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Self-Help & Updating Judaism

Rabbi Krause writes that she is not scared of new influences coming into Judaism–that bringing in new ideas and perspectives helps keep Judaism dynamic and relevant. This assertion is central to Reconstructionist Judaism’s approach to understanding how our religion works. Judaism is not, and never has been, a static series of laws and rituals that were commanded once and for all time. If Judaism hadn’t been able to evolve and adapt, we never would have survived the destruction of the Temple, the end of the priesthood, and the cessation of sacrifices. So it’s central to Biblical Judaism that the better part of two books of the Torah are devoted to them. If Jews hadn’t adapted local practices–drawing on the larger cultural influences wherever they went–we wouldn’t have the variations of minhag(custom) that were a hallmark of local communities for two thousand years.


Now I’m not saying that anything goes. Judaism is clearly incompatible with a belief in Jesus as the Messiah, or the Koran as a sacred document (one wonders if this is equally true for Buddhist-style meditation or Hindu-style chanting). The million shekel question, of course, is how to tell the difference: to find out what innovations are kosher–or at least have the potential to be kosher–and which are irretrievably treif.
One answer is to assert that no change is permitted, to close out the modern world, and turn Judaism into a relic: a curiosity from the past, frozen in time. Another answer is to insist that any changes in practices or customs must come from the top down–from learned rabbis or august committees decreeing this way or that in all manner of questions concerning Jewish law. Certainly these rabbis and these committees have their place, but it’s well worth remembering that many of the changes in Judaism came from below, from the grassroots. They were initially decried by the rabbis of their time and only later given official sanction. This is true for practices from lighting Shabbat candles to reciting the Kol Nidrei prayer, and for schools of thought from Kabbalah to Chassidut.
The fact is that Jewish people as a whole are who determines what innovations are meaningful, relevant, are compatible with, and enhance our Jewish practice. It happens not through any formal procedure but from a natural process where certain practices are embraced and adopted over time while others are rejected or simply wither on their own. Case in point: when Rabbi Mordecai Kaplan celebrated his daughter Judith becoming Bat Mitzvah in 1922, this innovation shocked both the Orthodox who condemned such a ceremony for girls and the Reform who considered the ceremony irrelevant whether for boys or girls. Eighty-five years later, Bat Mitzvah is universal in the Reform, Reconstructionist, and Conservative movements and is making great inroads in the Orthodox world.
On some other changes, the jury is still out–will having a Jewish father be enough to make you Jewish 100 years from now, or will the norm remain that the mother must be Jewish? Only time, and the Jewish people, will tell.

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Marian Neudel

posted October 24, 2007 at 11:48 am

And no bookie worth his cigars would accept a bet on what will and won’t be mainstream Judaism 100 years from now, after seeing the Karaites become a mere vestigial organ, while the Hasidim virtually take over an entire wing of Judaism. Speaking of Mordechai Kaplan, I still think Reconstructionism has a bright future, despite its current small numbers.

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laura t mushkat

posted October 24, 2007 at 2:31 pm

The Jewish religon is a constantly changing one. This is a result of G-d giving us the gifts of curiosity, thrist for knowledge and independent thought.
I firmly believe that G-d would not have given humans these gifts if he did not want us to use them in all ways including keeping our religon a evolving one.
Despite those who may not desire change and think all we need is Torah I respectfully disagree. I think that evolving is all ways including our faith is part of our destiny and G-d’s plan.

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posted October 24, 2007 at 4:41 pm

Dear Laura – thanks for your post, I like you, believe G-d would not have given us humans gifts if He did not want us to use them in all ways including keeping our religion an evolving religion – which thankfully it is.
If one understands what is the meaning of “all we need is Torah” it will not seem like a statement of a static stale unable to grow, expand and mature style of a religion. Customs may stay the same because ritual is a stabilizing and comforting thing in an unstable world but
“All we need is Torah” also means all we need is HaShem.
HaShem is able to bring the experiences we need for growth into our lives. HaShem is able to inspire our intellect to gather from our experiences on this planet the insight and wisdom we need – if we are open to it – if not we find ourselves “going around the mountain again” repeating the same old stuff, getting the same old Karma until we are willing to change.
The Torah has never failed me, It is ever new, ever fresh and continues to speak to my current circumstances in a nuance of a commentary like a “light bulb” switching on in a place I had not thought of before or seen before in a certain Torah portion.
I most certainly believe all knowledge is in the Torah. But it is hidden in the sense it takes time, dedication and maturity to scratch its surface and go deep between the lines and the meanings and the commentaries and the original Hebrew word meanings and inflections.
I have found Torah wisdom in other religions to my surprise and I have come to believe, as all wisdom comes from G-d Our Creator, to whom all the nations belong, and who has said in the words of the prophet Isiah:
“My house will be a house of prayer for ALL people” (in the time to come), that sincere seekers in those other religions with questionable customs do find Torah wisdom and eventually what is not necessary will fall away (in the time to come). So I do my best not to judge and just delight in seeing other people besides Jews doing mitzvot!
The seeds of Kaballah have sprung from the Torah.
The world as we know it was born in the words of the Torah. Beyond much of our simple comprehension for sure and yes, dismissed as myth by science, yet the Torah holds the secrets of life and those secrets are in the Hand of HaShem as are we. To say “all we need is Torah” is not a negative, it is a window with many shutters we have yet to open. It is saying HaShem and His Words are ONE.
Just as HaShem has said “I will be what I will be” so will we find what we will find in His Words to us, His Laws – The Torah, however it may have come to be transmitted to us and that is another debate tossed about by us Jews. ( :
Shalom all

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posted October 24, 2007 at 4:47 pm

OOOps misspelled Isaiah – sorry – dear old prophet – I am sure you are around somewhere.

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posted October 25, 2007 at 10:43 am

Time will NOT tell the lineage of Judaism. The prohibition of intermarriage IN THE TORAH is for Jewish MEN not to intermarry. As G-d says ‘because the children will turn away from me’. I do not have the exact reference but it is in one of the summer parshas [weekly portions read in the synagogue on the Sabbath]. From this posuk [verse] you can deduce the converse–that if a Jewish woman intermarries the children will not turn away from G-d. That is why children of a Jewish woman are Jewish and children of a non-Jewish woman and a Jewish father are NOT Jewish.
The beauty of Judaism is that there are a given set of G-d given ground rules and anything goes after that as long as if fits into the ground rules. So it helps to educate oneself in the ground rules and only then let your imagination go free.

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posted October 28, 2007 at 11:34 am

Great point for Torah, torahzivalanu! Know the ground rules and then let our imagination or as also can said our “free choice” go.
One of the guest blogs here talks about intermarriage and it is a fearful concern that such unions will bring an end to Judaism.
There is a folk saying or maybe from a Midrash – I do not know – that the 3rd generation will return. I know several “returnees” that mirror this saying.
It is sad to see the Torah ground rules cast aside this way and the consequences can be most unfavorably felt in the lives affected, but there is always hope, always. We may leave HaShem, but HaShem does not leave us and converts bring up the slack and returnees happen. Baroch HaShem! Thus I do not fear intermarriage will adversely affect Judaism as a whole, though it certainly can affect the personal lives involved for lots of generations. It does wound us when we lose one another – like a bite taken out of the body of the whole, which is why the ground rules are so necessary – these rules protect us, keep us safe and keep us connected to HaShem.
Does HaShem ever step in? I think so, in the prayers of the Jewish grandparents of intermarriage, in the conversions of the non-Jewish partner. In this way I believe “time” can only tell and waiting for the unfolding of “time” is not always in our present day vision.
The “Time to come” I refer to as I quote Isaiah is the time of the Mosheiach. When the present day world seems to be hopeless we do have a great hope in the final outcome and sometimes it helps to be eternity minded as we do our daily mitzvah the best we can in our own circumstances. Not only do we have the Torah to help us do this, we also have the Nevi’m and Kethuvim – Baroch HaShem!
Shalom all.

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