From the book, Rekindling the Flame. c 2001 by Samuel Osherson. Reprintedby permission of Harcourt, Inc. Allrights reserved.
Many people concerned with alienated or skeptical Jews approach the matter as if it were a rational argument, or one requiring scolding or seductiveness. They offer counter-arguments to many of the reasons people resist Judaism, or they provide warm and inviting introductions to the meaning of Jewish ritual and belief.
I have tried to take a different approach. To really support Judaism in today's world we need to see Jewish people in the context of their life development. This has several implications for understanding the nature of faith and religion.
"Being Jewish" is not a rational choice--it is an affective set, an emotional phenomenon. Many Jewish outreach efforts focus on "better arguments" ("the 'chosen people' thing doesn't mean what you think it means"), guilt ("if you don't come to synagogue, you'll be responsible for the death of the religion of your mother and father"), or friendly persuasion ("come on down to the shul--try it, you'll like it").
|Jewish outreach would do better addressing the deeper |
identity struggles of alienated men and women.
Jewish outreach would do better addressing the deeper identity struggles of alienated men and women. People who are reassessing the role of Judaism in their lives, or are hesitant, need to know that they are not alone, that many, many other Jewish men and women are in the same spot. People who are frozen in childhood struggles with parents need to know that this is often a feature of spiritual struggle and can lead to new resolutions in their lives. Jews who feel "different" for any of a number of reasons--gay, lesbian, single parent, parent of a child with developmental delays--need to feel welcomed.
The individual struggle with holding on to and letting go of the past is at the core of contemporary Jewish struggles. In constructing Judaism in our lives, we all confront the fundamental anxiety of separating from the past, of living our lives differently from our parents (think of parents in the broadest sense: our cultural parents, all the way back to Abraham and Sarah). In finding, or creating, the rituals that matter to us, in finding our own Jewish voices, we are different from the past, and there is some loss and sorrow in that. It is a fundamental fact of human life that growing up and maturing also means doing some violence to the past.
When we make something ours, we also reshape it. To truly take inside oneself a beloved tradition and make it ones' own is also, in some way, to destroy it, to change it beyond recognition. The modern struggle to find a personally authentic Judaism is also part of the age-old struggle between parents and children to hold on and let go, a dynamic relived in every generation.
The interplay of psychology and faith is often ignored by rabbis. It's as if psychology may sully faith. However, since experience of Judaism (or any religion) is tied to family dynamics and struggles with our parents, and since spiritual issues in adult life are related to our childhood and adolescent experiences, it may be helpful to provide skeptical Jews more awareness of these life-cycle interconnections. We may have feelings of ambivalence toward Jewish ritual-synagogue services, seders-related to control battles or identity struggles with our parents. For example, we don't want to go to temple because to do so is to lose a battle with our fathers that began when we were children. Or we have to go to temple because it meant so much to our parents, and for us not to do so means failing our parents. More direct talk--either individually, or in small groups within the synagogue--about the frustrating wish to be loyal to our parents even at the price of our own identities, or about the guilty wish to be different from them, may reduce some of the aloneness, and the shame, many Jews feel.
For many, the struggle with what kind of Jew to be is tied into the question of what kind of person to be, which in turn is linked to what it means to be a man or a woman.
Male and female images of Judaism play a powerful role in spiritual life. In a room filled with people praying, there are many different images of "God" or "the divine," and these images represent very different experiences of maleness and femaleness.
To wrestle with Judaism means to confront our personal gender stereotypes. In the course of writing this book, for example, my own feelings of being "a bad boy" disobeying his father surfaced at several points. The experience of being a grown man, in my fifties, questioning tradition and searching for meaning and purpose evoked Hebrew school memories of goofing off and not studying my bar mitzvah portion correctly and of being distracted by "frivolous" matters, less important than learning the correct pronunciation of Hebrew words. What was I doing, at age fifty-five fascinated with the prayers and poetry of Marcia Falk, the chanting of Rabbi Shefa God? These women whom I had never met felt like warm Jewish mothers urging me toward a richer, more expressive form of Judaism. Along with the joy of that came painful feelings: Why was I not paying attention and davening like the men of my childhood had always done? To explore a more vital version of Judaism in my life, I had to wrestle with the fear of letting my father down, of not being a "good enough" man.