[Cross-posted on True Ancestor]
A new generation of Jews, educated in day schools and more Jewishly literate than the generation that gave birth to it, is starting a new trend that’s as old as the hills: Do-it-yourself Judaism.
A Judaism without synagogues may also be a Judaism without (as many) rabbis. The Rabbinic tradition, which codified and preserved Judaism through centuries of Diaspora, has also helped calcify it into a carbuncle of a tradition, sealed in a dry and didactic anal retentiveness, with the result that the rabbinate has become both creator and guardian of an increasingly arcane and divisive form of spiritual practice. My feeling from talking to Jews in London – who, by and large, are more observant, more literate, and yet more politically divided as a community — was that there’s an aching need to move beyond arguments about who’s Jewish, or who’s more Jewish, and toward something where everyone can learn, celebrate, and care without being categorized.
This is reminiscent of the chavura movement that began in the ’60’s, but it’s focused less on rebellion and more on the revived interest in liturgy and in a more spiritual experience.
One reason Do-It-Yourself Judaism makes sense is that younger people are so mobile that joining a synagogue, a more formal investment in a community, doesn’t make sense. If you might be moving in a year or two, why plunk down those dues? If you’re rootless, why act any different?
Today at synagogue, we heard from Jack Wertheimer about the atomization of the American Jewish community. It’s not, said Professor Wertheimer, simply that Jews are intermarrying and ceasing to be Jewish; it’s that we are involved in local causes rather than national ones, sense our community as being local rather than global. In June of this year, Professor Wertheimer had a debate with Jewcy author Joey Kurtzman, who claimed that the idea of “Jewish peoplehood” was a thing of the past: inherently divisive, even racist, and not something the generation coming up is interested in promoting or preserving. Kurtzman referred to himself as one of a legion of “Frankenjews,” or “Jewish American mongrels”: products of intermarriage for whom Halakha (Jewish law) is of “dubious value,” and for whom “the era of peoplehood has ended.”
Wertheimer’s reply: “Pick a single religion and single people. It will save you much grief.”
I think Kurtzman, like many young writers, overvalues his own generation’s perspective as evidence of some kind of sweeping movement. Jews have intermarried whenever they’ve been in a society that tolerated it (and sometimes when it didn’t). They have fled, moved, migrated and settled whenever it was necessary for survival. Jews have, in the past 230 years, been through no fewer than six major upheavals that shook the tradition to its foundations (interestingly, it takes about 230 years for the Jewish calendar to fall a full day behind its Gregorian counterpart). None of these ended either the notion or the reality of peoplehood: they simply transformed it.
If Jewish peoplehood isn’t preserved, then Jewish worship is either entirely irrelevant or terribly crucial, because that’s all that’s left. If my London experience is any guide, it’s closer to crucial: Jews feel that the questions of who is Jewish, and what constitutes Jewish practice, are terribly important, and should be broadly inclusive. Orthodox Judaism appears to disagree.
We may be going through another major upheaval now: the redefinition of our peoplehood in a society that no longer keeps us at arm’s length. Judaism will not die in this embrace, but it will change. Lay leadership will blossom under the rabbi-less system, the way it’s already begun to in Israel.
And synagogues, and their rabbis, will need to let themselves be transformed, along with the rest of us.
Have a good week.