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Liberal Judaism’s Deep Belgian Roots

On a recent rainy and cold Sunday, I joined a group of IJCers for a guided tour of the Dieweg Cemetery. This 19th-century cemetery, located in my Brussels neighborhood of Uccle, contains a Jewish section. It has not been in use since the 1950s and is derelict with overgrown vegetation. Only a few wealthy families still maintain the graves. (see full story in separate article).

Toward the end of the visit, we stopped at the tomb of Rabbi Elie-Aristide Astruc. Our local guide mentioned that Rabbi Astruc was a liberal rabbi.

This discovery intrigued me. Liberal Judaism was born in 19th-century Germany, a response to the Enlightenment and to 19th-century Emancipation. Progressive Jews believe in adapting Jewish teachings to the modern world. But after World War II, only small Progressive communities survived in Europe. In the United States, Reform Jews remained in the majority. In the U.K., Reform and Liberal Judaism remained well-established. On the continent, most Jews felt they could not afford to split and Orthodox Judaism became the religious standard. The Orthodox took over Progressive, Reform, and Liberal synagogues.

Were there already 19th-century Liberal Jews in Belgium? After research, I found out that Astruc was the third chief rabbi of Belgium (1866-1879) within the consistorial system created by Napoleon I. This institution represents the Belgian Jewish community toward the State. Rabbi Astruc came from France and his ideas were in tune with the times. He preached for the modernization and emancipation of the Jews in Europe. He was known also as a writer and a member of the Kol Israël Haverim or the Alliance Israélite Universelle, founded in 1860 in Paris, which was the first transnational organization to help oppressed Jews.

Belgian Jews who wanted to participate fully in the prosperity of their country were open to receiving the message of Rabbi Astruc. The Regency Synagogue or Great Synagogue in Brussels which he inaugurated on September 20, 1878, is the manifestation of this spirit. It was even criticized for looking more like a church than a traditional synagogue. Architecturally, it could be a modern-day Liberal synagogue. A mixed-gender choir accompanied services. However, as anyone can notice when visiting the Great Synagogue today, it has shifted towards Orthodox practices.

The Dieweg cemetery is the resting place of Jews of 17 nationalities. My visit left me with the strong feeling that the IJC is building on a Belgian tradition of welcoming Jews and that our brand of Judaism enjoys deep roots in Belgium. The Holocaust may have caused a rupture - but we are building back a modern, welcoming, open - and quite Belgian - Judaism.

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