The Origins and Principles of Liberal Judaism

Foredrag af Marlene Edelstein

These are the notes for the talk I gave on the subject at the Unitarian House on March 20, 2016. As such, they are merely a slender introduction to the subjects, but can provide a basis for anyone interested to explore further. Much of this text is based on A Reader of Early Liberal Judaism, ed. Edward Kessler, 2004, which is also the source for Lily Montagu’s article of 1899, ‘The Spiritual Possibilities in Judaism Today’, which will be uploaded separately. Further up-to-date information concerning the principles of LJ can be found on the website; of especial interest are the pamphlets which can be accessed on the website under the heading Values and Affirmations.

Liberal Judaism (LJ) an offshoot of the Reform Movement which started in Germany in the early 19th century. Shorter liturgy, some prayers in the vernacular, choral singing – i.e., early Reform mostly concerned with synagogue services. First major Reform synagogue founded in Hamburg in 1818, and by the 1840s Reform had spread to America.

In Britain, however, there was resistance for a while. As soon as the first Reform synagogue was founded in 1841 – the West London Synagogue – both of the Orthodox wings – the Anglo United Synagogues and Sephardi Federation of Synagogues – issued a cherem (excommunication) against any of their members who joined it, which meant that they could be buried alongside family members in Jewish cemeteries. This was lifted in 1849, and new Reform groups were formed in Manchester and Bradford. These were not as reformed as the German congregations, and faced continual opposition from the Chief Rabbi and from Moses Montefiore, a very significant figure in Victorian England. So things moved slowly.

We need to leap forward half a century to find the beginnings of LJ. During that time, Claude Montefiore (his father a nephew of Moses M) was active in attempts to establish a Judaism that would galvanise the English Jews out of their religious torpor. In 1899, as co-editor of the Jewish Quarterly Review, he encouraged Lily Montagu to write an article entitled ‘The Spiritual Possibilities in Judaism Today’, and this article started the process leading to the formation of Liberal Judaism. In 1901 their new religious organisation was founded as the Jewish Religious Union (JRU) – an association of Orthodox and Reform Jews, with a leadership committee of 10 members which agreed to hold special supplementary services on Saturday afternoons aimed at Jews “to whom the present synagogue services ordinarily fail to appeal”, due to rigid ceremonies, separation of the sexes, a liturgy opaque to those whose Hebrew wasn’t up to scratch.

First service took place on Oct 1 1902, attended by between 3 and 4 hundred, and after an approving write-up in the Jewish Chronicle (JC) these services continued to attract large numbers.

It was not originally the aim of the JRU to found a separate Jewish affiliation – the idea was to have a union of Orthodox and Reform Jews who wished to develop services which would appeal to a wider section of the community. This utopian ideal lasted until 1909. However, when the Orthodox ministers were pressurised into resigning from the JRU, it was seen that only the establishment of a Liberal congregation could ensure the survival of a Liberal Judaism rooted in spirituality and ethical action rather than in tradition and ceremony.

The second stage began in 1912 with the purchase of a site for a synagogue and the visit of Claude Montefiore and Charles Singer to America, to find a rabbi who could lead the congregation and provide leadership for reformers throughout the country. They returned with Israel Mattuck. From this point, LJ started to develop into a significant influence in Anglo-Jewish Life.


Israel Abrahams, 1858-1925: recognised by both the Orthodox and Liberal communities as the foremost Anglo-Jewish scholar of his day. He was appointed Senior Tutor of Jews’ College in 1881, and remained in this position until becoming Reader in Rabbinics at the University of Cambridge in 1902. He published many important works, including a book on Jewish Life in the Middle Ages and together with Claude Montefiore a work on Aspects of Judaism. He was joint editor of the Jewish Quarterly Review and wrote regular articles for the JC – so he had many platforms for making his opinions public.

When JRU was founded, Abrahams became a leading member of the governing body, and since he was such a respected scholar his support was of utmost importance.

As a scholar, teacher and religious leader he worked to reconcile tradition in Judaism with the results of modern biblical scholarship, and for cooperation between different religious positions. He was more concerned with the spiritual lives of Jews than with conformity to traditional practice, and believed that exposure to and interaction with different cultures could only enrich Judaism. In his academic work he ensured that Jewish points of view were heard, and thus became an intermediary between Jewish and Christian scholars of religion.

Claude Montefiore, 1858-1938: studied at Balliol College Oxford, and upon receiving a 1st-class degree in 1889 went to the Hochschule in Berlin to train as a rabbi. There he studied under Solomon Schechter, an outstanding Romanian biblical and Talmudic scholar, whom he persuaded to return to England with him so that he could continue his education. In 1892, CM was invited to deliver the Hibbert Lectures, an annual series of non-sectarian lectures on theological issues, now broadcast by the BBC. He was the first Jewish scholar to be given this honour. In this series he gave the first Jewish attempts to interpret the history of the Bible in accordance with modern critical methods. He accepted many results of modern scholarship, paid tribute to the teachings of Jesus, and defended Judaism from Christian criticism of the Torah. In his dealings with Christian scholars he was concerned to respond to negative portrayals of rabbinic Judaism, contributing to the Christian reassessment of Jews and Judaism.

Throughout his life he attempted to build bridges, emphasising the positive aspects of religion and the Bible. Seeing the Bible as the work of many human endeavours and generations, he concluded that it contained the highest truth, but wasn’t all truth. It was divine because of the valuable religious and moral value it contained: in other words, the Bible’s value does not depend on its divinity but its divinity depends on its truth and value.

CM was very wealthy, and his financial support for LJ was of course very important.

Lily Montagu, 1873-1963: very involved in social action; at the age of 17, LM, with her sister Marian, began to run evening classes for working girls and Shabbat services for children. At 19, together with her cousin Beatrice, she founded the West Central Club, the first educational and social club for Jewish working girls, which she sought to infuse with the spirit of Judaism. It must be remembered that from the 1880s the Anglo-Jewish community was greatly expanded by immigration from Eastern Europe, and also divided, as the newcomers had different traditions from the established community. Whilst many of the ‘old’ Jewish families were affluent and well accepted in the British Establishment, these new East-End Jews were largely poor and working-class. From an early age, LM saw it as her mission to improve the conditions of the poor Jews and ensure that there were synagogues flexible enough to provide for their religious needs.

Among other things, she was a pioneer of the Youth Club Movement, founder of the National Organisation of Girls’ Clubs, one of the first women in England to become a magistrate (lægdommer), fought for decent conditions in sweat shops and for the establishment of factory inspectors. During the Nazi period she helped refugees escape Europe by securing entry permits.

With the founding of the JRU in 1902 she began to function as a religious organiser, though she had functioned as lay preacher as early as 1890 in children’s services, with the approval of the Chief Rabbi Hermann Adler.

LM was influenced and guided by both CM and IM. IM invited her to preach her first sermon at the Liberal Synagogue in 1915, where she preached regular after that, as well as officiating at her own congregation, the West Central Jewish Congregation – now WCLS, which meets at Montagu House in Maple Street. Here Shabbat services start at 3pm in commemoration of those held in the early 20th century for working-class Jews who had to work on Saturday mornings.

Her view of Judaism as a personal religion based upon the relationship between the individual Jew and God was identified by CM as the essence of LJ. She was also a great organiser and an indefatigable author of articles, pamphlets and 14 books.

Israel Mattuck, 1883-1954: son of Lithuanian Orthodox Jews who emigrated to America soon after his birth. He studies Semitics at Harvard, started rabbinic studies at Cincinnati in 1905 and was ordained in 1910, after which he worked in the American Reform Movement, which recommended him to CM and Charles Singer when they came to America in 1912 to find a congregational rabbi for the new Liberal synagogue. He was inducted in the LJS in 1912.

Soon the congregation outgrew the premises in Marylebone, and Mattuck became involved in raising funds for a new synagogue in St John’s Wood, which was consecrated in 1925. On this occasion Mattuck proclaimed that the purpose of LJ was to show that Judaism was a living faith which can assimilate modern thought and has a message for modern times.

Many of his views were controversial. He described kashrut as an ancient Jewish prejudice, and enabled divorced Jewish women who had not received a get to marry in the Liberal synagogue.

He was also opposed to Zionism, maintaining that religion and nationality should be separated. According to Mattuck, the defining feature of the Jews is their prophetic legacy. Thus he opposed Zionism, which turns the Jews into a nation on a par with others, rather than a world-wide religious community. Here he was in agreement with CM, who believed that Zionism only served to segregate Jews from Gentiles and foster anti-Semitism. CM wrote that the possibility of Jews settling in Palestine ‘might involve them in the bitterest feuds with their neighbours … and would find deplorable echoes throughout the Orient’. Cf “Treasures from the London Library: Claude Montefiore: a cautious revolutionary”, published in History Today,

Mattuck was also a spokesman for Judaism in the non-Jewish world, with articles and broadcasts aimed at the general public rather than the academic writings and lectures of CM.

He was also involved in the new Liberal prayer book and a new Liberal liturgy.


As we have seem, early LJ was first involved in reinvigorating Jewish worship by combatting the indifference resulting from traditional practices which many found old-fashioned and opaque. The traditional dogmas excluded women from a full active role in Judaism, whilst LJ, in line with Reform, is completely egalitarian. Its aim came to be the development of a faith which led its practitioners to a personal encounter with God and a love of his creation, a spirituality which results in ethical action. It therefore emphasises the prophetic books (e.g. Isaiah 1) rather than the legal injunctions of the Torah, except where they have an ethical dimension.

Early on, LJ seemed rather an arid faith, as it tended to jettison familiar practices and ceremonies in its endeavour to be a rational modern religion. Now many of these have been restored – the tallit and yarmulke, the Torah procession, the traditional seder and other things which give Judaism its special flavour. These are recognised for what they are, however: spirituality and righteousness are what is important, whilst the aim of ceremonies is to support spiritual life.

Thus, Liberal Jews do not pray for the restoration of the Temple and the coming of the Messiah but should work to bring about the Messianic Age, which will come when human endeavour has completed the reparation of the world. This aim is both spiritual and ethical. Progressive revelation: the meaning of the Bible develops in line with historical development. Judaism must constantly be reapplied to the state of the world.

Since Jews achieved citizenship in modern states they have also gained the obligation to contribute to the countries they are citizens in and to establish dialogue with other religions. Judaism must not separate itself from the world. LJ is very aware of its social and environmental obligations – see the brochures at

Universalism – Israel must be a light unto the nations, not hide itself in its own dogmas. One must be ready to explain Judaism to non-Jews, which means that one must study it oneself, come to a personal understanding of what Judaism means and follow its principles. LJ takes tikkun olam, the mending of the world, very seriously, as both a spiritual and an ethical aim.

It is summed up in the v’ne’emar, the prayer which concludes the Aleynu and refers to the time when the whole world will be repaired and united in holiness: “And it is said: ‘The Almighty God shall rule over all the earth; on that day the Almighty God shall be One, and known to be One’”.