Friday, November 29, 2013

Freedom From Form/Freedom Within Form

After facilitating a discussion on reforming Judaism with an audience of Reform Jews I felt I had a better handle on the real challenge facing contemporary Reform Judaism.

My focus was on taking the old forms of Judaism—kashrut, Shabbat, God, prayer, Torah—and reforming them: ethical consumption, play, self-realization, contemplative practice, and critical/imaginal thinking. What I found was people in no need of such reforming because they had lost interest in form altogether.

They didn’t need to remake kosher because they had no intention of ever restricting their consuming in any way other than person preference. There was no need to rethink Shabbat because they had stopped thinking about Shabbat long ago. God wasn’t taken at all seriously, and prayer was a matter of social convention and communal gathering in which the liturgy itself was irrelevant. While some in the class enjoyed Torah study they had no need to find new meanings in the text because they didn’t engage Torah as a source of meaning, but as a lesson in history. 

Simply put, my passion for reforming Judaism wasn’t shared by the people with whom I hoped to reform it. While I yearn for a Judaism where old forms yield to new meanings, my students wanted a Judaism without form, or at least without any form that demanded anything from them. Their rejection of form wasn’t driven by a passion for freedom, but by a desire to be left alone. The goal isn’t to be free from constraints—they have no constraints—but to avoid any hint of constraint. But again this isn’t a drive toward freedom or anarchy, both of which I can respect; it is simply apathy. And against that we may be powerless.


Unknown said...

I am reminded by this quote from a recent Spiritual teacher: "Beware of the one who criticizes religion but does not practice"

Erick Reynolds said...

I may be missing something in your statement, but aren't you confusing "constraints" with "rituals and customs"?

Erick Reynolds said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Rabbi Rami said...

To Erick's point: yes what I am hearing is that tradition equals constraints, and no one wants that. I grew up with kashrut and continue to shape my eating according to its principles. I never thought of this as a constraint. On the contrary, it was a way to enhance my consumption.

Erick Reynolds said...

Well now you made me look up kashrut in Wikipedia:
"While the Torah does not state the rationale for most kashrut laws, many reasons have been suggested, including philosophical, practical and hygienic...... Presently, about a sixth of American Jews fully keep kosher, and many more abstain from some non-kosher foods, especially pork. Kashrut is also kept by some non-Jews, often for health reasons."
You would know the accuracy of this better than me, but it seems modern people of all religions are rebelling against "traditions" without rationale. People are willing to observe contraints with purpose.
It is like the old joke about the traditional Christmas ham recipe that required cutting both ends off.

Eric said...

Rabbi, my wife and I have attended the Pardes Institute for a year, lived in Israel for 5 years, and are now back in the US. We were repeatedly alienated by some Israeli manifestations of Judaism and retreated from any spiritual life in Israel. Now that we're back in the US, we're engaging with the local Jewish community(mostly thanks to our two little ones ages 2 and 4, who are in a Dayschool/preK). Lots of apathy and disinterest abounds, with parents worrying more about pulling their kids out for a high-achieving kindergarten than about anything 'Jewish'. There are some people actively involved, but are a tiny cluster. Frankly, I've had more satisfaction going to the local Buddhist temple then any engagement with the Jewish community. It's a real shame.