Friday, November 25, 2005

Have some people misinterpreted “Judaism is an evolving religious civilization” to mean that Judaism could survive without the “religion" part?

Rabbi Mordechai Kaplan, the late former professor at the Conservative Movement’s Jewish Theological Seminary and, in the end, founder of the Reconstructionist Movement, posited the theory that Judaism is an evolving religious civilization. My question is, “What does that mean in real Jewish life?”

Yes, Judaism includes what every other civilization includes—history, literature, music, art, etc.—and all of those are cherished treasures of the Jewish People. But what would happen if you took away the “religion” part, which was absolutely not Kaplan’s intent?

A friend of mine was raised a devout Secular Yiddishist. Yet, he made a deliberate decision not to teach his children Yiddish, but, rather, to send them to a Jewish day school, where they learned Hebrew and Jewish religion, instead. Having been raised in a completely secular Jewish environment, he was convinced that there was no future in it, no way of passing such a Judaism down to one’s children.

And I think he’s right.

Bagels (or bourekas, for the Sefardim) are not enough.

I don’t believe that we could have managed to survive 2,000 years, give or take, without a land, which every other civilization has, if we hadn’t had the Jewish religion to sustain us. And I don’t think Judaism can survive into the future without religion, either.

I was disussing this topic with my husband just last week. I decided to blog about it after reading these posts. (Both are cross-posted on The Jewish Connection, but most of the comments are on their blogs of origin.) I strongly recommend that you read GoldaLeah’s Thursday, November 17, 2005 post "Judaism won't be here in 100 years," which discusses her Hebrew High School students’ attitudes, on her blog, Go West, Young Jew, and Jack’s Shack’s November 18, 2005 post, "Does Judaism Need G-d?" , on his blog, “Random thoughts- Do they have meaning?”.

Tzé u-l’mad, go and study.

Okay, now that you’re back, let me make a long story short:

On the one hand, I don’t think it’s possible to have a Jewish civilization without the religion part. Our sacred literature and prayers are at the core of so much else that’s part of our civilization that having “an evolving Jewish civilization” without the “religious” part would just eviscerate the civilization.

On the other hand, I think that the jury’s still out on whether the religion part has to be Orthodox, or whether other “brands” will do the job. It’s my sincere belief that only time will tell. Give me a call in about 200 years and we’ll compare notes.


Blogger Ezzie said...

I'd love to post longer on this later, but very quickly:

Non-Orthodox strains are inherently unable to be self-sustaining. By transforming so much of Jewish tradition, the idea that certain things can be changed makes it... well, change. Once the original focus is gone, there is less reason/desire to retain what you were trying to originally. The "rules" and traditions are adjusted for convenience: Much as many guests were very proud of at the wedding of my cousin.

While it is possible for movements, such as the Conservative movement, to sustain itself - even for centuries - I would venture it is rare to see traditions being passed from generation to generation among the Conservative, and especially the Reform, movements. More often - and this is true within the Orthodox world as well - people are either "more" or "less" religious than the generations above them. Rarely are they the same. How many 3rd or 4th generation Conservatives are there? (Though my cousins are Gen3, I believe that one's children will not be, the other's will. And our grandfather is essentially Orthodox in a Conservative shul.)

Gotta run, sorry so quick... and I am in no way trying to degrade any other string of Judaism.

Sat Nov 26, 09:16:00 PM 2005  
Blogger Shira Salamone said...

Ezzie, my husband is vastly more traditional that either of his late parents was, though, being non-Orthodox, not as observant as his paternal grandparents. I'm probably the most traditional Jew among the four of us siblings, though, obviously, my Israeli brother speaks Hebrew a lot better. As for the next generation--among the four of us siblings, we have four children--it's hard to predict how traditional any of them will be, since the oldest of our kids is only in her mid-twenties. Only time will tell.

I find it absolutely fascinating that you see movement up and down along the "religious" scale even among the Orthodox. I would be hard pressed to make a blanket statement about the Conservative movement, in that regard. Since my husband and I were the most traditional family of our approximate age group in our synagogue, and since we were raising a child with disabilities, we were unable to raise him to be as traditional as we would have liked him to be. In Conservative synagogues of our acquaintance with families who were more committed to such radical notions as attending synagogue and keeping a kosher home, the parents stood a far better chance of having their kids turn out committed to a Jewish way of life.

As to whether or not non-Orthodox Judaism is self-sustaining, does the transformation of Jewish tradition, in and of itself, doom non-Orthodox Judaism, or does it depend on whether the parents are sufficiently "into" Judaism to raise children with similar attitudes?

Sun Nov 27, 12:25:00 AM 2005  
Blogger Shira Salamone said...

On second though, Ezzie, what I find fascinating about your comment is that you see any movement in the Orthodox community toward the next generation being *less* Orthodox than the previous one. Is it just me, or are there a lot of complaints about young men going off to yeshivah or young women going off to seminary in Israel and "flipping out," that is, coming home much more right-wing than their parents? On the other hand, we do have a certain number of Orthodox or ex-Orthodox "rebels" in the Jewish blogosphere.

To me, the bottom line for *any* version of Judaism to be self-sustaining is parental committment. No amount of shipping the kid(s) off to Hebrew School, or even to services, is going to make them Jewish if there's no Judaism in the home. It's rare for the kids to care if the parents don't.

Sun Nov 27, 12:51:00 AM 2005  
Blogger Ezzie said...

As to whether or not non-Orthodox Judaism is self-sustaining, does the transformation of Jewish tradition, in and of itself, doom non-Orthodox Judaism, or does it depend on whether the parents are sufficiently "into" Judaism to raise children with similar attitudes?

It's both. If the parents are not "into" it, the kids won't care. That's almost always true. On rare occasions, you'll find a child who is curious as to what "drew" the parent in the first place, and they'll learn a bit on their own. But that's very seldom, I'd think...

But even if they do care, the changed traditions will be a big deal. "Well, Mom, if it's so important, how come we do this? Or not this? Shouldn't we be keeping Shabbos? Eat kosher everywhere? (etc) It's hard to stress importance of something that wasn't important enough not to adjust yourself.

As to your other comments: It's true, there is a general shift to the right; but I know plenty who've gone the other way as well. Where I grew up, those around my age and a few years up are shifting to the middle - from left toward right and from right toward left; it's a curious rejection of 2 very homogeneous parts of the city.

Sun Nov 27, 02:56:00 AM 2005  
Blogger Robbie said...

I think the idea that any movement that isn't Orthodox won't survive stems from the idea (of the traditionalists) that at a certain point, when a movement "strays" too much, it stops being a movement and starts being its own unique religion (if only from the traditionalists' persepectives).

I sincerely believe that the leftern movements will survive - and continue to evolve. Judaism today isn't what it was 500 years ago (even though the texts are similar) and it's not what it'll be in 500 years from now. It's impossible to say that one sect hasn't changed or evolved, every sect has changed (perhaps mostly in reaction to another).

So yeah, we'll still be around in the future, but our ancestors may not be calling us Jews. Our children, though, will have no problem with it.

Sun Nov 27, 08:31:00 AM 2005  
Blogger Shira Salamone said...

Ezzie, it's true that those of us making changes have to be extremely careful not to throw the baby out with the bathwater, as the saying goes--we have to be sure to save what we deem important, *and* we have to be able to explain to our children *why* it's important.

This is the "Orthodox spectrum," as best I can figure it out: Modern, Centrist, Yeshivish, Chareidi. (Did I miss anyone?) So the Chareidim are going Yeshivish and the Moderns are going Centrist? Well, at least the Yeshivish are more open-minded about college. You should know, since your own college is Yeshivish.

Robbie, you really understand Kaplan's idea. His whole point was that even Orthodox Judaism is not the same now as it was 500 years ago. We keep evolving. Yet, because we retain our sacred literature, we continue to identify as Jews now, and will do so in the future.

It seems to me that I've heard a midrash (Rabbinic story, in this context) that Moshe Rabbeinu (Moses our Teacher) once came back many years after his death and sat in on a shiur (lesson?) in Talmud. It's said that he didn't understand what the teacher or the students were talking about, but was content when he heard the teacher explain that the law that he'd just presented was l'Moshe miSinai (handed down by Moses, from Sinai). Even then, the rabbanim (rabbis) understood that change was necessary, but that connecting the present with the past was essential.

Sun Nov 27, 08:15:00 PM 2005  
Blogger Ezzie said...

Shira - sadly, the Orthodox world can be split up into many more categories than that; but you've hit the main ones. I'd explain a couple though: The Modern are splitting - some to the left, many to the right. The Yeshivish/Charedi are splitting too - some to the right, but some to the left as well.

People in my age range, maybe even a bit older (say late teens to early 30's?) tend to be shifting more to the Center. I think a few years ago, one would never hear people termed "Centrist" - it's a relatively new phenomenon. You used to be either yeshivish or modern. A very wise rebbe of mine in HS went through the strengths and flaws of each - and felt that modern Orthodoxy had failed, by throwing off the yoke of much halacha. Therefore, he felt that people should lean to the yeshiva world; even as my yeshiva [and all the branches it is related to] was not considered particularly "yeshivish" from a RW perspective (but would be from a MO perspective).

Looking back, he was both right and wrong - and that's the change we're seeing today. MO is splitting because many within it are realizing that too many of them are, in addition to being much more involved and knowledgeable about the world, throwing off certain halachos while doing so. Some could not care less, and are shifting more to the left; others are upset at this shift, and are reverting back to the right somewhat. OTO side, many in the yeshiva world are realizing and noting the impracticality of shutting out the world. There are also many who aren't into the more obviously meaningless "shtick" that goes on, and the shidduch issues are turning off a lot of people as well. This is resulting in a hashkafic shift toward the center as well. My rebbe understandably missed out on this up-and-coming third line: One which does not sacrifice on halacha but which is open to all the different hashkafos and is not closed off from the world.

Will there be different viewpoints? Yes. Will people pasken differently sometimes? Undoubtedly. But each is able to respect the legitimacy of the other, even if they don't agree? Yes - finally.

LOL - Wow, what a rambling... but I think I may make this into a post at some point.

Mon Nov 28, 01:19:00 PM 2005  
Blogger Jack Steiner said...

I don't think that this is something that can be tagged as being pertinent to just one branch of Judaism.

We are all people and part of that means that there are multiple perspectives on how to do things.

Judaism is going to continue to evolve and change. Some things will disappear and die out. Where are the Essenes and some will be born and continue.

The Reform and Conservative movements have both been around for more than a couple of years now. There are generations that have come and gone.'

One of the questions is what do you/we/I want Judaism to be. What elements must it incorporate in order for it still to be considered Judaism.

Mon Nov 28, 04:03:00 PM 2005  
Blogger Shira Salamone said...

Ezzie, I'm glad to hear that the Orthodox community is thinking twice about drifting to extremes. I also hope that the return of respectful disagreement--elu va'elu divrei Elokim chaim, these and those are the words of the living G-d--is imminent.

Jack's Shack, you said, "One of the questions is what do you/we/I want Judaism to be. What elements must it incorporate in order for it still to be considered Judaism."

One word: Tanach. Well, that's really an acronym for three words--Torah (the "Five Books of Moses," the first five books of the Bible), Neviim (Prophets), and Ketuvim (Writings). The Jewish People is a family, and the Tanach is our "diary." As with so many things about family, we're bound to disagree about the Tanach. Did Hashem write it and hand it to Moshe on Har Sinai, or was it written by divinely-inspired humans? Is it one book, or an anthology cobbled together from E, J, P, and D texts? Is it sexist or feminist? Do we have to believe every word literally, or can we interpret, and if so, what are the rules and/or limits, if any? Is the G-d portrayed in the Torah always right and just, and are our ancestors really exemplars, or should we "wrestle with the text" and find meaning in less traditional ways of looking at it?

We can disagree about just about anything and still consider ourselves Jews provided that we agree about this one thing: the Tanach is OURS. Be it acceptable to our modern sensibilities or in need of interpretation, it's OURS. To honor it and/or to argue with it. To accept it and/or to disagree with it. To believe it and/or to reinterpret it. It's OURS. It's our sacred text, our yerushah (inheritance/heritage), to cherish--and wrestle with--as long as a Jew still lives.

Tue Nov 29, 12:09:00 AM 2005  
Blogger Jack Steiner said...


That is a solid answer. I don't disagree with anything you said. But I would posit that far too few Jews spend any time considering any of these issues and personally I think that they are important and part of our growth.

Tue Nov 29, 12:32:00 AM 2005  
Blogger Ezzie said...

Shira - excellent points.

Jack - far too few Jews spend any time considering any of these issues and personally I think that they are important and part of our growth.

Amen to that.

Tue Nov 29, 03:47:00 AM 2005  
Blogger Shira Salamone said...

Jack's Shack, I'll glady second Ezzie's "amen."

Wed Nov 30, 01:11:00 AM 2005  

Post a Comment

<< Home

<< List
Jewish Bloggers
Join >>