A Word From Our Rabbis

Over 200 Years of Progressive Judaism

Judaism has always been a dynamic religious approach, reviewing and reinterpreting in light of the understanding and needs of the time and place it finds itself, and we are delighted to be inheritors of that rich and ancient tradition of perhaps four millennia, even whilst we acknowledge the Indigenous peoples and traditions in Australia which may go back well over ten times as long! 

The religious beliefs and practices of King Solomon’s Temple were very different from those of Abraham and Sarah many generations before.  The ‘Rabbinic Judaism’ introduced by the Rabbis recorded in the Mishna (220CE) was in many ways radically different even to those of the Second Temple period, in part because the Temple and thus the priests and sacrificial system, were no longer able to operate after the Roman destruction. And much is different between even the most orthodox Judaism today, and that of the Mishna, since it has been developed and refined through the Talmud and then the ongoing Rabbinic debates and decisions that have continued ever since.

The start of a distinct ‘Progressive’ strand of Judaism began over two hundred years ago, in 1810. The background was Jewish emancipation in Germany. A modern education and a modern approach to religion were the keys to entry to the wider society. The first "Jewish Free School" was founded in Berlin in 1778, guided by principles laid down by Moses Mendelssohn (1729 - 1786), the "mediator between two cultures", who promoted the idea that Jews could learn secular subjects and Judaism side by side. Such a form of education, which seems completely obvious to us today, was totally new at the time, when German Jews were only just beginning to be admitted to general society.

The Jewish Free School movement soon spread across Germany (and although we have many Jewish schools in Melbourne today, and particularly our own ‘King David School’, http://www.kds.vic.edu.au/, sadly none of them could be said to be free!)  Israel Jacobson (1768 - 1828) was a self-made business man and philanthropist. He was responsible for the founding of the Jewish Free School in Seesen (a town in Lower Saxony) in 1801. Shortly afterwards that part of Germany fell to Napoleon's army, and Seesen became incorporated into the "Kingdom of Westphalia", a French vassal state ruled by Napoleon's brother Jerome.  Jacobson was put in official charge of organising the Jewish community. Ceremony was no longer to be an end in itself, but rather a support for genuine religious feeling. The clear agenda was to be the advancement of Jews in German society.

In 1807 Jacobson convened an official consistoire or Council of the leading Jews of the nation in order to "bring a number of customs, which have crept into Judaism, more into line with changed circumstances." The "Duties of the Rabbis", published by the consistoire, laid down that sermons should be in German, and services should be "undisturbed by disorder or intrusions from the profane world outside."  Rabbis were instructed to "prepare the young for confirmation and personally to conduct the ceremony."  Jacobson planned to build a magnificent building for his combination school and congregation in Seesen, inspired by the large local churches. Unable to get planning permission for this, he constructed a more modest building with high windows and a flat roof topped by a small central bell tower.

The opening ceremony of the Seesen Temple on Tuesday July 17, 1810, was a magnificent ceremony.  The term Temple acknowledged that the local Jewish communities spread around the world had taken over the authority from the centralised Temple in Jerusalem destroyed over 1700 years ago, and no longer harboured any dream to return there and rebuild it, and is still found in the name of our original Melbourne community, Temple Beth Israel.  Jacobson at his own expense accommodated and dined around 350 guests, both Jewish and Christian. The ceremonies began at 7 am with a choir singing from the Temple roof (choral music remains a typical feature of Progressive services). At 8 am the assembled Jewish and Christian dignitaries assembled in the school hall, and at 9 am they walked in procession along the street to the Temple. A choir and musicians accompanied the service, and the scrolls were paraded around seven times, preceded by boys with candles.

In his address to the congregation, Jacobson emphasised that progress would be slow, but Jewish ritual must not continue to be weighted down with unreasonable customs. To the Christian guests, Jacobson appealed not just for tolerance and acceptance, but even for jobs: "I trust that you will be far from receiving my brothers coldly. I trust that you will not reject them, as did your forbears only too often, but rather, that you will accept them with love into the circle of your society and business."  With this plea for acceptance, deliberate reforms to Judaism began. To this day, our dialogue with the wider society is an essential aspect of what today we call Progressive Judaism.

Progressive Judaism incorporates Reform, Liberal, Reconstructionst and some other non-orthodox expressions of Judaism.  We are part of The World Union for Progressive Judaism, the largest Synagogal Body in the world, with headquarters in Jerusalem.  The World Union operates in regions, and Progressive Judaism Victoria operates to develop and support Progressive Judaism in Victoria in conjunction with our regional organisation, the Union for Progressive Judaism (which has affiliates in Australia, New Zealand and Asia): upj.org.au.


The Rabbis serving the UPJ (which include women as well as men, as a principal plank of Progressive Judaism is complete gender equality) communicate regularly and meet twice each year to continue the process of reviewing and applying Judaism effectively and appropriately for our communities and times.


Our Rabbis bring a wealth of knowledge, skills and experiences to our own and the wider community, and are all licensed to be legal registrars as well as ‘M’sader Kiddushin’ (religious officials) to undertake marriages.  The Rabbis of the PJV meet on a two-weekly basis, and convene one of the standing Batei Din (Jewish Courts) of the UPJ as required.  The Bet Din deals with status matters, principally hearing and receiving applicants who wish to become Jewish, having completed the Introduction to Judaism courses which we supervise and teach (the courses are available in a weekly taught classroom format or an online format).  The Bet Din also deals with divorce issues (and can issue a ‘Document of Separation’ to formally conclude a relationship in a sympathetic religious setting, even, in appropriate circumstances, if only one partner requires it). 


In 2010 the Rabbis in conjunction with colleagues in South Africa and the UPJ produced our own unique version of the new American prayer book ‘Mishkan T’fila’ (Sanctuary of Prayer), known as ‘The World Union Edition’, which is used by all Progressive congregations in Australia, New Zealand, and South Africa.

Our prayer book – and our thriving communities and committee members – keep Judaism alive and relevant in Victoria – please come along and join us!


This Introduction has been prepared by Rabbi Jonathan Keren-Black of the Leo Baeck Centre, East Kew, and is based on an article written by Rabbi Dr. Michael Hilton of Kol Chai Hatch End Jewish Community, London.