Progressive Judaism and Eastern Europe

By Finkelstein, Ludwik | European Judaism, Spring 2007 | Go to article overview
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Progressive Judaism and Eastern Europe

Finkelstein, Ludwik, European Judaism


Eastern Europe was until recently, for Jews in the rest of the world, an area of memories of disaster and oppression. It was a region that was wiped from the Jewish world and from which Jews fled. Dramatic developments and rapid change have altered the picture. Eastern Europe now presents us with glimmers of opportunity and challenges that must be met.

This brief paper outlines these challenges and opportunities. It does not propose solutions. It is intended to be a starting point and basis for discussion.

Progressive Judaism

At the outset, it is proposed to start from a defined perspective on Progressive Judaism. Progressive Judaism is viewed as the authentic continuation of the chain of Jewish religious tradition. True to eternal values, it develops that tradition in response to new knowledge, understanding and spirituality. It seeks to influence the world and to adapt, within its framework of values, to the demands that a changing world makes upon it.

It follows from that perspective that Progressive Judaism faces the same challenges as Judaism as a whole. It also follows that it should have a particular capability to tackle them because of its openness and adaptability. This capability brings with it the responsibility to engage in the task.

Eastern Europe

The term eastern Europe is not an adequate one in the context of Jewish affairs. It must be more precisely defined and explained. It is not an adequate geographical term--the geographical mid-line between western and eastern Europe runs somewhere through Poland, or western Ukraine. Nor is it helpful to use the term to describe countries until recently dominated by the Soviet Union. Those countries are too diverse to be usefully lumped together. The term is rather to be defined for this purpose in terms of Jewish history and culture.

Eastern Europe should be viewed here as consisting of the countries of Poland, Lithuania, Latvia, Estonia, Ukraine, Belarus and Russia. These were countries shaped by the historical experience as part of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, the Tsarist empire, the Shoah and by domination by the Soviet Union.

It is useful to distinguish here between eastern and central Europe. Central Europe will be defined as those countries that were shaped by their history as part of the Habsburg empire. These were Bohemia, Moravia, Slovakia and Hungary. It will be recognized that Galicia, once Habsburg, now part of Poland and Ukraine, forms--from the Jewish point of view--part of eastern Europe. From the Jewish religious perspective, central European Judaism has been most strongly influenced by German Jewish thought.

It should be recognized that the individual countries of the region are culturally and historically diverse. There are divisions between Roman Catholic and eastern Church cultures. The experience of the Soviet Union was perceived differently in Russia and the other countries. There were different attitudes to the Nazi German upheavals. There are historical enmities among the countries of the region.

The Significance of Eastern Europe to Jewry

Contemporary eastern Europe is an area of considerable importance to Jewry. First, there are significant Jewish communities in the region. The Shoah killed a great proportion of the population. Nevertheless, a significant proportion of Jewry survived in the Soviet Union. Soviet Communism destroyed traditional Jewish life and institutions. It tried to extirpate Judaism. However, the spirit of Jewishness survived. As soon as the grip of Soviet power was relaxed there was an immense exodus of Jews from the region. It seemed for a time as if the Jewish presence in the region would disappear. However, there were an appreciable number of Jews who did not wish to leave their home countries. They wished to stay and are striving to revive Jewish life. They need encouragement and support.

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