Spiritual Possibilities of Judaism Today

Spiritual Possibilities of Judaism Today by Lily Montagu, 1898 • Liberal Judaism Archives

This essay, on the Spiritual Possibilities of Judaism Today, was written by Lily Montagu in 1898. It comes from the Liberal Judaism Archives, which holds the communal records of the national movement which began as the Jewish Religious Union in 1902, was later renamed the Union of Liberal and Progressive Synagogues, and is now known as Liberal Judaism.

Lilian Helen Montagu

The Hon. Lilian Helen “Lily” Montagu, CBE (22 December 1873 – 22 January 1963) was the first woman to play a major role in Progressive Judaism. She grew up in a pious Orthodox Jewish home, in an ethos of privilege and philanthropy, devoted to helping the poor and advancing Jewish institutions. Her eldest brother, Louis, a financier and political activist, founding the League of British Jews to lobby against the creation of the state of Israel.

Influenced by Claude Montefiore, a reform-oriented philanthropist and scholar, in 1893 she founded the West Central Jewish Girls Club (which subsequently merged into the Jewish Girls’ Brigade). She was active in social improvement, particularly in respect to unemployment, sweat shops and bad housing.

In this essay, she asks all religiously committed Jews to help her form an association aimed at strengthening the religious life of the Anglo-Jewish community through the propagation of Liberal Jewish teachings. Membership would not necessarily demonstrate allegiance to Liberal Judaism but simply the recognition of its ability to awaken within many Jews a sense of spirituality and personal responsibility to God. The Jewish Religious Union (J.R.U.), established by Lily Montagu in February, 1902, instituted Sabbath afternoon worship services conducted along Liberal Jewish lines, and “propaganda meetings,” led by Montagu, to clarify and spread its teachings. Though Montefiore agreed to serve as the group’s official leader, thus strengthening its credibility, it was Lily Montagu who assumed responsibility for its major activities and daily affairs.

In 1901 and 1902, Montagu lay the groundwork for the establishment of the Jewish Religious Union in London. In February 1902 she arranged the first meeting of the Jewish Religious Union for the Advancement of Liberal Judaism at her sister Henrietta Franklin’s house. The Union set up the first synagogue in Liberal Judaism in the UK and helped found the World Union for Progressive Judaism.

Montagu was a founding member with her sister of the Jewish League for Woman Suffrage. She sat on the executive committee and led the meetings in prayer.

Following the retirement of Leo Baeck, Montagu served for a brief stint (1955–1959) in her 80s as president of the World Union for Progressive Judaism. You can read more about her life in the Jewish Women’s Encyclopaedia.


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