This weekend I attended a reform synagogue for Saturday Shabbat services. Reform Judaism is a primarily American movement whose goal is to make Judaism compatible with modern life and culture.
This is fascinating because it is emblematic of the classic struggle between tradition and modernity. Are the laws and rituals of Judaism timeless? Is it our place to question them? Or is Judaism an evolving system, one that adapts to the times while retaining its core values?
I spoke with the rabbi for a few minutes after the service. He made the case that traditional Judaism is losing ground. He pointed out that my girlfriend was Jewish and that I was not as an example of how traditional Judaism is failing to address questions such as interfaith marriage. Traditionally, it would be fairly rare for a Jew to marry to a non-Jew. That’s not the case anymore. The boundary between who is Jewish and not Jewish is becoming less and less clear.
In addition, more and more young people are falling away from traditional Judaism (or never adhering to it in the first place) because it seems so dry and irrelevant to their lives. For example, staying Kosher is difficult, why should young people follow dietary rules based on texts that are thousands of years old?
I’m, of course, a little biased to seeing value in ancient rituals and wisdom, but I can understand why traditional Judaism is often inaccessible to young Jewish people today.
The rabbi also pointed out that there are very few concrete rules that separate Jews from non-Jews. You can’t believe Jesus was the Messiah, that’s a deal breaker, but otherwise there is no “test” for Jewishness. There are characteristics common to many Jews, but the rabbi is “not asking for people’s papers when they come to my synagogue.”
It makes me feel a little better that Judaism has been struggling with the question of community and identity, as I haven’t been able to figure it out over the past few weeks.
There is certainly value in tradition and making the effort to observe them. My Shabbat dinner experience suggests that you need to work to make the most out of Shabbat. In the same vein, I think a lot of the benefits of Judaism are only accessible if you make the effort to learn and participate in the rituals of the religion.
For example, on Saturday, I turned off my phone and laptop. It was hard. Not ice bath hard, but still hard. I ended up having a nice lunch, did some reading, took a nap, and went out for a walk.
I didn’t observe all the rules of Shabbat, but I still observed the spirit of it. I wouldn’t have had such a restful Saturday afternoon if I had adopted the attitude that an ancient text has nothing relevant to say about modern life.
Perhaps it is less important for Judaism that young Jews practice Judaism in the traditional way, and more important that they observe it some capacity and in a consistent manner.
Traditions are only useful if people practice them, and if the traditions become overly separated from your life or too difficult to perform, people won’t do them.
Maybe the Reform movement is on to something. For Judaism to survive and thrive in the modern world, it needs to be a bit flexible and meet people where they are. Being okay with young Jews eating shellfish or bacon is probably a small price to pay if it means they will practice Jewish values in other ways.
At the same time, I believe we need to be more open-minded to the ways of the ancients. We need to start accepting that moral and spiritual development only come if we do the work. We need to stop thinking that religion needs to be convenient to our lifestyle in order for us to adopt it into our lives.