By Joel Berger
It may sound extreme, but for me, this is reality. While an overwhelming majority of Jews take pride in being Jewish from an ethno-cultural standpoint, a growing number are exiting the religious component. Our current brand of Judaism — rabbinical Judaism — has existed in more or less its current permutation since about the time of the destruction of the Second Temple. It seems however, that the challenges of societal emancipation and modernity may prove to be more imposing. I know I am not alone in saying, the current practice of prayer and worship are lost on me.
Why do I feel this way? Like a majority of American Jews, I do not believe in a metaphysical God to whom we worship yet our siddurim in all denominations contain these esoteric and sometimes, off-putting prayers and responsive readings. Secondly, before we were well-integrated into American culture, even if Jews remained agnostic or atheistic about what was said in the sanctuary or written in the siddur, the synagogue at least served the purpose of providing us with a sense of community to an otherwise ostracized people. Thankfully though, this is no longer the case. Jews are widely accepted and integrated into essentially every societal arena. Today we seemingly are at the point where for most Jews, neither organized worship nor synagogue attendance is relevant. Perhaps this is why service attendance is sparse and membership is declining.
In his essay, “A Judaism engaged with the world,” Rabbi Jonathan Sacks articulated it insightfully when he wrote, “Jews are either engaging with the world at the cost of disengaging from Judaism, or engaging with Judaism at the cost of disengaging from the world.” His statement begs the question, how can we reshape the spiritual practice of Judaism to better engage with our current society? Rabbi Sacks saw Judaism as God’s call to human responsibility to bring the world closer to the world that ought to be. As Jews, we must ask ourselves, do our current religious practices lead us to this goal?
The picture I just painted sounds dire but it doesn’t have to be. I count myself in a group of Jews termed “disaffected but hopeful.” If we want Judaism to thrive and to inspire; if we want to — as Rabbi Sacks put it — build a society based on Torah values of righteousness, justice, kindness, and compassion commanded to us, the spiritual practice is in need of emergent innovations. Can we draw inspiration from the 2,000 year old example of the rabbis to reimagine a newer, more relevant Judaism today?
As a mohel, I am privileged to bring newborns into our sacred covenant—to welcome them to the traditions of Torah (learning), chuppah (marriage/family), and ma’asim tovim (good deeds). Let’s now ask ourselves, do our current spiritual practices effectively promote these philosophies or are they in need of revision?
I don’t have the chutzpah to pretend I know the answers, but if you have opinions or ideas please be in touch so maybe in our own hinterland of New Mexico we can begin some experimentation.