Friday, October 11, 2013

Redefining the Roots

The third portion of the Torah, Lech Lecha, translate to, "You go." It features God commanding Abraham to uproot himself from Haran in Mesopotamia, serving as the patriach of a chosen people. After creation, the garden of Eden, and Noah's Ark, the Torah shares the story of Abraham, a man of bravery and devotion. He stands as the lone pioneer and universal ancestor of the Jewish people. Does Lech Lecha still indicate Judaism's roots, as it has from Moses to Maimonides to Billy Crystal, in the new face of American Jewry? The PEW research center studied American Jews for an extended period of time, and their recent report spurred much discussion throughout the Jewish world. In the study, 22% of Jews claimed to be "Jews of no religion".  32% validated Judaism without the belief in God.  The religious right condemns the study as a indication of crisis while progressives view it as an exposition of the new Judaism, which may or may not require a religious element in its future. Either way, the several statistics represent our "Lech Lecha", our "You go." Just as Abraham was called upon by God to define the Jewish people, these PEW statistics demand that American Jews brings about a reformation and new energy to the religion-culture.

On Monday, HuffPost Live interviewed a diversity of Jewish contemporaries in order to explain the implications of the PEW study. Mike Sacks asked the interviewees to elaborate on why these statistics of growing secularism changed from thirty, twenty, or even only ten years ago. Personal friend and progressive head of Hashomer Hatzair, Idan Sasson, claimed that greater acceptance in American society, increasing modernism, and decreasing exclusivity hold responsibility for these results.  In the early to mid-20th century, Americans viewed Jews as the "other".  A clearer distinction between Jews and gentiles existed in those days. One was American or Jewish, but mixture of these cultures was incredibly difficult. In the 21st century, Judaism is mainstreamed in the American way. Jews assimilate with increasing ease than in the past. With such intermingling in American society, the HuffPost group concluded that religion being a hinderance to such incorporation explains the PEW trend. The interviewees also describe how intermarriage and its decreasing dependence on religion impacted the population. The 5,000 year old elements of halacha (Jewish law) and an all-powerful deity no longer relate to the contemporary audience, turning them against the shul, against God, and against religion. On the contrary, Judaism is a culture and a religion, for seeing it at one or other demonstrates a myopic understanding of its nature. Rabbi Rick Jacobs best expressed, "Are Jews a religion or a culture?...Thinking in polarities obscures the most important issues facing us."

At Givat Haviva (a university where I had a seminar in Israel), a man lecturing about humanistic Judaism repeatedly yelled to the crowd, "Judaism is not a religion!" He assured the audience that Judaism in its Torah-reading, mezzuah-kissing, God-lauding ways distinguished itself from the Judaism he knew-matzah ball soup and Israeli folk dancing. Secular Jews experience Judaism beyond the organizational ability to rehabilitate the schism between religion and culture. Orthodox and Conservative Jews do not possess the philosophical capacity to facilitate this process. The Reform Jews of the United States hold the greatest blessing and onus in their hands: the reparation of American Judaism. In a connection to the past combined with a progressive outlook toward the future, Reform Jews can interweave religion and culture, restoring the faith in those claim to be "Jews with no religion" whilst fostering their growth as part of a larger nation. Why bother with the effort? Jewish culture, ranging from Fiddler on the Roof to Rugrats' Passover special, embodies only half of what is wonderful about being a Jew. Men and women like our Givat Haviva lecturer miss, however, the magnificent peace of spirituality and foundation of deeper meaning.  A fair share of secular Jews know how to explore this element of Judaism outside of an affiliated denomination, but should not the shul adjust to the people's needs rather than the people adjust to the shul?    

To answer Rabbi Rick Jacobs call, finding the nourishment Jewish tradition can offer in conventional institutional structures requires a shift in ideology and practice. Forever, God stood as an indelible part of the Jewish tradition. Now, 32% of American Jews deny that indelibility. The primary step in resolving the religious-cultural divide is creating a brand of Judaism that includes God while not mandating God. On HuffPost Live, Rabbi Geller describes this as the "counter cultural identity", a belief in a power greater than oneself without the omnipotence described in the Bible. The new God embodies a personal sense of humility without the confinement that the traditional view carries with it. To generate interest among the "Pew Jews", Reform Jews need to embrace the social element of Judaism; schmooze or we will lose. Camps, youth groups, and adult gatherings-golf tournaments, hiking trips, or a temple Super Bowl party-establish a sense of community. Assimilation is a two-faced word, symbolizing the accomplishment of Jews to mainstream themselves in American society and the threat of disappearing Jewish tradition. Instead, the temple should not strictly be about services once a year or once a week. Rather, Reform synagogues should embrace the Pew Jews with a open handshake and a delightful smile, not out of concern of membership but as if they are looking upon a familiar face returning once again. Blending secular and culture elements to the traditional synagogue experience enables the Reform movement to make religious Judaism a less rigid location of identity exploration (Idan Sasson mentioned these as key factors in the Pew Results.). Finally, Judaism needs to turn its back to strict halacha. The majority of the secular Jews I know misunderstand religious Judaism more than detest it. A new emphasis needs to shift from "when to wear a tallis, what poultry is acceptable to eat, the acceptable and non-acceptable activities on Shabbat" to values-discipline and a balance between work and leisure. Prayer no longer requires the repetitive melodies and rote recitation of Shma, Maariv Aravim, and Birkat Hamazon. The rabbis of the future will create a spiritual experience where we feel the tradition of Shma, experience the awesomeness of shifting day to night of the Maariv Aravim, and graciously pause to enjoy a meal in the essence of Birkat Hamazon. Prayer is a communication to oneself; to improve religious Judaism,  ancient prayers take on modern and personal meaning. Throughout my life, Judaism has taught me how to be a disciplined person, a respectful family member, a hard worker with a balanced plan, a critical thinker, a kind soul, and a caring friend to loved ones and strangers. The Pew Jews spoke; Abraham represents values, not a commandment from God.    

Works Cited

Jacob, Rick. "Don't Give up on Jews Who Care about Being Jewish." Haaretz, 10 Oct.                 2013. Web. 11 Oct. 2013.

Geller,Laura, Notkin, Melanie, Roth, Gabriel, Sasson, Idan. "What Does It Mean To Be Jewish In                      America?" Interview by Mike Sacks. HuffPost Live. Huffington Post, 7 Oct. 2013. Web. 11                 Oct. 2013.