Despite the fact that non-Orthodox Jews are the majority of the world Jewish population, and progressive branches of Judaism are the largest, progressive Judaism as a whole suffers from a perceived illegitimacy. There are many contributing factors to this feeling of inadequacy including the political power of Orthodox Judaism in Israel, the past 2,000 years of Jewish history, the historical novelty of progressive Judaism, and a lack of a cohesive ideology. Traditional Judaism is grounded in halakha and divine authority. The Reform Movement and its derivative movements (Conservative, Reconstructionist, etc) have typically been driven more by the concern for modernization than religious truth. This has led to high levels of assimilation (meaning an abandonment of Jewish identity in favor of a more general/national identity) and apathy among the laity of the progressive movements. Compared to the Christian Reformation or the Karaites, which were driven by a belief in religious truth against an established orthodoxy, the Jewish reformation has been largely a failure in establishing its own legitimacy, even among its own laity. There is a general sense that Orthodox Jews do things “right” and the other movements are simply on a descending scale of observance of “true” Judaism. I cannot count the number of times I have been in a Reform synagogue and someone has said something along the lines of, “well, the Orthodox do it this way, but we’re going to cheat a little.” It is no wonder that progressive Judaism cannot inspire devotion in its adherents the same way as Orthodox Judaism or Protestant Christianity. Without a sense of metaphysical truth, religious groups wither and die.
The question then arises regarding what the truth of progressive Judaism is. For example, despite their many difference in dogma, Protestants largely agree that the Christian Bible is the sole authority on issues of faith and doctrine, and that people are “saved” through faith, not works or the church. Similarly, the Karaites believe that the Oral Torah is illegitimate, the Written Torah is the only source of religious authority, and every Jew is responsible for interpreting it himself. A message of this kind is largely lacking in progressive Judaism. The closest that progressive Jews came to such a vision were Kaplan’s theory of Judaism as an evolving religious civilization and the Reform Movement’s early vision of Judaism as ethical monotheism. The vision of Judaism as a universal ethical monotheism has largely been abandoned by the Reform Movement, which has largely re-embraced the distinctiveness of Jewish culture and practice. Kaplan’s theory is the dominant theory now, but even this lacks a motivational power among the laity because it reads like a sociological thesis rather than a profound religious and moral truth.
I have argued for my understanding of the message of Humanistic (and progressive) Judaism in a previous post. My understanding of the underlying message of progressive Judaism rests on a few assumptions. First in agreement with Kaplan, Judaism is the evolving religious civilization of the Jewish people. Relatedly, the Jewish people are the source of authority in religious matters, not the Torah, Talmud, or rabbis. Second, God (if s/he exists) does not intervene in human history, and we should generally assume a naturalist worldview. For this reason, Jews should not rely on divine intervention, but rather on themselves. Third, the primary focus of Humanistic (and progressive) Judaism should therefore be ethics and social justice. Jewish culture, literature, and history should be studied both for its own sake and for the lessons they can teach, and Jewish rituals and holidays should be practiced insofar as they aid in ethical living, community building, and the fight for justice. Rather than fight a losing battle trying to legitimize our beliefs and practices through the lens of halakha and scripture, we should make this vision central to progressive Judaism. And fourth, this is a vision of truth that most progressive Jews either explicitly or implicitly agree with already.
If this is to be the central message of Humanistic (and progressive) Judaism, then how can it be called Judaism at all? It rejects or downplays two of the three fundamental aspects of traditional Judaism: Torah and God. This is where the assumptions come in, particularly the first. The Jewish people existed before the Torah. They are a distinct sociological group, and the religion of this group has changed through the millennia. Even the understanding of God has drastically changed among various Jewish groups over time. Linguistically, ‘Judaism’ refers to the teaching or religion of the people of Judah (the Jews). This usually means traditional Judaism or one of the progressive denominations. However, it can and should be used to refer to any religious expression of the Jewish people, including Jewish Gnosticism, the Essenes, Karaite Judaism, and Humanistic Judaism. Even early Christianity would be included in this understanding of Judaism. (Although for historical reasons, I would not include Christianity as a form of Judaism after the 1st century CE since it quickly became dominated by gentiles and began oppressing and persecuting Jews.) In this sense there are many Judaisms, not just a single “orthodox” Judaism.
In order for progressive Judaism to be seen as legitimate in its own right, rather than a watered down version of Orthodoxy, it must become committed to the vision of its own truth. This will include a radical rejection of Orthodox authority and theology and a frank acceptance of common progressive attitudes toward Judaism and Jewish culture. This expression of Jewish religious truth is deeply humanistic, democratic, and egalitarian. It is committed to ethics and social justice, and it focuses on community rather than dogma. The legitimacy of progressive and Humanistic Judaism lies in embracing this vision, not in a return to tradition.