Almost right under your feet, and you may not even realize it. A recent NY Times Book Review issue dedicated its core article to the changing conditions and dynamics of America’s Jewish community. ‘God is in the Crowd,’ ‘the Jewish American Paradox,’ ‘ ‘The New American Judaism’ – these are a few of the books reviewed in the article, itself tellingly entitled ‘Lamentations.’ (see the NY Times Book Review from November 18th)
Lamentations is of course the name of the biblical book traditionally chanted on Tisha B’Av, the annual commemoration of the destruction of the Jerusalem Temples in ancient times. It is a book about, in a narrow sense, the destruction of a Jewish city, Jerusalem. But in a larger sense the Book of Lamentations is about the destruction of an entire Jewish community, even a Jewish way of life. Once the Temple was gone the foundation of Jewish living and religious observance no longer existed. The Jews at that time (the second Temple destruction occurred in 70 CE) were forced to entirely reinvent themselves, their culture, and their religious life. Temple rituals were shifted and reflected symbolically in synagogue and home observance. Study and prayer replaced animal sacrifice. The rabbi became the central focus of Jewish life, and the role of the Priest began to diminish. Over time Rabbinic Judaism emerged from the ashes of the Israelite sacrificial cult and Temple-centric worship. As the process unfolded it was at times torturous, certainly filled with lamentation. But when it was all said and done, we had become ‘rabbinic’ Jews, following the system of law the talmudic rabbis established some two thousand years ago. And to this day, that system has defined Jewish life.
What the ‘Lamentations’ article seems to suggest is that the era of Rabbinic Judaism may finally be coming to an end. We are living, some have suggested, in a ‘post-halachic’ (post Jewish legal system) age. Understandings of religious life are changing rapidly, particularly for young Jews. Ideas of traditional Jewish structures like synagogue affiliation, bar and bat mitzvah, worship, and holiday and Shabbat observance are shifting, and in some cases even being discarded. Recent surveys suggest that today’s Jews identify ethnically, more as lox and bagel and Jerry Seinfeld Jews, as opposed to Jews who define themselves through a religious lens. Pick your catchy phrase. This is not your father’s synagogue/Judaism comes quickly to mind. Perhaps even better, however: we aren’t in Kansas anymore!
Traditional Jewish institutions are rushing to catch up. The bar and bat mitzvah ritual is being reimagined, in some cases not even involving reading from the Torah. So called ‘spiritual centers’ are springing up in synagogues from coast to coast, dressing up modern self improvement programs like yoga or meditation with a Jewish flavor. Synagogues are becoming cultural centers, hosting music programs, adult education classes, cooking and bridge playing classes and movie nights. Some of this is Jewishly oriented, some of it is entirely secular, some of it is somewhere in between. All of it is an attempt, in one way or another, to cope with the shifting Jewish landscape of modern America.
The million dollar question, of course, is will it work? The answer is, we don’t know. We may, for a time, convince Jews to keep coming into the synagogue, if not to sit in services and listen to the rabbi’s sermon, at least to learn to play bridge. But long term will this new kind of Jewish connection enable the Jewish community to retain a sense of distinct identity and to live meaningfully through Judaism? After all, not everyone even likes lox, if you understand my meaning.
Of course the challenge is to have our cake and eat it too. In an ideal world we would entice people into the building to meditate or learn to play bridge, and then figure out a way to connect them to Jewish life so they’ll end up more knowledgeable and practicing Jews. Certainly Jews can meditate and also study Talmud, or play bridge on Thursdays and come to services Shabbat mornings. Whether they will or not is something we are about to find out.