Should Judaism be modernised?

May 19, 2021 by Rabbi Raymond Apple
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Ask the rabbi…

Rabbi Raymond Apple


Q. Why don’t we modernise Judaism?

A. Large sections of the Jewish public constantly insist that orthodoxy must bend with the wind, accommodate itself to today and be accepting of everything: nothing must be treif any longer, and all must be made kosher.

In short, religion must move with the times; the times must be the criterion.

It is not a new argument, and the decisive answer came from Samson Raphael Hirsch in 19th century Germany. Instead of making Judaism conform with the times, he said, why not make the times conform with Judaism?

When the tail wags the dog and religion is told, “Don’t give us a lead unless it takes us where we want to go”, then truth is replaced by falsehood, respect by repression, justice by victimisation, and individual dignity by fads and addictions.

When the times become the standard and eternal verities can no longer be proclaimed, religion might as well close down.

“But that’s not what we are talking about,” say some people.

So what are you talking about?

“Well,” we hear, “Why is it so hard to keep kosher?”

Answer: any commitment costs effort, and through kashrut you commit yourself to self-control and inner discipline – old principles, but probably as important as truth, respect, justice and dignity.

Or how about, “Why can’t we do this or that on Shabbat?”

Answer: if you want everything to be easy and comfortable, that’s nice and pleasant – but you don’t have much backbone, and backbone (another word for moral courage) is another old principle that is as important as truth, respect, justice and dignity.

Another possible question: “Why don’t they modernise the prayer-book, shorten the service, have less Hebrew to say?”

Answer: fine, let’s argue that out – but don’t forget that to unite with past, present and the future also ranks with truth and the other principles.

Why do the times commend themselves to us?

Because we think modernity is attractive. Apart from the fact that it is also notoriously fickle, it scares us with its selfishness, callousness, lack of respect for life, dignity, conscience or property, twisting of truth, and selective concepts of freedom and peace.

Rabbi Hirsch was right: the timeless is better than the times.

Throw tried and tested principles on the scrap heap and (in the words of the Psalmist) buy yourself another god, and all you have done is to become an idolater, who creates something out of wood or stone, says, “You are my god!”, fools him- or herself and jeopardises the future of civilisation.


Q. You are on record as saying, “I do not marry people: they marry one another”. So why have a rabbi at a wedding?

A. The role of the officiating rabbi at a wedding ceremony is not to make the marriage but to confirm that the set procedures have been followed.

The rabbi is often called the “m’sadder kiddushin”, the one who “manages” the marriage ceremony. In a technical sense he is not necessary if all the rules are obeyed and in the presence of witnesses the husband places the ring on the bride’s finger and says the “Harei At” declaration.

The ring ceremony ensures that the man gives the woman an object of (minimal) value. Mishnah Kiddushin lists three means of marriage, later narrowed down to the giving of the ring.

Early Christianity also had a concept of the couple bringing their own marriage into being. In Webster’s play “The Duchess of Malfi”, Antonio and the duchess merely declare themselves married even without witnesses, though in Judaism the witnesses are essential.

Rabbi Raymond Apple served for 32 years as the chief minister of the Great Synagogue, Sydney, Australia’s oldest and most prestigious congregation. He is now retired and lives in Jerusalem where he answers interesting questions.


3 Responses to “Should Judaism be modernised?”
  1. Adrian Jackson says:

    All religions should be brought into the 21st century from their medieval or earlier thinking.

  2. Liat Kirby says:

    Well said, Paul Winter. And I would like to add that there are other areas of Judaism that do need to be modified in order for people to be able to live in modern times without duress or unnecessary pain, the rules for divorce just one example, where if a Gett is not granted by the husband, the wife is forced to live in misery. Another is not allowing women to worship in the same way as men, using as excuse that they are not obligated to do so. Many of these rules are not from the Torah, but instead framed by men as interpretations, interpretations that are arguably incorrect or merely created anew.

    It’s also true that not all in modern life should supersede the depth and wisdom offered by Judaism, because some of it is paltry and superficial. But antiquated laws that go against equality of life for women and men should most certainly be changed.

    Judaism should not become more and more sequestered and fixated, preventing Jews of different kinds from embracing it. I want to qualify here that to keep as strictly as possible to the tradition is still necessary to preserve its intent and heritage.

  3. Paul Winter says:

    With the greatest respect, I beg to differ. Rabbi Hirsch’s comment that the times should conform with Judaism is wrong, because Judaism must and has evolved to meet the needs of the times. We only need to think of the prohibition on polygamy or the ruling after the Shoah that people can marry even if there is no proof that their partner perished. Conforming to an unchanging Judaism is only possible in ghettos which have been destroyed along with its inhabitants. And the ghetto was a place of fossilisation and backwardness; liberated Jews won Nobel prizes. While things live, they change and Judaism is living. The question then is what can be changed and how to still be true to our heritage.

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