For many Jews today, religion is a closed book. Most Jewish institutions offer little more than the calcified shell that once protected the spiritual insights at its core. Disaffected with their synagogues' emphasis on self-preservation and obsession with intermarriage, most Jews looking for an intelligent inquiry into the nature of spirituality have turned elsewhere, or nowhere.
Meanwhile, faced with the chaos of modern life, others have returned to Judaism in the hope of finding a traditional community with concrete values and well-designed rules. These "returnees" run back to Judaism with a blind and desperate faith and are quickly absorbed by "outreach" organizations, which--in return for money--offer compelling evidence that God exists, that the Jews are indeed the Lord's "chosen people," and that those who adhere to this righteous path will never have to ask themselves another difficult question again.
Ironically, the texts and practices making up Judaism were designed to avert just such a scenario. The Jewish tradition stresses transparency, open-ended inquiry, assimilation of the foreign, and a commitment to conscious living. Most of all, it invites inquiry and change. It is a tradition born out of revolution, committed to evolution, and always willing to undergo renaissance at a moment's notice.
Judaism is open to discussion. It can be questioned and reinterpreted; indeed, it is supposed to be questioned, continually. This very discussion--this quest to discover the truth about Judaism and then reinterpret it for a new era--is nothing new. It is, rather, a continuation of the Jewish tradition for collaborative reinvention.
While Judaism holds no exclusive claim to iconoclasm, community ethos, or media literacy, its foundation in these values and its ability to translate them into life practices make it an indispensable resource to a civilization experiencing such a series of disorienting shifts. By reviving this tradition's core values within a modern context, and restoring its emphasis on inquiry over certainty and humidity over sanctity, we may discover a truly rewarding path for disaffected Jews and a set of powerful tools for anyone wrestling with the challenges of contemporary life.
[.] Our civilization is facing the tremendous spiritual, economic, and cultural challenges posed by globalization, the triumph of science over nature, and the incalculable potential of new technologies. Judaism, instead of rising to meet these challenges, is obsessing with self-preservation. Instead of contending with, for example, the impact of market culture on our children, Jewish outreach groups are hiring trend watchers to help them market Judaism to younger audiences. Instead of analyzing and tempering the massive power of global corporations and their commercial expressions on the human psyche, Jewish institutions are reorganizing themselves to function more like them.
[.] Neither should Judaism be closeted, for the enjoyment of just a few. It is not only our tradition, but our explicit obligation to act as stewards for the greater society. With varying success, Jews such as Freud, Marx, and Einstein have wrestled with the biggest questions of their ages--and their greatest works were fundamentally informed by their Jewish outlooks. Today, those who work in analogous realms are derided as "secular" at best, and more often "lapsed" or, in a recently coined term, "latent" Jews.
Every once in a while, however, I wonder if we so-called lapsed Jews might be the true keepers of the ham. Maybe it is not only our right, but our responsibility to legitimize the practices of ourselves and our peers by demonstrating their consistency with core Jewish values. Rather than admit defeat and withdraw from the debate about how Judaism should be carried forth into the twenty-first century, maybe we should engage in this discussion on equal footing. The tradition demands that these views be heard and, at the very least, considered before being dismissed.
A radical reappraisal of Judaism's ability to contribute to modernity is long overdue, and our refusal to do so is sending the best minds and voices of a generation to more accessible and less self-obsessed faiths like Buddhism and Hinduism. Not that these alternatives are lacking their own truths; they are not. Still, the challenges ahead are complex and multifaceted, and we should not deprive ourselves of any culture's wisdom--least of all our own.
This means opening the conversation, as Jews have done so many times before, to the ideas of anyone who comes to the table. If Judaism is to extend its own evolution into a fourth millennium, we must learn to regard its most sacred teachings as open for discussion.