The Power of Letters-Mapping out a Judaism for Today with an Editorial Masterplan

Article excerpt

It all started with the re-emergence of the German progressive movement in the early nineteen-nineties of the twentieth century. When progressive Jews had nothing more than an urge to find a positive Jewish identity from the sources of the liberal Jewish tradition a common prayerbook became the unifying factor. With no roofs over their heads and no funding for the establishment of community centres this prayerbook gave a strong message of togetherness. Published in two volumes (based on Siddur and Machzor of the RSGB in Great Britain, edited by Jonathan Magonet) in 1997, Seder ha Tefillot soon spread over all our congregations and far beyond in all German-speaking countries and became the movement prayerbook of the Union of Progressive Jews in Germany. It was accompanied by the Pessach Haggadah as edited by Michael Shire.

But more was needed. So, in 1999, three more books followed: an adaptation and full revision of Jonathan Romain's: Faith and Practice: a Guide to Reform Judaism Today was published under my co-editorship with the German title Progressives Judentum--Leben und Lehre and served as a full description of the positive values and teaching of progressive Judaism--in order to free us off from the Orthodox slander that misunderstands 'liberal' for 'libertarian'. The second volume that helped change the scene was a German version of the US religious school classic: The Many Faces of Judaism. Gilbert S. Rosenthal and I undertook it to explain how the various denominations within Judaism developed, what distinguished them from each other and what they have in common. Das Judentum hat viele Gesichter--Die religiosen Stromungen der Gegenwart was and still is an important book that helped us explain that progressive Judaism is a valid and legitimate arm of the Jewish faith body. It has just come out in Russian, to serve the same purpose. The third programmatic volume was Moshe Zemer's Judisches Religionsgesetz heute--Progressive Halacha (Sane Halakhah), a book that firmly expresses the halakhic nature of German progressive Judaism and the possibilities for amendment and change. A reprint of Die Lehren des Judentums nach den Quellen (The Teachings of Judaism According to its Sources) in three volumes brought back to life a most eminent collection of essays by Jewish thinkers to all relevant ethical and theological issues accompanied by a full set of sources in chronological order. This masterpiece of Jewish theology had been originally published in 1928 and subsequent years. It serves as a clear indicator of the dominance of Judaism's ethics over ritual.

Already earlier, clarification had been brought into the issue of conversion. Esther Seidel and I edited a book called Nicht durch Geburt allein--Ubertritt zum Judentum (Not By Birth Alone--Conversion to Judaism) which gave a complex description of all aspects of conversion then and now and paved a way to look with more ease and comfort upon the fact that gentiles are attracted to the Jewish message and want to join. The publication of another huge project started in 1999, to be finished in September 2004: the translation and full revision of W. Gunther Plaut's Torah--A Commentary, in the German language with an up-to-date biblical commentary and lavish illustrations as well as the long lost German biblical translation by Moses Mendelssohn. This translation of the Hebrew Bible with Haftarot was also published as a single volume in 2001 and became another successful book offering a Jewish translation in contemporary perspective and indicating the importance of Moses Mendelssohn for the emergence of a modern Judaism.

In the meantime, a strong and stable Jewish progressive movement had evolved. In 2001, the Abraham Geiger College as a progressive rabbinical seminary admitted its first students. This coincided with a reprint of Ludwig Geiger's Abraham Geiger--Leben und Werk fur ein Judentum in der Moderne. Geiger's son Ludwig had written a most detailed biography of the life and work of this eminent founding father of progressive Judaism. …