The “New Jews” article is making its way across cyberspace. Check out http://www.cnn.com/2009/LIVING/10/28/new.and.emergent.jews/ for this story, about the new, innovative, radical ways that Jewish Gen X’ers and Millenials are connecting to Judaism – through tattoos, hip-hop, meaningful Jewish learning, and technology. I have one word in response….DUH.
First, let me say that I think there’s something to this. Jewish identity in the past century was based heavily on the Eastern European ethnicity, on the Holocaust, on defense of Israel. Today, the world has changed, and young Jews are looking for newer, better, and more positive points of connection than bagels, lox, and guilt. As a Gen X/Y’er (by birthdate, I don’t belong squarely to either one), I definitely think that we relate differently to Judaism.
But I don’t think that the concept is actually all that new. In fact, part of Judaism’s strength is that it has always been able to adapt to changing needs. Judaism is innovative by its very nature. Here are a few examples:
- 2000 years ago, when the Temple in Jerusalem became inaccessible (physically and/or spiritually) to Jews around the Roman empire, they created a radical new institution – a place where they could gather to pray, study, and meet others…without animal sacrifice. It came to be known as Beit Knesset or synagogue. (When the Temple was destroyed, synagogues went mainstream out of necessity.)
- 517 years ago, when Jews were kicked out of Spain, they responded – out of grief, shock, and spiritual need – with a drastically new, outside-the-box kind of mysticism. Kabbalah was turning heads in the Jewish world centuries before Madonna ever put a red string around her wrist.
- 150 years ago, in the wake of the Enlightenment and the Emancipation, a group of rabbis in Germany (and later America) began to push a radical new agenda – claiming, among other things, that keeping kosher was optional, that people wrote the Torah, and that it was OK to dress like everyone else. Today, few of us would consider Reform Judaism (or its offspring, Conservative and Reconstructionist Judaism) revolutionary, except in the sense that liberal Judaism is still constantly evolving.
Judaism is meant to be new in every generation. It is meant to be innovative, radical, edgy, and new. As it says in the Mishnah: “Hafoch bah v’hafoch bah d’chula bah – Turn the Torah around and around, for everything is in it.” This stuff is built in to who we are. In fact, one of our oldest legends says that on top of Mt. Sinai, God whispered to Moses all of the texts, discussions, and ideas that would ever be generated around the Torah. That means that the opening line of the CNN article, “When Moses came down from Mount Sinai about 3,300 years ago, he couldn’t have seen these Jews coming,” is dead wrong. Moses saw this coming. Judaism saw this coming. This is what it’s all about.
So by all means, let’s pursue new, exciting, different ways to connect to Judaism. I’ll be the first one to push Shabbat dawn hiking. I like Jewish punk music. I once put on my t’fillin in the Himalayas and chanted Elohai Neshama (“O God, the soul you have given me is pure”) in the style of an Eastern chant while breathing deeply and looking at the sun. And I liked it! But let’s just do this in the context of tradition. Let’s remember that Judaism calls for innovation, and what we’re doing today is part of an ancient chain of tradition that has kept our way of life fresh and exciting for millenia.
Did I miss the point?
What’s fresh about your Judaism?
Last week, Rabbi Niles Goldstein – author of Gonzo Judaism and The Challenge of the Soul – spoke here at Shabbat services. He spoke about the importance of “being grounded,” using Picasso and Miles Davis as examples. As he writes in The Challenge of the Soul (p. 60):
Pablo Picasso learned how to draw conventional human figures long before his bold experiment with Cubism. Miles Davis trained in classical music prior to his daring journey into the new and revolutionary forms of jazz.
Goldstein has a point – you can’t push the envelope until you are familiar with the basics. But his talk actually raised a different question in my mind. What makes Picasso and Davis important isn’t that they were grounded – it’s that they were willing to innovate. They brought about new, exciting eras in art and music by shaking up what everyone thought they knew. So what is the equivalent of Cubism and Cool Jazz for Judaism? What will the next Judaism look like? Here are some preliminary thoughts.
Judaism in the next century will need to be…
- Post-denominational – In 2009, the founder of Reconstructionism is one of the most widely-read authors at the Reform and Conservative seminaries; the Reform movement is gradually embracing traditional Jewish texts, prayers, and ideas; and Conservative synagogues are having “Rock Shabbat” services with all of the joy, innovation, and instrumentation of Reform camping! The lines between the Jewish “denominations” are slowly melting away. Young Jews today do not see movements. They simply want Judaism that is meaningful, progressive, and relevant.
- Connected to the Earth – Society has pushed us further and further from the earth. Judaism in the coming century will need to respond to our deep craving for connectedness to our planet. We do this by connecting the practice of kashrut to awareness of our food’s source; by viewing God as מחדש בכל יום תמיד מעשה בראשית – the One who renews the cycles of nature each day. Judaism was born of the agricultural cycle, and it contains an ancient imperative to care for the earth. That is more important today than ever.
- Based in the home AND the synagogue – I have been saying for years that the most important place for a Jewish family to be on a Friday night is around the dinner table. Judaism in the sanctuary can be moving and meaningful; Judaism around the dinner table is alive and dynamic. We Jews have always passed on our traditions in the home, and viewed the synagogue as a place to create community. In the coming Judaism, the synagogue will also be the place to learn how to do what we do at home.
- Theologically diverse – Some of us believe in a God who hears prayers and responds; others believe that God is unmoved and unmoving. Some are sure that the dead live on in spirit; others think that they live on only in our memories. We may connect to tradition through social action, ritual, music, language, or culture. We may pray in Hebrew, English, Spanish, sign language, or silently. We are held together by a commitment to ongoing learning and exploration, and acceptance of others’ beliefs and preferences.
- Sensory – Our tradition very wisely uses the five senses to connect us with moments, rituals, and holidays. Think of havdallah: the ceremony that ends Shabbat is basically a sensory buffet – the taste of wine, the sight and warmth of fire, the sounds of singing, the smell of spices. We are drawn in when our senses are stimulated.
- Demanding – Ours is not a priestly way of life, in which sacraments are performed for us by clergy. Ours is an active religious tradition that requires ongoing study, growth, and thought. Jews today want to get their hands dirty and take control of their Judaism – learn Torah, hang your own mezuzzah, make your own tallit. (Why let the rabbi lead services when you can learn how to do it yourself?!) Judaism that demands something of us will deliver meaningful, relevant religious experience.
I could go on all day. What am I forgetting?