Monday, January 05, 2009

Where Would Darwin Davven?

Where Would Darwin Daven? This is the headline of an essay by Joshua Avedon in the Jewish Forward newspaper. I found the title intriguing; unfortunately it had nothing to do with the essay.

Avedon’s essay focused on a revival of the 1970’s Chavurah (Fellowship) movement, the Jewish equivalent to the house church movement among Christians. The demographics of both Jewish and Christian groups are similar: 20 and 30 somethings who find institutionalized religion boring and irrelevant. Avedon speaks of formal synagogues as suffering from “the kind of complacency and inbreeding typical of geographically isolated species,” and likens them to the blue-footed booby, a species of bird found on the Galapagos Islands; hence the headline’s reference to Darwin. His concern is with the survivability of the modern synagogue, and the future of Judaism, but he never tells us where Darwin would daven.

Of course Darwin wouldn’t daven anywhere, since davvenen (prayer) is a Jewish form of worship and Darwin was a Christian. But let’s not be so narrow. The real question is: Where can a scientifically sophisticated thinking Jew go to experience a liturgy that does not insult her intelligence?

With the exception of Humanistic Judaism, the liturgies of all other Jewish movements are variations on or direct extensions of ancient and medieval Jewish texts written by men whose understanding of the universe probably lags behind that of a modern well-educated eight year old. And even Humanistic Judaism, both the established movement and its refreshing reinvention by Rabbi Robert Barr and Congregation Beth Adam in Cincinnati, OH (see focuses more on poetically couched psychological themes than hard science.

So where would Darwin daven? Probably nowhere. He, like me, would probably prefer a walk in the woods to responsive reading in an air-conditioned brick box. He, like me, would probably prefer the authentic sounds and sights of nature to secondhand references to them in books. He, like me, would probably prefer the mad ecstasy of nature to the orderly “joy” of choreographed religious services. He, like me, would probably prefer to sit under a tree by a babbling brook, and read short passages from Emerson, Thoreau, Whitman, or Dickenson than plod through blank verse composed by a committee.

I don’t believe synagogues are the soon to be extinct boobies of Jewish life. What would life be without boobies? But I doubt that either conventional synagogues or the new chavurot will attract the Darwins among the Jews.

While synagogues experiment with form,trying to be more hip and entertaining, I wish we would also experiment with philosophy. I wish we would invent new understandings of God, Torah, and Israel rather than merely repeat or tweak the old ones. Where are the Bubers, Rosenzweigs, Heschels, Fromms, and Frankls of the 21st century? Why is it that all the great Jews who understood Darwin and the challenge of Darwinism had and have nothing to do with formal Judaism? It says something sad about us that we do not speak to these Yidden (Jews). It says something sad about us that we do not offer them a place in which to reinvent Judaism in tune with what is true rather than merely traditional.

I don’t care where Darwin would daven, but I would love to find the shul (synagogue) where Einstein would.

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