Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Can Judaism Change In Time?

“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.


naturerabbi said...

I certainly agree with most of what you wrote, but as I rabbi I long for the kind of changes you mention, and have a growing percentage of congregants who agree too, as well as an equal number of those "passengers on the cruise of traditional Judaism." When my former group complains, I say, "the power is yours to claim -- you can have the Judaism you want." And still I wait.....time and life seem to get in the way, but I have not given up hope of the changes you mention. Change coffeehouse to beach, and everything else works for me. B'shalom.

Rabbi Rami said...

If the power is theirs to claim, and they don't claim it, what do you think that means? Are still waiting for you to do if for them? Do they just not care enough to do anything other than complain? What do you think?

briankb said...

Thanks for this penetrating view. It hits home in the "old" guard of Christianity also of course. I don't know though. I am one of those "creators" (at least I would like to think so) within the establishment and still see a treasure chest of practices, wisdom, and beauty to offer the world, but, well, as you said...

Maggid said...

You said it all better - but, I want to give an answer (mostly so you know we are paying attention.)

NOPE - Judaism Can't and Won't -
Jews Can & Will (ARE). . . what shall we call it???


AaronHerschel said...

"Do they just not care enough to do anything other than complain? "

Hang on a minute. Why complain about our complaining? When all else fails, when synagogues are empty and Torah's unread, when cheeseburgers are on every lip and Hebrew is just another cleverly named beer, when Shabbat dinner is Chinese take-out, you can at least always count on Jews to kvetch. It's our strongest tie to our collective history and tribal identity.

In fact, so fundamental and universal a practice is kvetching to Jews, both religious and secular, maybe we ought to base the new Jewish revival on it. Our 'one-foot' message? Oy Vey! The rest is commentary.

Patti said...

Aaron, you slay me. Anyway, non-jews complain all the time too, only we don't have fun sounding words for it...usually words that feel naughty even typing.

Anonymous said...

AaronHerschel: Is that a "one foot" message or a "one foot" massage? Now that would be a new model of Judaism to get behind! [cough] Sorry, bad pun but I had to say it. It was the Holy Rascal!

I'm kvetching, I'm kvetching!

naturerabbi said...

and are we not more practiced at complaining than changing. Apathy and life often get in the way of even the best intentioned and it is far easier to fall back and complain, over a cheeseburger....

eashtov said...

Shalom Rav,

Once again you give no hope. Of course you owe us none. Dr. Laura once wrote about hope being disappointment delayed; in my book cynical. It's sad to see that at age 57 you've given up and taken yourself out of the "doing" side of creating a 21rst century Judaism. Re money for one's efforts: to paraphrase Seth Godin, only a "purple cow" has a chance of becoming a cash cow.

What gives/brings you joy Rabbi Rami? What does Psalm 118:24 mean to you (other than the probable origin of "Hava Nagila")?


eashtov said...

Shalom Nature Rabbi,

You wrote: "and are we not more practiced at complaining than changing."

That may be our history but it most certainly need not be a life sentence except for the lazy. You continued:

"Apathy and life often get in the way of even the best intentioned"

Life deals us a hand that we must play; apathy is a choice. You continued:

"and it is far easier to fall back and complain, over a cheeseburger...."

As I said before, "for the lazy."


Mano said...

am a devout non Torah Jew. What do I mean by that? Let me explain (listen carefully children.) I believe in G?d. I believe in the G?d of Adon Olam. I believe in a G?d who reveals Himself to Herself endlessly, and Herself to Himself, and Itself to Itself endlessly, over and over again without beginning or end. I believe in G-d the letter writer and letter deliverer, who makes a cameo at the end of Whalt Whitman's leaves of grass.

I neither believe or disbelieve in revelation at Sinai. Revelation at Sinai is three words. It is a thought. It is an idea. And all words, all thoughts, all ideas require a knower, a Knower, to be known. That which is the Knower precedes anything known. It is the screen upon which the known appears and dissapears, rises and falls. It seems to me to be far more urgent to investigate that which knows of Sinai than that which is known (Sinai). Without "me" , withjout that which is aware of ideas, there is no Sinai. The idea of Sinia stands or falls with me. To explore Sinai without exploring the explorer seems to me to be madness, stuntedness, a waste of "time". Judaism, like any ism, is a story, and stories have huge power, especialy when they have been told and retold, but to turn and face the loneliness that existed before the tale and after the tale....is that not a deeper, better place to rest? It seems to me that Hillel might have been referring to this when he says - in Meshechet Sukkot - "If I am here then everything is here."

(to be continued, when time and tide and G?d permit)

Anonymous said...

To be serious about this topic, I have an evolutionary sort of perspective on religion. If a tradition provides meaning and day to day context to people, it will survive. If not, it won't.

Now does that mean I will do what I can for Judaism to survive, yes. But if just becomes a museum piece for us to collectively admire, I'm not really interested in supporting that.

So if we keep weaving stories, reinterpreting Torah, I'm fine with as many perspectives as we can: reform, conservative, reconstructionist, earth-based, chavurah, etc. but to recognize our common relationships with the past and present.

Just surviving though, isn't enough if we lose the values we see important about the Jewish tradition, even if we might disagree on a few of them.

Grégoire said...

Dear Jordan,

Maybe Rabbi Rami is following the tradition of Marcuse, Adorno, et. al., who wrote scathing essays that ended up motivating individuals to change themselves and their ways of thinking, and empowered them to make positive collective changes in their societies.

Criticism for its own sake often looks pointless. When done well, it serves to illuminate specific problems and points the way for common people to move in a more productive direction.

"...critical knowledge was conceptualized as knowledge that enabled human beings to emancipate themselves from forms of domination through self-reflection and took psychoanalysis as the paradigm of critical knowledge."

(stolen from wikipedia article on jurgen habermas, because i'm not articulate enough to explain it this succinctly.)

From my perspective, your work and the rabbi's seem quite similar and I think you might be motivated by similar ideals, though you're obviously choosing two different tracks to run in the hopes of reaching the same conclusion.



eashtov said...

Shalom Gregoire,

You wrote:

"Maybe Rabbi Rami is following the tradition of Marcuse, Adorno, et. al., who wrote scathing essays that ended up motivating individuals to change themselves and their ways of thinking, and empowered them to make positive collective changes in their societies."

I won't speculate on Rabbi Rami's intent other than
that found in the intro to this blog. You continued:

"Criticism for its own sake often looks pointless. When done well, it serves to illuminate specific problems and points the way for common people to move in a more productive direction."

I'm reminded about what Violinist Jascha Heifetz (1901-1987) once said about critics: "Critics are words without the music." Talk is relatively easy; doing is far more difficult. Doing well demonstrates the singular integrity that's inherent when the walk matches the talk. You continued:

"From my perspective, your work and the rabbi's seem quite similar and I think you might be motivated by similar ideals, though you're obviously choosing two different tracks to run in the hopes of reaching the same conclusion."

I'm about the dialogs and the doing that arise at the intersection of Judaism and life. To that end I lead "Third Place," an ongoing conversation where we explore our human needs for connection and meaning in a Jewish context. We're a small group of folks looking to rediscover relevant, challenging and application oriented value in Judaism in the light of our lives as we live and experience them in the 21rst century. I'm not trying to reach a conclusion; I am working to begin anew within the context of the timeless wisdom of Torah (in the more inclusive global sense of the word). Once again I won't presume to know Rabbi Rami's intent
beyond that expressed in the intro to this blog.

Thanks for you comments Gregoire and make it a great week!!


Anonymous said...

Jordan: Is 'Third Place' a website, a local organization, what?

Rabbi Rami said...

I am so grateful to you all for the insightful comments. I always learn something, and even re-think (assuming of course I thought the first time) some of my ideas.

Jordan's question as to what give me joy deserves an answer. I can think of lots of things, but the top five are: my son, my experience of God, my study of Torah, my writing, and my teaching.

eashtov said...

Shalom All,

"Third Place" for now, has no web presence.
As we grow from the 25 folks we now are, it most certainly will be strategically wise to create an internet presence.

@ Rabbi Rami,
Thanks for your response to my question about joy in your life. As Gregoire suggested we're not so different (not that anyone ever said that we were).

This Friday I'll be entering my seventh decade. My "joy bringers" are being a husband, dad, zadie, brother, son, uncle, cousin and friend. I take these roles very seriously and work with intent to do them better. I'm a musician (acoustic piano and other electronic/digital keyboards), and piano technician (how I put food on my table and a roof over my head), and of course "Third Place."

Our common denominator is relationships,
"bein adam laMaqom, uvein adam lahavero,"
human to God, and human to human. How lucky and grateful I am!!

Make it a good day,

AaronHerschel said...

A happy seventieth in advance, Jordan. Mazel Tov!

eashtov said...

Shalom Aaron Herschel,

Thanks for the good wishes and "entering my seventh decade" as I put it will be coincident with completing my 60th year, the 60th anniversary of my birth. In other words I'll be 60. God willing 70

As my teacher Max Janowski used to say, "the birthdays are only a problem if the years pile up unproductively." That teaching and Psalms 118:24 & 90:12 are personal watchwords re dealing wisely with time.

Thanks again Aaron Herschel!


AaronHerschel said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
AaronHerschel said...

Ah, of course. "Entering my seventh decade," not leaving it. Well, happy sixtieth, and happy seventieth well in advance.

Grégoire said...

Jordan wrote:
"This Friday I'll be entering my seventh decade"

Whoa! My compliments for seventy years of an examined and thoughtful life, friend.

Funny: I'm not even out of my third decade yet, and I coulda sworn you were around my age. I guess it's the fact that you're willing to try new things and display an open mind.

Youthful spirit: enjoy your day!

Grégoire said...

doh! sixty years, rather.

eashtov said...

Shalom Gregoire,

Thanks for your kind words an compliments as well your birthday wishes. Please see my response to Aaron Herschel for a clarification of "entering my seventh decade." eg., If you're in your 20's you're in your third decade.

Re open minds: C. Otto Scharmer has written, "The mind works like a parachute; it only functions when open."

Be well Gregoire and thanks again.