and advancement, putting the needs of others above the needs of the self, and interdependence are highly valued. Their sense of self is completely tied to the group. If our group – our company, our team, our school, our community - succeeds, we feel successful. If our group fails, we feel as if we’ve failed.
As Jews living in Australia, we are conflicted. As Australians, we are firmly entrenched in our individualistic culture. If something is inconvenient, or personally irrelevant to us, we wouldn’t bother engaging with it. If something was personally meaningful to us, we would do whatever it took to engage with it.
Judaism, however, is inherently a collectivist culture, asking, or demanding that the needs of the group, the Jewish people, take precedence over the needs of the individual. This isn’t to say that the individual needs are ignored, but when in conflict, the needs of the community overrides the needs of the individual. For example, if it is inconvenient to observe Shabbat on Friday night or Saturday, or it is not personally meaningful to us, our Jewish tradition teaches – we observe it any way.
If the Grand Final just so happens to be on Yom Kippur, our Jewish tradition teaches that we must wait to find out the results and watch the recorded version.
So, what do we do when our individualistic and collectivist cultures clash? What do we do when our personal desires and needs are in conflict with our Jewish imperatives and tradition? Some of us give up our personal desires for the sake of the group. I had a member of the community tell me recently that he always comes to shul on Sukkot morning, as he worries no one else will be there, even though he’d also rather be sleeping. Most of us, I’d argue, give up the group obligation for our personal needs and desires.
Progressive Judaism presents us with a third option, rather than either/or – my way and forget Judaism, or Jewish observance even if it’s not what I want, Progressive Judaism encourages us, actually implores us to make informed Jewish decisions. Rather than simply asking ourselves, is this inconvenient or not, do I want to do this or not, we can ask ourselves why is this important, or how can this be meaningful.
If there is no meaning in what we do, then, indeed, it is not important, and we should choose to do something else. The challenge is how to make something meaningful.
As Jews, living in the modern world, in the individualistic culture of Australia, our challenge is how to find meaning in our Jewish expression – not necessarily in the way someone else has found meaning or told us we should find meaning, but by learning about and understanding the purpose of each tradition and then finding our own way to live by or express that purpose.
In this way, we allow our collectivist Jewish tradition to influence and guide our individualistic decisions. This is the premise behind Progressive Judaism.
But what happens when your observance of Shabbat is different from mine? Or your standard of kashrut is different from mine? How do we eat together and celebrate Shabbat together? Herein lies the deeper challenge.
Just like living in a shared home requires compromise and some giving up of our individual needs and desires for the sake of harmony in the home, so too does living in our Jewish community require some giving up of our individual needs and desires for the sake of harmony in our community. There have been times in the past 5 years, albeit very few, when we had fewer than a minyan for a festival service. During those times, the 5 or 8 of us who were present felt disheartened.
We did not read from the Torah, nor did we read certain prayers – not because halacha told us we couldn’t, but because, it is important to always remember that without the full team, sometimes, we have to forfeit the game. I don’t think that most of us think like that. We don’t think how our absence affects the group. I’m telling you, it does. Just like when we have a good crowd, our presence boosts the morale of the group. We feel supported, held up by the community. We feel part of something bigger. For some, going to shul is a social experience, which is why at many Orthodox shuls, people talk through the whole service.
For others, going to shul is a deeply personal and spiritual experience which they are choosing to have in community rather than alone. And some come for both the social and the spiritual. Some come out of obligation. The question is—what they leave with.
As Jews, we are given an incredible gift of tradition – a time-honoured way of life that has inspired meaning for millennia in so many diverse ways.
As Progressive Jews, we are given the freedom to learn, explore, transform, try on and chuck out all that our tradition has to offer until we find the right fit. We are not given the freedom to ignore it because it is inconvenient or irrelevant.
We are encouraged to find our own personal ways to make it relevant, meaningful and convenient.
As Jews, we are a collectivist culture told to live in community – when a Jew suffers, we suffer. When a Jew celebrates, we celebrate. Our identity is interconnected with that of our community and people. We gather for funerals and simchas. We are personally affected when hearing about acts of antisemitism and anti-Israel slander, as we are personally affected when a Jew wins an award or Israel reveals another mind-blowing technological advancement. When we travel around the world and join another Jewish community for a Jewish festival, we feel part of something bigger. We are interconnected.
As Progressive Jews, we struggle to commit to Jewish community with our diverse and conflicting personal needs; yet we long for a community to exist on our terms and is there for our needs and desires. We are proud to join together and celebrate Judaism in an egalitarian, inclusive and accessible manner. We struggle to make time for yet another activity in our overly programmed lives; and yet, we feel so good when we do.
As Progressive Jews, we have an amazing gift – an inherited tradition that we can delve into and take and make from it what we choose.
We also have a huge challenge, because we do not feel mtzaveh – obligated – to observe Judaism because G-d said so; we can be more lackadaisical, and our Jewish connection can easily slip. We have to make a conscious effort to engage and look for personal meaning within our Jewish tradition, otherwise Judaism is and will be irrelevant.
We often talk about keeping Judaism alive and passing it on to the next generation, but why? If it’s not meaningful for us now, why pass it on? If we want to pass it on, why? What meaning does it have for us? How do we/how can we embrace that meaning on a regular basis? How can that meaning enhance our lives, not just the lives of our children and grandchildren? How can we expect the next generation to continue our Jewish tradition, if we ourselves have given up on it?
For me personally, I love the music, the melodies. The sound of the Hebrew transports me to another place, allowing my mind to still and my soul to soar. I love feeling a part of something so old and so new, like I’m grabbing hold of a shooting star as it makes its way through time and history.
I love the people, the Etz Chayim family, the wider Australian Jewish community; I love travelling as a Jew and meeting other Jews around the world, feeling this instant connection. I’m not gonna lie, I love the food. I love that every Jewish festival has its own special food, or, in this case, lack of food, and each food, or lack thereof, is imbued with meaning.
I love taking time out every week – away from my phone and computers – to just be, relax and enjoy my family and friends. I love the culture of thinking, the depth of learning on so many different levels. I love the values and the emphasis on action, that it is not enough to have principles and values, but that we must act by them in all aspects of our lives, like we read in the v’ahavta – remember to live by our teachings when we’re in our homes with our loved ones and when we’re outside with everyone we meet.
I love the principle that I spoke about on Rosh Hashanah – kol yisrael aravim zeh la’zeh - we are all responsible for one another; and, like I spoke about last night, “you shall love the stranger for you were strangers in the land of Egypt”, “don’t stand idly by the blood of your neighbor” and “tzedek tzedek tirdof ” Justice, justice shall you pursue”- empathy, action and justice.
I love the importance and focus on family and community, that no person should be alone – that community is extended family.
What do you love about your expression of Judaism? What is most meaningful to you? What aspects of our tradition do you want to know more about?
How can you best merge your individualistic and collectivistic parts of your culture to be both meaningful and beneficial for you and for the community? This is what Progressive Judaism asks of you. Ask questions. Learn more. Choose. Give. Take. Be proud of who you are and what you stand for.
As Progressive Jews, we are authentic Jews, grounded in Jewish history, values, and continuity.
As Progressive Jews, we affirm every Jew’s right to choose how he/she practices Judaism with certain limitations, such as a belief, identification or practice of another belief system.
As Progressive Jews, we are Zionists and stand in support of Israel’s right to exist and the Jewish right to our homeland.
As Progressive Jews we stand for informed choice of the individual — that each Jew has the responsibility and obligation to learn about Jewish traditions, values, and practices and the choice of how to integrate Judaism into his/her life in a meaningful way.
As Progressive Jews, we strive to modernise Judaism, to integrate Judaism with the challenges and advances brought to us in the modern world.
As Progressive Jews, we stand for equality - the rights, roles, and responsibilities of all Jews to maintain connection and participation in Jewish life.
As Progressive Jews, we stand for social justice, protecting and caring for the rights of others, doing our part to bring about Tikkun Olam.
So, this Yom Kippur, Da lifnei mi atah omed — know before whom you stand. Always remember who we are and what we stand for.
Always remember that we are Jews and act in a way that validates our authenticity as we make our informed choices to live our lives guided by Jewish values, grounded in Jewish principles. Always ask questions and challenge ourselves to experience different expressions of Judaism and continue to grow Jewishly.
Remember that we are Jews in the synagogue, at home, at work and at school. Our choices, behaviours, and practices in every aspect of our lives represent the Jewish people.
Let us, in this coming year, strive to narrow the gap between who we are as Jews and who we want to be.
Let us, in this coming year, strive for more consistency in what we believe and value and what we do and say. Let us make every effort to learn more about Judaism in order to make informed choices that benefit the entirety of klal Yisrael.
Let us be able to live amongst Jews with differing opinions and practices, learning from one another, respecting our differences, seeking understanding not conformity, and move forward as a united Jewish community.
Let us feel unabashed pride and confidence in our Jewishness and in our affiliation with the Progressive movement.
On this path, we will indeed make tshuvah, not only as individuals, but as a community, working together toward a common goal, guided by common values, grounded in common principles. May we be able to reap what we sow and enjoy the fruit of our efforts.
Ken Y’hi ratzon — May this be G-d’s will.