We live in a moment of transition. It is not the first, of course: the Temple is destroyed, the era of the sages has gone, the vast and varied Jewish life spread throughout Europe and the Middle East was decimated by the holocaust and other historical events, and today, the day of the great movements, these movements are fading. Many people are frightened by this – what will happen? And not without some reasonable cause.
Our numbers are shrinking, and many people who identify as Jewish treat Judaism as an ethnicity -like being Italian, or a hobby – something to be done when there is time and it is convenient.
But the “ever-dying people” will once again find a new wave to ride, and will continue.
And what will it look like?
Many religious speak of “the way” – and Judaism, too, has a “way,” – Halacha. But maybe instead of thinking of it as “the” way, maybe we should speak of it as “the Going,” or better yet “A way” or “A going.”
Ultimately, I believe that Judaism will survive much as it has always done, as a collection of family-resemblant practices (minhag) and a drive to serve the divine through our actions (halacha) based on our texts and the interpretations of those texts by those who love and study them.
As a statement, it’s simple, but how it plays out will be complex, diverse, and filled with tensions – as it always has been.
My hope is a relatively simple one: that the many paths we walk – and since the beginning of Judaism, there have always been judaisms- all of them consider Halacha -our ways- as the many paths we seek to uncover the path to the divine. That the many paths, the arguments of the sages, are paths that set us in our direction towards the divine both immanent and transcendent. That we will grow a generation of Jews who will have access to the rich tradition that is ours, and who will come to love it because of the ever present tensions: between those who look inward and those who look outward, between the protectors and the prophets, between those who love to learn and those who love to daven and those who are dedicated to fixing the world and those who are committed to all three, those who think of themselves as a people, and those who think of themselves as a religion. Because we are all of these things, always, but some of us manifest them more at one time or another.
That’s not to say I think that Halacha is an anything-goes prospect: being Jewish is different than being Catholic, or Buddhist. Our paths include a reverence for our texts, a search for meaning in these texts and in the ways they lay out. Sometimes that means that we have to reinterpret them: that’s okay. It is, in fact, completely traditional. When we lived under the Greeks, we adapted their daily philosophical mantra of gladness that they weren’t women, slaves or foreigners into a prayer that we still say daily – and today, now that we have different ideas about women, slaves, and foreigners, we’ve kept that prayer, but many of us have made it meaningful for our people in our current society by being thankful for positive things – we have in every place that we have lived, in every society, taken what was around us and turned it to serve the divine purpose that we are called to.
But it is true that it is difficult to fully be a Jew without putting some work into it – and that’s okay, too. I don’t hope for that to change. The mission of Judaism is rich and full enough that those who do not want to commit to it should be free to look for something easier. At the same time, I hope for the translation of as many of our books as possible, so that one needn’t commit all of one’s life to sitting and studying: there should be time to do, and to work, and to live.
And in all of one’s life, the beautiful thing about Judaism, is that because it is a system based on doing – taking the texts of our tradition and living by them in divine service – all that we do has the potential for holiness. Whether it is blessing God for the lacks that we have, allowing us to need one another to fill them, when we eat a snack; or whether it is blessing God for the way our bodies work when we use the bathroom, living and learning and doing and thinking come together in every thing we do, and we choose at every moment: do we choose to be holy?
So my vision of what we will do as Jews, as times change, is that we will grow the efforts that we put into making Judaism available to all who want to put their soul into it: more day schools, more camps, more places for adults to study; that we gather together as a people to become a community in our prayer, and in our action, whether in a storefront indie minyan, someone’s basement, or a grand soaring structure with a hundred rooms; that we take those prayers into the streets to partner with others, that we turn those prayers and actions inward to help our own; that we act as a people to continue to make the world a receptacle for holiness, and ourselves better carriers for that holiness, by living, every day, our choices to be holy through our laws and traditions, through obeying the law to pay our employees fairly, to advocate for the poor, to rebuke those who mistreat others, even if the entire world thinks that it’s okay, to act for God, in all things, big or small – in eating, sleeping, loving with our bodies; in the workplace, in politics.
What a strange vision. It seems that my vision of “fearless Judaism” is already here. All we have to do is live it.
Part of our Fearless Judaism series.