Monday, March 22, 2010

Herding Katz

An editorial in the FORWARD newspaper cites Arnold Eisen, chancellor of the Jewish Theological Seminary, on the need for raising levels of observance among Conservative Jews—“too many Conservative Jews can’t read Hebrew, don’t keep the Sabbath and other central Jewish observances, and don’t find synagogue prayer meaningful or attractive.”

I doubt this is a problem unique to Conservative Judaism. Most Jews don’t read Hebrew for the same reason most Jews don’t read French—they don’t need it. The reason most Jews fail to observe Shabbat or keep kosher is that these traditions no longer speak to them. The reason they don’t find synagogue services meaningful or attractive is that 1) the liturgy reflects a medieval worldview that most 8-year olds have outgrown, and 2) because we have become used to theatrical production values that synagogue services cannot match.

What most Jews want—what most postmodern, postindustrial first worlders want—isn’t more tradition but more meaning and authentic encounters with reality. We live in a world of contrived meanings faux reality fed to us by advertisers and reality television. Even real disasters such as the earthquakes in Haiti and Chile are turned into soap operas by the infotainment media. Synagogue is just another faux reality where Jews are asked to believe in a god and worldview that most do not take seriously.

Liberal Judaisms as a whole rarely offer their members anything truly deep, challenging, existentially compelling, or spiritually transformative. But most Jews wouldn’t get involved even if they did.

Why? Because deeply transformative spiritual work is, well, work. And most people aren’t interested. This is true in any religion. The truly devout are always a minority. If liberal Jews wanted to be more observant they would be more observant. No one is stopping them; they just don’t want to.

So let’s focus on making our respective forms of Judaism as powerful as we can. Let’s make our ideas and our institutions as affordable and as available and as welcoming as we can. And then let’s let the people do what they want. That is what they are going to do anyway.

Trying to get Jews to do what they don’t want to do is like trying to herd katz.


Maggid said...

Hey! Thanks - I enjoy visiting with you. AND - you help me more than you can imagine.

eashtov said...

Shalom Rav,

Why the nearly word for word repeat of
"Beyond Denominationalism" from 5 March?


PS you still haven't responded to my question that was the last response to appear in that post.

eashtov said...

Shalom Rav,

Correction: My question was the second to last response to "Beyond Denominationalism,


Peter Schogol said...

I come from a militantly secular Jewish background. This year I joined a Reform synagogue -- the liberal Jewish option in my town. I soon found that my expression of Judaism was more universalistic than that of my fellow congregants (not too much more than the rabbi, though). I wanted to find meaning in God, Israel, and Torah so I could be part of the study and prayer of the community (that part of the community that took study and prayer seriously). Much as I tried I couldn't tuck myself in sufficiently to be conforming member of the congregation.

Might it be that for universalistic, progressive, post-theistic Jews a new paradigm other than God, Israel, and Torah is necessary, or at the very least a radically different way of understanding those words?

Rabbi Rami said...

Just a note on repeating myself... who remembers what I wrote yesterday, let alone a couple of weeks ago? I just respond to what I read or hear. I imagine that after some many hundreds of blog entries I can't help but repeat myself. In fact, after some many hundreds of blog entries I can't help but repeat myself. Wow! Look at that, I did it again.

As for when and why I might need Orthodox Jews... I personally have no idea. Maybe I was thinking that someone ought to be living the tradition and setting a standard against which progressives can react, but by that logic we would need pre-Temple Jews who would live biblically so remind us what later Jews were reacting to. So, for me personally, I guess I might never need Orthodoxy.

Donna Fasano said...

Once again, your thoughts are spot on. I am a Christian, and there are similar problems in our churches and in our religion. Just wanted to let you know you're not alone. (Isn't it wonderful to know that no one is all alone?)

Talia Davis said...

Funny... I wrote about Jews and "herding cats" too...