Monday, 24 April 2023

Welcome to Progressive Judaism - A Judaism for the Twenty-First Century

Shalom and welcome - I am glad you have visited!  My name is Jonathan Keren-Black, and I am a Rabbi based at the Leo Baeck Centre in East Kew, Melbourne, Australia http://lbc.org.au/.
I grew up in the Progressive Movements (Reform and Liberal) in the UK and became a Rabbi in 1988 after 5 years training at the Leo Baeck College in London.  In 2003 my family and I moved to Melbourne, where I am a part of the Moetzah, the Rabbinic Council of the Union for Progressive Judaism, Australia, New Zealand and Asia (big region!).  I was the Editorial Team leader for our beautiful new prayer book introduced in 2010, the World Union Edition of Mishkan T'filah, and also developed and adapted 'A Judaism for the Twenty-First Century' (see below), which is one of our course text books, to suit our region (both available from office(at)lbc.org.au, +6103 9819 7160, or contact us for stockists).

Of course, we believe that Progressive Judaism is one of the best frameworks for a modern, spiritual life, and it is always a pleasure when people who have not grown up as Jews decide to join the journey, and often end up deciding to be Jewish themselves.  One of the most satisfying things we Rabbis do is sit on a Bet Din (a Jewish Court), hear people's stories about how they came to Judaism, and welcome them formally to be part of the Jewish people (often with tears of happiness all round!)

This blog is to record enquiries (anonymously) and my responses (starting below).  You may find something that reflects or informs your own situation.

Here in Melbourne we have run formal 'Introduction to Judaism' classes for many years, for members interested in learning more formally and broadly about Judaism, for non-Jews who are interested in understanding more about Judaism 'from the inside', and for those who are thinking of becoming Jewish.   In 2010, we decided to utilise advances in technology to make this course available on line, and I am delighted to supervise students from all over Australia and beyond, a number of whom have since gone on to become committed and involved members of their local Jewish communities.  You can try out the first two sessions of the course for free, and see if it feels useful and informative to you:
http://pjv.org.au/education/introduction-judaism-course-online-course#overlay-context=education/introduction-judaism-course-online-course

To provide suitable support materials, I have revised an excellent book written by my colleague Rabbi Pete Tobias from the UK called 'Liberal Judaism' to make it an ideal fit for the slightly different needs of our region - our version is called 'A Judaism for the Twenty-First Century' and it is available both in print and electronically from Amazon.com, ISBN 145-6-307576 (printed version) or from the Leo Baeck Centre.  


Although Hebrew is not necessary to complete an Introduction to Judaism course, it is if you wish to participate in Jewish community life, and certainly if you wish to become Jewish, and so I have also produced a teach-yourself book for adults called 'Hebrew from Zero', which utilises lots of tricks and devices learned from my own teachers and developed and refined over the years to make learning to read Hebrew, quick, easy and fun!  Again, Amazon or us, ISBN 146-6-462183

It is important to understand that there are a variety of approaches  within the Jewish world, just as there are in all other faiths (but perhaps even more so - we have a saying in Judaism 'Two Jews, three opinions!).  The 'continuum' of Jewish belief extends rightwards from Progressive Judaism to the orthodox and ultra-orthodox, and leftwards to secular and atheist Jews (although both secular and atheist Jews might sound strange, Judaism is not only a religion but a people and a culture, so there are in fact many who put themselves in those categories, including very many Israelis, who consider themselves 'khiloni' or 'secular' Jews.

The dividing line between 'Progressive Judaism' and 'Orthodoxy' comes down to how we view Torah.  If you are orthodox, you believe it is the five books dictated to Moses by God at the top of Mount Sinai.  It must therefore be 'true and without fault'.  Progressive Judaism (Reform, Liberal, Reconstructionist) believes that Torah is a human attempt to record 'what God wants from us' but is therefore naturally limited by its time and context (other groups such as Conservative or Masorti view it similarly).  The various styles of language, different names for God, internal contradictions, duplicated stories with different details (for example the two consecutive accounts of Creation and humanity) do not have to be forcibly reconciled, but are signs of our rich and wide human experience.  We might view Torah - and indeed 4000 years of Jewish tradition - as a symphony of traditions. 

It is only fair to say, though, that although individuals often have good and strong relationships with other denominations of Jews - and most families will include Progressive, orthodox, mixed-marrieds and non-believers - the formal structures of Judaism sometimes have more difficulty getting along!  Although Rabbis may have colleagues and friends in other  denominations, there is a rule within parts of orthodoxy not to share a public platform with Progressive Rabbis, and they will not officially recognise our rabbinic status, nor therefore anyone who converts with us!  Since Progressive Judaism is the largest synagogue grouping in the world (World Union for Progressive Judaism - http://www.wupj.org/), this does not need to be a major issue, though it can occasionally lead to some difficult family situations - sadly beyond our control.  Never the less we need to warn people from the start.

In Britain, I was used to the argument that Judaism is 4000 years old, Christianity is 2000 and Islam is 1300 - with the implication that older is better (I will question that in a moment)!  But moving to Australia, we are very aware that Indigenous faith traditions go back at least 40,000 and perhaps 60,000 years in this land, which makes even 4000 pale in comparison.  But one of the principles of Judaism - and particularly emphasised in Progressive Judaism, is respect for other faiths - we believe there are many paths to God.  So I have always been very involved with interfaith relationships and understanding, and helped to establish the Jewish Christian Muslim Association of Australia (http://jcma.org.au/) in 2003.  All three traditions actually have very similar values, which is hardly surprising given our common stories and heritage!  And, put simply, I'd call the biblical period 'Mark 1 Judaism' (or some would say 'Israelitism'), out of which stemmed two new expressions, Rabbinic Judaism - or 'Mark 2 Judaism', and Christianity.  Christianity made certain changes which may in due course have led to the start of Islam, which returns to a stricter ethical monotheism.  And all have changed and developed into multiple expressions, some more moderate, others more fundamentalist, at times working and learning and living together and from each other, at other times antithetical and destructive to the others.

So that's my starting point.  We need to work together, with respect for difference and diversity, both between traditions and within our own.  There is no 'one true path' - and even if there was, only God would know it!  And, to finish with a new note, each of the traditions believes God put us here to look after God's creations - the earth and its creatures.  And we've made a real mess of it - and if we don't immediately work together to save God's world, there will be nothing left to argue about!  (See http://jeco.org.au/, [Jewish] http://www.greenfaithaustralia.org/ [Interfaith])




Tuesday, 2 May 2017

Do you welcome converts - and how should conversion students keep kosher?

Dear Rabbi,

I wonder about how Progressive and Reform Judaism handles potential converts, and kosher eating. Do converts have any dietary guidelines or commitments to hold to?

Thanks for your questions.

In terms of our approach to potential converts, we welcome them and support them as best we can, depending on where they are geographically  - in fact we had a Bet Din (Jewish Court) today in Melbourne and welcomed an excellent person who I'm sure is already a brilliant asset to the community and will become even more so.  He has been interested in Judaism since he was seven, and moved from rural Australia to Sydney to become part of a community and complete his conversion.  He understands more about God, Judaism and Progressive Judaism (and himself) than many born Jews, I have no doubt at all, and this is quite often the way!

Your question about kashrut is apposite.  The answer is no, we don't currently have particular expectations and standards, because we believe in 'Educated choice'.  However I believe there is a fundamental flaw with this concept as it is (as, in fact, I am increasingly thinking about democracy!).  The key word is 'Educated' and how do we get people to have the time, interest, ability and knowledge to make 'Educated Choices' for themselves (and all the more so when it affects others, or society, as well)?

I feel more and more that we should have a 'Progressive Shulchan Aruch' (Guide to Jewish practice) so that there are clear suggestions, expectations and a framework, developed and used by long term, knowledgeable educated Jews, which are 'Guidelines' (not laws).  By following these, candidates would have a good idea of what many Progressive Jews do (shop, cook, eat etc), or how they celebrate Shabbat and what they do and don't do... Having tried to adopt and live by these guidelines over some time, and during their studies, they may in due course decide after study and consideration that they want to modify their practice one way or other, but that would be in a more 'educated' setting, and the revised choices therefore more valid and legitimate, and they would be able to explain to themselves and others why they have chosen as they have.  

ECO-KASHRUT
So having said that, let me give you some basic information about my own practices and that of my family, but let me first mention 'Eco-kashrut or kosher'.  If one intention of kashrut is to minimse animal cruelty and exploitation (and this is in line with the established principle of tz'ar ba'alei chayim - minimising pain to animals), then there are various new issues not directly addressed by traditional kashrut - factory farming, raising veal in crates, hormones and artificial feedstuffs, and extending to cruel practices such as inversion pens for easier kosher slaughtering, employing illegal workers etc. Another related issue is environmental - emissions, both from raising meat and 'food miles', ie bringing food from long distances, unnecessary packaging, destruction of rainforests etc. Eco-kosher would therefore mean avoiding factory farmed eggs, chickens and other animals, veal, caution with the sourcing of milk and dairy products and palm oils, buying local and in season, looking for less packaging, less processed foods, and probably less food - ie smaller, healthier portions.  We say 'God provides sufficient food for all' ('noten lechem l'chol basar' in Birkat hamazon, grace after the meal), but the truth is that the developed world uses (and wastes) a hugely disproportionate amount, leaving many millions hungry or starving.  All of the above are, or should be, Jewish and kashrut issues. Judaism is about putting 'prayer into practice'! 

HOW WE KEEP KASHRUT
So, my family and I are vegetarian.  We also only eat free-range eggs (and we'd love to have our own chickens!).  We are aware of the problems in industrial milk and dairy food production, but have not (yet) discovered an easy answer to that, short of having or knowing a cow and butter/cheese maker! We try not to eat cheese with animal rennet (made from enzymes from an animal stomach), though we don't exclusively buy vegetarian cheese etc.  It is however much easier to buy foods with the vegetarian symbol on them.   

We never ate prohibited foods (pork products, or rabbi, camel, kangaroo, dog etc - kosher animals need to both chew the cud and have cloven hooves), or shellfish, eel or shark (deceitfully known as 'flake' here in Australia and common as fish and chips!) - kosher sea animals should have both fins and scales.  

When we ate meat, we tried not to eat foods cooked with meat and milk together, or the two in the same meal - but we might say grace after meals after the main course, go to sit in the lounge and then have a milk coffee or an ice cream, having deliberately made it a 'different meal'!

We have never had separate crockery or cutlery.  We believe that washing up, or the dishwasher, cleans any meaty or milk bits away - and even if it doesn't, that was the intention!  But of course we'll explain our practices to guests who might be concerned - and if necessary we'll get disposable (paper or bamboo leaf) plates (still bad for the environment), etc.

Generally all fruit and vegetables are kosher (parev, meaning neutral - they can be eaten with either meat or dairy), although technically even some of them are not kosher - for example if they are grown in Israel during the sabbatical year!  There was a suggestion that one shouldn't drink orange juice unless it had a hechsher - kosher seal - because Israel produces much citrus and some of it may have been frozen and made its way - perhaps years later - into any orange juices ('produce of more than one country')!  These complications do not worry us - it is the intent that counts, and anyway, there is a handy law called 'shishim' which basically says that if by accident there is a small part (less than a sixtieth) of a prohibited product in what you eat, that is fine - it is still kosher!    

Whatever the rules are for home, we apply them as far as possible when out as well.  It seems to me to be inconsistent to have one rule for home and another out! 

And we DO keep kashrut.  But if someone says do we, depending on the intent of the question, we'd say yes, but to our own understanding.  If we are going to them or they to us, or we're going out to eat together, of course we'd explain as necessary.

Sometimes people say 'that's crazy - either you do or you don't'.  But that is their problem - they are wrong.  The rules of kashrut are many and derive from nay different parts of Torah - and of course later tradition: do not eat blood, do not eat these animals or those, do not seethe a kid in its mother's milk, do not eat the cow and her calf together, shoo the mother bird away before eating the eggs, do not eat tithed food, do not eat food grown during the sabbatical year....  

There is actually no one agreed set of laws for kashrut.  On Passover the Ashkenazim (Middle European origin Jews) have quite different rules from the Sephardim (Spanish/Portugese).  And year round, some people wait one hour between milk and meat, while others wait 3 or 6 hours!  Some people determine that some fish are kosher whilst others say they are not!  And then there is 'glatt kosher' or 'super-kosher' - for some people kosher is not kosher enough - and for some groups, even glatt-kosher is not sufficient - only food approved by their own rebbe!

So to conclude, you too can keep kosher, and it's a good idea - but over time and with study and thought, you'll decide just how and what it looks (and tastes!) like.

L'shalom

Rabbi Jonathan

Sunday, 2 April 2017

Can you help a non-Aussie?

Hello,

I'm a Canadian living in Asia, nowhere near a non-Orthodox Jewish community, and am highly interested in learning more about (progressive) Judaism in support of a possible conversion in the near to mid-future. It appears you have online Intro classes.

My questions are obvious. Do you take non-Australian tutees residing outside of Australia? Also, are there any significant differences between your presentation of Judaism and that presented by the Reform movement (in Canada, in case that's a significant point)?

Thanks,

Sarah

Hi Sarah,

The basic answer is yes - we certainly welcome students from outside Australia, and Progressive Judaism as taught on our course is a 'close sibling' of US/Canadian Reform (we are all members of the World Union for Progressive Judaism, wupj.org).  The US/Canadian movement covers a spectrum from more traditional to very liberal, and we tend to be towards the more traditional in practice and learning, but more liberal end in terms of beliefs etc.

The more complex answer is that ours is an 'Introduction to Judaism' course.  It would prepare you well to complete conversion in Canada (or with us).  But to convert, it is necessary to have a developing relationship with a congregation, so you can attend shabbat and festival services and become part of a community.  It is very hard to be a Jew on your own - and virtually impossible to convert on your own.

We had an excellent student from deepest New Zealand - she completed the course and attended our December open weekends in Melbourne twice running several years ago.  But she then decided to move to Melbourne six months ago and has become involved with the community and attending several times weekly - and went to the Bet Din (Jewish Court) and was accepted last month.  

I hope this is a useful response. If you have not already done so I would refer you to https:// progressivejudaism.blogspot.com to read my responses to a range of other queries, and to http://pjv.org.au/education/introduction-judaism-online
where you can do two free trial introductory sessions and then get registered and started if you wish.

If you could give me a bit more background about yourself, family/partner, where exactly you are located to see if we have a community in the vicinty etc, it will help me give you better guidance.

Shabbat Shalom (the greeting leading up to shabbat)

Rabbi Jonathan Keren-Black

Monday, 30 January 2017

Death - and what comes after

Dear Rabbi Jonathan,

Sadly, my Father passed away recently, after his long illness. As a result, I have been thinking a good deal about what happens when one dies, and I was wondering if you could provide a Jewish perspective on that part of life? I have received the copies of A Judaism for the 21st Century, and the Mishkan T'filah - World Union Edition prayer book from your office. I look forward to begin reading them when I return home in the next week or so.

L'Shalom,

Jane.


Rabbi Jonathan responded (at length - sorry!)


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Hi Jane,

Thanks so much for letting me know.  I am sorry to hear about your mother's death and the loss it must be to you - but at the same time it doesn't sound as if her last months were very comfortable, and sometimes there is blessing along with sadness, and especially when the dying person and the family have come to terms with the inevitable and said their goodbyes with love and mutual support.  It is course true that we will all die - and that there are better and worse ways of doing so - but animals, nature - even rocks and mountains, eventually die or wear away (even before we advanced humans so selfishly started helping the process along!) - and that only God is truly Eternal.

You ask for a Jewish perspective on 'that part of life' and I hope you draw some comfort from the following - in Judaism we believe that the soul too is eternal - that in some sense it returns to 'the shelter of God's wing'.

Other than that we have a variety of beliefs - but overall I would say that we don't know what, if anything, is after death, and that our emphasis is on living this life as well and fully as we can.  If we have some concept that we may be judged when we die, we at least know that God will not be unreasonable:  God will not ask me 'Why was I not like Moses?, but 'Why was I not like the Jonathan I had the potential to be?  But, because we don't believe that anyone has actually died and come back (and I don't mean to decry stories of peace, white lights and other 'near death or temporary death experiences), we simply don't know what, if anything, is after life.

Biblical Judaism (say 1500 BCE to 70 CE) seems fairly pragmatic.  Over and over, Torah repeats, our ancestors got old or sick, they lay down, they may have had a chance to call the family together and tell them they loved them - or other home truths - and then they die.  Sometimes the phrase 'gathered to meet their ancestors' is used but in all probability that means that, once their flesh has gone and only bones remain, they are pushed into the collection with their ancestors bones. or gathered into a pot (ossuary) and put with the other pots (and perhaps believing, along with that action, the 'obvious' idea that the 'life force' that animated their body had returned to join the life force that had also animated their ancestors before them).

Rabbinic Judaism (starting say 586 BCE and taking over from Biblical on the destruction of the Temple in 70 CE) had a variety of problems to resolve, and the idea of life after death, familiar from the Egyptian tradition, seemed to address a key challenge - that of reward and punishment. It might seem that God was not always rewarding the observant, as Torah repeatedly promises, or punishing the wicked - but just wait till they died!  Then the virtuous who had lived a life of poverty and illness would be rewarded in perpetuity - whilst the rapacious sinners who seemed to spend their affluent lives by their pools and travelling in luxury to far flung, verdant oases would suffer for ever after they died!

It is true that they taught that life after death was not only the soul but body too, and the idea of a physical resurrection (the literal meaning of 'M'chayei metim') led to burial of bodies facing Jerusalem, so that, at the appropriate time (perhaps the day of Judgment?) they would all travel to Jerusalem where they would emerge alive again. This is also the reason why Judaism has traditionally been opposed to cremation - not only is it disrespectful to the body that has been the container and carrier of the holy (the soul), but that God (who can do anything) can apparently not recreate a person if their 'luz' (cockyx) has been destroyed?  (If one was to argue against cremation for Jews today, I think that the disposal of so many of our people by this means in the Shoah - Holocaust - is a stronger argument, though it should be noted that many Shoah survivors choose to be cremated, so that their bodies are disposed of as were so many of their family members).  Though by no mains 'mainstream', I should also mention the kabbalistic (mystical) belief in 'gilgul' (rolling), transmigration of souls.  Once a person dies, their soul is reborn as a new baby (with the opportunity to cleans it of past sins).  If you look hard enough, you can find many things in 4000 years of tradition!

I believe that just as Biblical Judaism transitioned into Rabbinic Judaism over some hundreds of years as the world and Jewish situation changed (between the destruction of the first Temple and the Babylonian exile in 586 BCE to the destruction of the Second temple by the Romans in 70 CE), so now we are several hundred years into a transition to what we might call 'Autonomous Judaism' which started with the 'Enlightenment' and where Rabbis, if they are to survive at all in the long term, must transition to being teachers and guides and companions on the journey, rather than the 'authorities' of Judaism.  That is the way I view myself and my colleagues.  And in regard to your question, what do we believe about 'Life after death', or rather, 'Death and what follows'?  Drawing on the vast and wide range of beliefs I have mentioned (especially now with the help of the internet!), a Jew today can believe what they feel is most genuine and convincing to them.  In the area of belief, as long as it is not viewed as the sole and exclusive truth, a Jew has a lot of freedom and no one to tell them they can't believe - though they can engage in discussion about where the belief stems from, whether it is a fair deduction from Jewish teaching and experience, and whether they wish to invite them into their home and community!  So, for example, Jews who chose to believe in Jesus as God or son of God, distinct from every other human being, are well outside normative Jewish belief, which acknowledges Jesus probably existed as a charismatic Jewish healer living in the Galilee, a child of God like the rest of us.  To return to the question - and my response:  I believe that the (p'shat) straightforward reading of the Torah rings true.  We are born, we live, we die.  Life after death (or life after we have died) is influenced by our life, our children, our friends and families, our good as well as our bad deeds.  The world (and the unknown future) is not the same as if we had never existed.  We will live on in our children, and/or those we have touched and influenced, and their memories of us.  But I feel comfortable that when I finally close my eyes and cease to breathe, I will be in permanent oblivion, more restful than the deepest restful, dreamless and unaware sleep, and safely 'in the shelter of God's wings' (of course this is a metaphor - God does not have wings or any other bodily parts - God is an all embracing invisible spirit permeating the entire creation).     

When a loved one dies, it is traditional to say the words of the Mourner's Kaddish (page 598 in Mishkan T'filah - World Union Edition, and see also the English readings from page 592 leading up to it).  The Mourner's Kaddish (Sanctification) praises God, maker of the universe.  It does not mention the dead - effectively what it is saying is that, even at times of great pain and loss, when are hearts are breaking, we still acknowledge God, who created the rhythms of the universe, including the cycles of nature and life.  

The funeral is done as soon as possible after death (out of respect for the body and the knowledge that living with your loved ones unburied is the most painful time, and practically, because decomposition in hot climates and without cooled morgues commences very quickly.  I am not sure how Christian burials started being done later, but believe that is why it became necessary to have the perfume of flowers accompanying the burial).  For the first week, the mourners traditionally stay at home, and sit on low stools (to be near the earth, either reminding us of our own mortality and/or of being closer to our loved ones) - this is called 'sitting shivah'.  Because they stay at home, but need a 'minyan' (quorum of 10 which makes a minimal community rather than individuals, so sometimes this service in the home is known as the 'Minyan') to say the Mourner's Kaddish, people traditionally come round to hold at least the evening service with them, and bring food so they don't have worry about mundane things like shopping and cooking, and to keep them company and talk about their loved ones. If you don't know what to say, the tradition offers you the formula 'I wish you long life', though I'd be cautious about saying that to an older person who has just lost their lifetime partner.  It may be the last thing they want at that moment.  If you don't know what to say, say nothing.  Just being there is important.  Hold their hand if appropriate, or give a hug. That's just as effective - certainly better than some of the terrible and trite comments like 'God took them early because they were such a wonderful soul'. Let them speak if they want to, or not. 

At the funeral and shivah or minyan, the formula 'Adonai natan vAdonai lakach' is said.  This literally means 'God gives and God takes'. Since I believe that God gives us all finite life, and sometimes terrible natural or human tragedies happen, but God never 'takes' life, I prefer the interpretive translation that you'll find in our prayer book after the prayer for lighting the candle after a funeral (with the prayer for lighting a yahrzeit candle), on page 619, by Rabbi Frank Hellner: 'God has given, and now God has received back'.  

The month from death is known as 'shloshim' (thirty), when they can go out and the mourning is a step less intense, and then the reminder of the year it is a step up again.  

The Mourner's Kaddish prayer is traditionally said for a year after the death, until the first 'Yahrzeit' (Yahrzeit is Yiddish for 'year-time'), anniversary of the death, when the formal mourning is said to be over, and the final step is made back into normal life, albeit without your loved ones physical presence. Some years ago, research showed that this mourning pattern, marking the end of the first week, the first month and the first year, was the optimal way to recover from bereavement. The first and subsequent anniversaries are marked by a 'Yahrzeit candle' which burns for 24 hours or so, on every anniversary, as we particularly remember our loved one, and mention their name and say Kaddish in synagogue.  These traditions can be observed by someone who is Jewish even if their loved one was not, of course.  It is to help the bereaved to manage and come to terms with their grief - and gain some reassurance and support from the idea that both God and their community are still there for them and in some way share their loss - they are not left to grieve on their own. 

I hope that is useful.  It was longer than I anticipated, and I am glad to have had the chance to lay it down in these terms.

Finally, a Progressive version of the tradition is to say to a mourner 'Hamakom y'nakhem et sha'ar ha'avelim' - May God grant you consolation along with all mourners.  


Rabbi Jonathan

Sunday, 15 January 2017

I'M MILES FROM A COMMUNITY BUT I WANT TO CONNECT TO MY JEWISH ROOTS

Hi there,

I am just sending this email as I am interested in converting to Judaism. I have sent a lot of emails to different Jewish organisations online but have not received any responses so it is a bit disheartening. 

I feel I have a Jewish soul. My great-great grandmother was Jewish. She had a son, who had a son, who had a daughter - my mother. I feel that it is already in me through the bloodline and my genes and I really want to confirm my identity and become fully Jewish.

My problem is that I live in a rural town in NSW, 5 hours from Sydney, and this being the case there is no local synagogue to attend. This does not worry me though as I would be happy to do everything online.

Are you able to assist or direct me to where I could get some help with this?

Kind regards,



Rabbi Jonathan responds:

Many thanks for your perseverance in trying to discover more about and re-establish your Jewish identity.  I am confident it will ultimately be a rewarding and worthwhile search.

We will try to assist.  However I should say from the outset that it is very hard to be a Jew on your own, and virtually impossible to become one when you are five hours from the nearest physical Jewish community.   Your situation, as you describe it, is slightly different, or perhaps 'between the two', in that you feel you have a Jewish connection already through your great great grandmother.  So let's locate you in the 'very hard' rather than 'virtually impossible'. Although we can now talk and do study 'on-line' and you can even watch regular shabbat and festival services, we have not yet created a 'virtual community' that you can participate meaningfully in.  Perhaps this will come in the next few years.

Next I should explain that what we offer is a pretty comprehensive course about Judaism (from our Progressive perspective).  You take it at your own speed but it takes a minimum of a year simply because it is structured to learn about the festivals at the time when they are approaching etc.  We have a Shabbat weekend each December (15th to 17th in 2017) at the Leo Baeck Centre in East Kew, Melbourne so you can experience the services and community and meet other students etc. 

The course will ensure you have a good understanding and familiarity with life cycle, the cycle of the year and festivals, history, theology, Jewish belief and practice etc.

This is the 'academic' part of the conversion course, but in order to convert, you also need to be able to read Hebrew (I have a good book for that, as you will see in the Introduction above), and to have experienced services, Passover Seder, High Holy Days etc - and really to have created a relationship with a Jewish community. You'll need a 'Sponsoring Rabbi' and once they think you are ready, they'll arrange a 'Bet Din' (Jewish Court) who will hear your story and hopefully welcome you formally to the Jewish people.

I do hope this is both clear and helpful.  I understand that it can feel frustrating and upsetting to get no responses or to be knocked back, especially when it is so relatively easy to join some other faiths.  It is worth remembering that Judaism, unlike some other major faiths, does not believe you 'have to be Jewish' or order to have a place in 'the world to come/salvation/redemption/eternal peace' etc.  Judaism believes there are many legitimate and meaningful paths, and that all that is required is to be a 'decent human being' and follow the 7 Noahite laws (things like ensuring Courts of Justice for your community, not murdering or stealing or taking limbs from living animals etc).

And of course, whenever you can get to Sydney (or Melbourne or Canberra etc), do make the effort to get along to one of our congregations - I can arrange introductions and someone to welcome and assist you.

L'shalom

Rabbi Jonathan     

Tuesday, 2 August 2016

Hello Rabbi,

I saw what you write about the Noahite laws.  Noah was an example of good behaviour to live up to. But I am concerned about the promise that God made to send a rainbow reminding us that there will never be another flood.  How do we reconcile this with the speed of climate change and the predictions of rising sea levels as the ice caps melt and huge numbers of populations, especially poverty-stricken ones like Egyptians in the Nile delta, will be drowned or driven from their homes?

Yours worriedly,

Geraldine


Rabbi Jonathan responds:

Thank you Geraldine.  This is perhaps the most important post so far as it is not only about Jews but about the world, and our responsibility to it - a responsibility shared by all humanity, but which in Jewish terms we call 'Tikkun Olam' (healing the world).   

I think there is a most important and pressing message for us in the Noah story.  Though we don't read these stories literally - we reject the idea that God picks of people to kill them, whether in this story, or in a car or air-crash, or in the Holocaust - never the less if you read Genesis carefully, you'll find at one point that the story-teller says that God promises never to bring another flood.'Never again will I doom the earth because of humanity... nor will I ever again destroy every living being...' Genesis 8:21.  The message for us (who have sought to overthrow God, as our Gates of Repentance prayer book states) is not that 'There will never be another flood', but that 'God will never again flood the earth' - leaving room for US to do so by rising sea levels if we continue on our path to catastrophic climate change!

The more I learn and read, the more scared I am - the climate is changing faster than ever before.  We see major changes in half our lifetimes!  Average temperatures are already up one degree C.  We need faith in God - but God needs us as partners in this challenge (or we and God need to work 'in partnership').  There is some hope to be found in the Paris agreement and the fact that most governments (perhaps even, dare we hope, our own Australian one) are beginning to realise the urgent importance to act, and the fact that the fossil fuel industry has been obfuscating (confusing and funding contrary research) the issues for years!  

I built a house in 2006 which uses a quarter the energy of an equivalent 'normal' Australian house (and used only one tenth the mains water).  Having driven hybrid cars for 13 years, I have just progressed to a plug in hybrid (2 years old) and drive 40 kms on green-powered batteries every day, which is usually all I need.  But if I do go on a longer journey, it switches to normal engine/hybrid.  

I don't say this to boast, but to inform.  If I can do this, and dramatically cut my emissions, then why are the government (and manufacturers) advertising that this can be done and indeed helping people to do it?  What a huge impact we could be having!

But there is something you can do with no expense, and with immediate and great effect.  Stop eating meat - or at least reduce your red meat consumption.  Emissions from cattle production are growing rapidly as we eat more meat, especially the developing middle classes of India and China - and you can help counter that trend.

You can do something else.  Join the Jewish Ecological Coalition, JECO.org.au
And the Australian religious Response to Climate Change ARRCC.org.au

Good luck - l'shalom

Rabbi Jonathan