An article that appeared in last week’s Sunday NY Times by James Carroll called ‘Jesus and the Modern Man” has me thinking about Judaism’s role in modern life. Carroll argues that the new Pope, with his popular touch, is helping the average Catholic in the pew to regain a sense of the potential power of the Church in his or her life. Carroll sees the Pope as returning his faith to its roots, namely the life of Jesus, with his message of love, hope, and inclusion for all people.
What, then, would be our message? A Jewish message for the soundbite age, Judaism at its essence, ‘standing on one foot?’ Without a Pope figure to direct the Jewish theological enterprise, and without a Jesus figure to create the image of an ideal life driven by ideal values, where do we stand?
One thing we know is that on many levels our problems and the problems of the Church are similar. Dwindling attendance at services. Diminished registration in our religious schools. Fewer people identifying with our faith traditions. At the heart of it all is a malaise of modern life – fewer and fewer people take religion seriously. Religious life is becoming anachronistic, the wives’ tales and superstitions of a previous age, not suited to modern life and modern sensibilities.
What then, will be a Judaism for the modern man? We are seeing early glimmers of an answer to that question. It may be less synagogue based, and more social action and social justice oriented. The emphasis will be on doing good rather than being good. Traditional rituals may fade away (wearing tefilin, for example) while new rituals may become important in people’s lives (baby namings and b’not mitzvah two current notable examples). Prayer may be replaced by meditation. Lectures by walks. Lunch and learns by cooking classes and wine tastings.
The sage Hillel famously took a stab at creating a one line description of Judaism’s essence: what is hateful to you, do not do to others. Not bad, but not sufficient. What about the impulse to challenge the status quo, so central to Judaism’s approach? Or another core tenet, responsibility for caring for the underprivileged? The importance of a day of rest, so the mind and spirit can rejuvenate and grow? Of course the list could go on and on.
Interestingly, these are all values that still speak to us in the modern world. What we need to do is somehow convince people that Judaism’s ancient wisdom can still bring meaning into their modern lives. Prayer can be powerful and life changing! Study of sacred text can deepen your spiritual life! Ritual can ground you and give structure to your days! Of course we don’t have a Pope to deliver that message, or a Jesus figure to galvanize the uninitiated or disenfranchised. The Jewish message for modern man has to come from Jewish leaders – clergy, Jewish professionals, lay leaders as well. Our challenge is that we cannot deliver that message in a soundbite. But a TED talk? Maybe. At least it is a place to start. Just don’t ask me to do it standing on one foot.