Sunday, July 27, 2008

Judaism is Dying

Judaism is dying. Not the Jewish people; not Israel; not Jewish Studies programs or Jewish PACs or Jewish philanthropies; but Judaism herself: the idea that God so loved the Jews that He gave us His one true revelation that we might bring justice and compassion to humankind. This Judaism is dying.

The fact that Judaism is dying doesn’t worry me. It has died before. What worries me is that this time it may stay dead.

In the past the death of one Judaism was followed by the birth of another. The death of the shamanic Judaism of Abraham was followed by the birth of the priestly and sacrificial Judaism of Aaron. The death of sacrificial Judaism was heralded by prophetic Judaism and followed by rabbinic Judaism. Now rabbinic Judaism is dying, and there is nothing to come after it.

Rabbinic Judaism is dying because its foundational idea—that God gave Moses two Torahs on Mount Sinai (one Written, one Oral) over which only rabbis have authority—is dying. Indeed for most Jews it is already dead.

We know it is dying because most Jews, perhaps the majority of Jews, do not take halacha (Jewish law) seriously; and most of those who do pick and choose among the mitzvot (divine commandments) and adapt them to their personal lifestyles. A Judaism of personal choice and convenience is not what the rabbis had in mind.

Rabbinic Judaism is a Judaism not of orthodoxy but orthopraxy, not of one mind but one practice. Conformity of behavior rather than conformity of thought was their concern. “Think what you want, and do what we say” was the unofficial rabbinic motto. But today most Jews do what their rabbi says only if the rabbi says what they want to hear. And if she or he doesn’t, they will change rabbis until they find one who does.

The death of rabbinic Judaism has been coming for quite a while, and a number of Judaisms have contended to replace it. All of them have failed.

Zionism failed because, as it turns out, most Jews have no desire to live in a Jewish state or serve in a Jewish army, and because, having sold its soul to the most Orthodox among us, Zionism has nothing but archeology to offer Jews as an alternative to rabbinic Judaism. Stones a plenty; Tablets, not a one.

Humanistic Judaism failed because it denied God rather than reinvented God. A religion focused on the self alone is too narcissistic to be spiritually compelling. Gathering together simply to gather together gets old very fast.

Reform Judaism failed because by making the self sovereign over God (you decide which of God’s laws to obey) it pulled the rug out from under rabbis altogether. Rabbinic authority rests on the fiction of the Dual Revelation. When the Torah is no longer binding rabbis are no longer relevant, which is why Reform rabbis are more like Protestant pastors than Talmudic sages.

Conservative Judaism, which sought to maintain the rabbinic conceit of the Talmudic sage by insisting that Jewish Law matters, failed because most Jews outside of Orthodoxy just don’t find a religion of law run by a cabal of lawyers spiritually compelling.

Reconstructionism was a true reinvention of Judaism outside the rabbinic frame, but the bold genius of its founder (and my teacher) Mordecai Kaplan was abandoned for a neo-conservatism that substituted leftist social mores and inclusive community (two good ideas in my opinion) for the radical Emersonian/Taoist reinvention of God and Judaism that was the soul of Kaplan’s heresy. Modern Reconstuctionism’s liturgical innovation of using lots of names for God doesn’t substitute for the fact that, without Kaplan, they have no compelling theology of God.

Jewish Renewal, another Judaism I value, failed because it requires a deep commitment to learning— Biblical, Talmudic, Kabbalistic and Hasidic— in which most Jews have no real interest. Rising in the shadow of its real promise is a pseudo (rather than the much needed and intended neo) Hasidism in which everyone is a rebbe and no one is a hasid, where new age platitudes pass for deep introspection, and hand-clapping and table pounding substitute for true ecstasy.

So what’s left? Orthodox Judaism of one stripe or another, of course. Orthodoxy, like other fundamentalisms, succeeds because it believes what it says and what it says is without nuance and therefore immune to irony and self-doubt. But Orthodoxy, too, has failed because most Jews just cannot take it seriously, and it is impossible to run an empire when everyone knows the emperor has no clothes.

So you can see why I am not hopeful about the future of Judaism. For all our poetic genius our liturgies are, by and large, lifeless and stultifying. For all our education we still lack a compelling vision of a postmodern and post tribal Judaism. For all our creativity our worship is, by and large, dull, predictable, and uninspiring. For all our Nobel Prize winning scientists we still promote a pre-Newtonian worldview irrelevant in our post-Einsteinian world.

But I haven’t given up all hope. There must be Jewish heretics out there burning with a new Judaism that will enflame our people with a new, creative, and intrinsically compelling understanding of God, Torah, and Israel. No, I’m not one of them. I’m too old, too jaded, and I’ve read too much Krishnamurti.

Why don’t we hear from them? Because they don’t have the means to unleash their memes. Those with new ideas have no funds, and those with funds are afraid of new ideas.

Instead of funding life support for the dying Judaism of the rabbis, we ought to be funding think tanks for heresies, and training camps for heretics. Sure, most of these will fail, but some might catch on, and even those that don’t may, in their dying, give rise to something even more heretical and enlivening, that we might again exclaim, “Judaism is dead. Long live Judaism!”

Will we? I doubt it. And Judaism will spiral ever faster into obsolescence. Jews will live, but we just won’t remember what for.

17 comments:

soldiermom said...

Rami, often you write about topics for which I have no frame of reference. And many times your thoughts are just super way over my head! I, however, love to read what you write anyway; this one left me sad and somewhat empty feeling.

Is the death of something that it appears God brought about a possibility? Will God allow humans to screw it up so completely? Does God even "bring about" or "allow"? I often wonder what your opinion would be on such adages as "God is in control." Is it just opiate for the masses?

Reading your blogs has ripped my understanding of God and how I thought life might work right out from underneath me. Last week during communion I heard, "What kind of God would require a human sacrifice?" AHHH!!! Freaked me out! Your words are haunting me, making me think and have literally scared the hell out of me. Can I let go and free fall? What would my faith look like then?

Would your faith look any different if Judaism stays dead?

Norman I. Gelman said...

This post brilliantly encapsulates a concern that has been troubling me for some time. In conferences, the issue that is raised is how Jews are failing Judaism.
The focus is almost never on how institutional Judaism is failing the Jews. That is the heart of the problem in my opinion.

normangelman@verizon.net

Bobby said...
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Rabbi Rami said...

Dear Soldiermon,

Hope the boys are well. Let me try and respond to your moving email.

First, these are just my opinions, and I could be wrong. So if you are finding yourself drawn to them it is because somewhere inside you are as much a heretic as I am.

Second, God is not in control because there is nothing outside of God to be controlled. All reality is God. God is what is and what is allows for things we love and things we fear. So God "allows" for tragedy the way the weather "allows" for hurricanes; it is just the way reality works.

Third, What kind of God would require a human sacrifice? The same kind of god who would require animal sacrifice. The same kind of god the Hebrew prophets and Jesus preached against. Jesus murder wasn't required by God, but by Rome and those who collaborated with Rome.

BUT, don't give up on Communion. By eating the Body of Christ we become the Body of Christ. It is like putting salt in a glass of water. It only takes a little to make the whole glass salty. Eating a bit of the Body of Christ is a way of filling your entire being with Christ consciousness and the creative, fearless love it manifests in those who understand it.

Fourth, If my words have the scared the hell OUT of you, I am happy. Now you can love without fear. If my words are making your life a living hell, stop reading my blog. I could be wrong. If someone has to go to hell for my ideas it should be me.

Fifth, Divine free fall is pure grace. Trust it.

Rabbi Rami said...

Dear Norm,

I agree. Jews aren't failing Judaism, Judaism is failing us Jews.

soldiermom said...

Rami,

I haven’t heard from my son in a few days. Yesterday, there was action in Khost. No Americans were killed, so I am sure he has survived the attack, at least physically. I am trying to stay in the moment and not let my fears get a hold of me.

You do make me laugh. And yes you figured me out already. I love to find the heretical that pokes at the holes in my faith system that I know are there but I can't yet put my finger on. It is not about right or wrong. For me it is about all the world's ideas that have I missed having locked myself in a Christian cocoon. Some I will buy, some I will pass and some with God’s grace I will understand someday. I hope to remain open to it all. I am growing my spacious mind. ;0)

OK...so Jesus preached against God? I thought he preached against the Jewish system of his day. AND God did not need Jesus to die in order to do the sin removal propitiation thing we hear so much about? See...that is the kind of stuff that will keep me wondering!

And God is not in control because he is reality and that is just the way it rolls? That is scary. Why do I think it is better to have a God that brings destruction than one that just is?

If Jesus' death was just a political game, why even do communion? Wouldn't it all be a farce? Are you thinking of using communion as a metta practice? That would be interesting. I must admit it never really thrilled me the way it does some.

SO!!! Are you avoiding my question about what your faith would look like if Judaism stays dead? Or am I being too curious? Some would say nosy. Can't help it, but you can ignore me.

Aron said...

Good stuff Rami as well as the subsequent responses. I guess I find myself increasingly not really very concerned with Judaisms. I wanted to honor and connect to my ancestors and want to read the Torah and continue with Jewish learning that leads me in many directions related to Judaism, but do I practice Judaism. I have no idea.

Can we move past movements and yet maintain community?

Peter M. Schogol said...

One dimension of this tragedy (the disappearance of Judaism as spiritual growth medium) is the deep nostalgia and pain of separation felt by many of us post-tribal, post-theistic, non-halakhic souls who are Jews by our mothers' milk. There is simply nowhere for us to go, no one for us to share this pain with, and no way forward except to cut and run.

And let me tell you, cutting and running can make your spirit terminally ill.

Marty Nemko said...

Rami, you're a smart guy but I think you're trying to squeeze blood from a stone when you're trying to get an intelligent people to buy the absurd notion of a diety(ies.)

We must accept that for Judaism to survive (e.g., reduce the rates of intermarriage, raising children of Jews as non-Jews, and Jews who don't self-identify as Jews), we must accept that Judaism is and can only be a cultural affinity group rather than a religion.

Jews like Jews but cannot reasonably be bound by atavistic ritual or belief in some cosmic externality.

The concept of the Jewish Community Center (e.g., the one in San Francisco) is a model that should be more widely exported.

Marty Nemko said...

I do want to say that I definitely appreciate your intelligent writing, Rami.

notagain001 said...

"

But I haven’t given up all hope. There must be Jewish heretics out there burning with a new Judaism that will enflame our people with a new, creative, and intrinsically compelling understanding of God, Torah, and Israel. No, I’m not one of them. I’m too old, too jaded, and I’ve read too much Krishnamurti.

Why don’t we hear from them? Because they don’t have the means to unleash their memes. Those with new ideas have no funds, and those with funds are afraid of new ideas.

Instead of funding life support for the dying Judaism of the rabbis, we ought to be funding think tanks for heresies, and training camps for heretics. Sure, most of these will fail, but some might catch on, and even those that don’t may, in their dying, give rise to something even more heretical and enlivening, that we might again exclaim, “Judaism is dead. Long live Judaism!”

Will we? I doubt it. And Judaism will spiral ever faster into obsolescence. Jews will live, but we just won’t remember what for. "


^^^

What about the heresy of Messianic Judaism - that Jesus can save Judaism.

James Jordan said...

I think this deserves an update. Do you think the Koren Sacks Siddur has changed anything? What about Karaism? Sometimes the revival of an old heresy is better than creating a new one. That's why Pelagianism and Arianism re-emerge in Christianity constantly.

James Jordan said...

"What about the heresy of Messianic Judaism - that Jesus can save Judaism."

Judaism would have to save Jesus from Paul first. Messianic Judaism is a no go because they insist on accepting Paul.

notagain001 said...

@James

well given that there are Messy Jews who accept Paul, I don't see how it follows.

I think there will be 3 broad groups of Jews - orthdox, cultural, and messianic

ADIEST said...
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ADIEST said...

This is the silliest idea I have ever heard. Once upon a time the ancient greeks had gods they are now perfectly content to call myths. The descendants of the Aztecs are equally pleased to have done away with former beliefs involving ritual sacrifice. There should be absolutely no reticence or horror associated with the final death of Judaism. It's just another ancient mindset that no longer serves a purpose. It's not like you invented Judaism ...your relationship with it is by way of an accident of birth. What if you were adopted by Muslims as a child?..then you would be here foolishly pounding your fist on the table over an entirely different fable. Lastly, Judaism won't die..it will be preserved in books like other myths..only humanity's viewpoint of it will change. So, please stop your nonsensical whining.

ADIEST said...

oh, and I guess it would mean you will be out of a job...surely there are more productive things to devote yourself to.