2016-06-30

From the book, Rekindling the Flame. c 2001 by Samuel Osherson. Reprinted by permission of Harcourt, Inc. All rights 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.

Masculine and feminine images of worship play powerful roles in our spiritual lives. Judaism can be a joyful road to integrating the male and female aspects of ourselves, but we may also resist because such activities grate against our sense of what it means to be male or female. As Judaism changes, we need to explore further what it means for a man to welcome more feminine parts of himself into his Jewish worship. And for a woman to welcome more masculine parts of herself into Jewish worship.

We may overemphasize the importance of synagogue worship in Judaism. There are many different pathways to a vibrant Jewish identity: within the synagogue, outside it, through ritual observance, through work in the world. There is no one right way to be Jewish. Many Jews are caught in the monochromatic idea that there is one way to be Jewish. After centuries of emphasis on "the group," in a desire to protect and defend ourselves against a hostile world, perhaps now we can also acknowledge differences in style and belief among Jews.

To use synagogue attendance, knowing the Amidah, and pronunciation of specific prayers as markers of "Jewish identity" is to create a false sense of crisis.

Indeed the emphasis on ritual and getting people back into the synagogue as a primary Jewish pathway may backfire. There are many Jews who live their Judaism entirely outside the traditional observances of prayer, or who have devised new prayer outside the shul, in small groups, without rabbis, or who find in their work a connection to Judaism through social action, study, music. By focusing so much energy and attention on synagogue worship, we lose focus on many, many Jews for whom such activity is not a priority, and we may create a "we-they" atmosphere among Jews of different stripes. We can, rather, be curious about each other's different versions of Judaism, as siblings in the same family lead very different lives yet know they are all "family" nonetheless.

We need to be aware that Jewish identity is not the same as observable behavior. Many of those concerned with the "survival" of Judaism imagine "identity" as congruent with ritual behavior. "Keep lighting the Shabbat candles. Don't forget the High Holidays," rabbis advise us.

Yet identity is an internal set, an organization of the self that is distinct from actions and behaviors. As so many of the stories in this book indicate, there is often a profound Jewish identity alive in people who do not participate in traditional Jewish ritual behavior. In addition to emphasizing Shabbat, rabbis could also advise, "What leaves you feeling the most Jewish? Tell that to and do that with your children." What we truly love and remember, what is embodied in our lives, will best communicate to children what it means to be Jewish.

To use synagogue attendance, knowing the Amidah, and pronunciation of specific prayers as markers of "Jewish identity" is to create a false sense of crisis. There are many individuals who are wrestling with what it means to be Jewish without participating in traditional ritual definitions of Judaism.

We need more meaningful rituals. Many Jewish organizations and policymakers don't get the distinction between behavior and identity. As a result we miss the opportunity for actually creating rituals and observances that truly speak to our lives. One rabbi, active in Jewish education and policy, spoke to me in a frustrated tone about policy discussions in synagogues and national organizations "where people keep wanting to support acts of traditional ritual behavior--how to get people to keep kosher, lighting the candles, knowing Hebrew, praying the synagogue." He described how many Jewish leaders miss the opportunity to develop new, experimental, more meaningful rituals because they don't look at the real lives of Jewish men and women today. "We need new prayers and ceremonies," he told me, citing, for example, how to provide Jewish markers for sending a child to college and the many other points of separation and leave-taking in our lives.

The bar and bat mitzvah ceremony is a profound and wonderful event, but it comes too early, it doesn't really do the job, and the ceremony is less the celebration of adulthood than the acknowledgment of the beginning of adolescence. Most children (and their parents) know that they are not truly the adults that they are said to be during the speechmaking. We need rituals near the end of adolescence as well. "How about prayers for the rabbi and family to say when giving car keys to an adolescent for the first time?" suggested the rabbi.

The bias toward seeing Jewish identification as age-old ritual behavior misses emergent forms of Jewish identification. And it may contribute to the "Jewish performance anxiety," the fear of not "doing it right" that inhibits many people from simply enjoying themselves in their worship. It can be helpful for rabbis, cantors, and laypeople to do a better job of modeling "not knowing" both in the synagogue and outside it. One of the joys of being Jewish can be the realization that you don't have to know it all or do it just right.

A final implication that stands out from the stories I've heard is the importance of getting past "Jewish myopia." For many Jews, to find a personally meaningful Judaism means to connect to the world, and not just with "the chosen people." After centuries of distrust, pogroms, Hitler, how do we build bridges to other faiths, to other people? When one Jewish social activist mentioned an example of her work investing in public housing in Chicago, she spoke of how "our issue of being American Jews is to share the concern of the fate of non-Jewish neighbors, all of us responsibly involved in multifaith issues." She said, "A Jewish issue is whether housing is available for all where we live, whether there is decent health care for all kids."

For her, to be Jewish meant to find common ground with non-Jews. It's not necessary to become a social activist to get past the myopia that religion can bring with it; the same sensibility is possible within traditional observance. So, for example, in a recent article discussing the kashrut observance, Rabbi Rolando Matalon wondered whether everything becomes kosher in kashrut. He noted first that some of the more extreme prohibitions in the kashrut practice seem rooted in the "fear of being engulfed and the need to create boundaries in order to preserve.religious and social identity." In today's world, Matalon wrote, "Rather than serving to marginalize us, kashrut must be transformed into an instrument for sharing food with others and with 'the other' in sacred encounter." He specifically pointed to the aspects of kashrut that "foster mistrust and separation of 'the other,'" including, as in one example, the practice of many Jewish schools to forbid their students to share the food they bring from home, a rule intended to allow children from homes with different levels of observance to attend the same school but which has the effect of sending the message "that kashrut equals not sharing."

Emergent forms of Jewish identification today may have less to do with being Jewish in the traditionally observant (and observable) sense and more to do with being a good person in the world, interconnected with others.

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