“Rabbi, can Judaism change in time?” My questioner was a sincere sixty-something man who belonged to and rarely attended his local synagogue. Before answering his question I asked him to define his terms: “Judaism,” “change,” and “in time.”
By “Judaism” he meant synagogue centered communal practice: the saying of prayers in a formal liturgical setting, and the weekly study of Torah in community. By “change” he meant an increase in attendance at these two events. And by “in time” he meant before the vast majority of Jews write-off Judaism as essentially beside the point of their lives.
Having refined his question I offered my answer: Can Judaism change in time? Yes, it could, but no, it won’t.
Change comes when people demand it, but when they make it. Liberal German Jews didn’t demand that rabbis change, they invented Reform Judaism, built new synagogues, and ordained their own clergy. Zionists didn’t demand that the Messiah come, they moved to Palestine. But today there is no great clamor for change because those who want change have by and large opted out of any serious involvement with Judaism, leaving the system to those who are quite happy with the status quo.
By change I don’t mean the cosmetic changes offered by the Alban Institute or Synagogue 3000. I mean deep transformative change: a new view of God and creation that takes us from the 12th century to the 21st; a worship service of no more than 90 minutes that is not afraid of deep and prolonged silence and chant-induced ecstasy; the study of Torah rooted more in Joseph Campbell than Rashi; a communal structure based on mutual support, dialogue, and personal growth and maturation. I could go on, but there is no point.
Why? Because people like me who want such changes to happen don’t want to make them happen. We have abandoned institutional Judaism to those who love the status quo. Lovers of the status quo don’t want to change because they see no need to change. And more power to them! They are the ones who attend each week. They are the ones who sit through long hours of prayer and Torah reading. They put in the long hours and should allowed to davven (pray) in peace.
Demanding that rabbis and synagogues engage in deep systemic change is like demanding that the Amish use zippers and drive cars. Why should they? Buttons and buggies do just fine. If we want a different kind of Judaism we will have to make it ourselves.
What would that new Judaism look like? There is no model, and probably never will be one. But a Judaism that would speak to me it would be a small coffeehouse setting where we would come together to drink, eat, question, argue, and doubt; where we would read and wrestle with Job, Ecclesiastes, Spinoza, Kafka, Jabes, Agnon, Buber, Freud, Fromm, Kaplan, Falk, Bloom (Harold not Judy, though maybe Judy also) and other radical sages of our people both ancient and modern; where dialogue would replace sermons, where silence and chant would replace liturgy, where mutual support would replace mitzvah day, where music, art, literature, science as well as religion would inform and engage us, where we would come with our questions and confusions and doubts and expect no answers but remain open to gleaning fresh insights through contemplative conversation and self inquiry.
What would make this Jewish? Jews! The last time an outside authority established an official Judaism was when God established the priesthood under Moses’ brother Aaron. All other Judaisms— rabbinic, Zionist, secular, humanist, Renewal, Reconstructionist, etc.— just invented themselves.
Will this happen in time? No. In the past Anti-Semitism forced those Jews who wanted something new to remain within the community causing foment and innovation. Today the radicals among us are no longer among us; they have moved on and opted out. Those who are left behind are either happy with what they have or too jaded to do anything to change it.
Yes, I am generalizing, and, yes, there are still visionaries among us, but they are struggling for dollars and the powers that be have not and will never fund them properly. And worse, those who benefit from the work of these creators have this hate¬–hate thing with money that allows them to take, take, take, without paying to see to the welfare of the creators. Of course the creators themselves seem averse to asking for real money and that doesn’t help matter either.
I often hear people complain that today’s Judaism is like the Titanic, but they are wrong. Judaism isn’t the Titanic. It isn’t sinking. There is no iceberg threatening Jewish life, rabbinic hegemony, and synagogue politics. And there is still a minyan (quorum) who enjoy the cruise. Jews who are abandoning ship do so out of boredom not danger.
If you don’t like the Judaism you’ve got, create the Judaism you want. And please stop harassing the passengers and crew who still enjoy the cruise.