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.