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Virtual Talmud

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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