Beyond Tradition

Beyond Tradition

INTRODUCTION By Bonnie Cousens

For much of the past two thousand years, there has been an official Judaism. Jews have been told which behaviors, which beliefs combined to make a Jew, and they have been told the price of deviation from the norm. Judaism has been fairly monolithic. Leaders changed, beliefs and practices changed, but Judaism remained identifiable and relatively unified. Although there were individuals – like Elisha ben Abuyah and Baruch Spinoza – and groups – like the Karaites and Hasidim – who challenged accepted tenets of Judaism, most Jews accepted the Judaism of their leaders as their religion and their way of life.

At the end of the eighteenth century, society began to change. The Enlightenment, and its Jewish counterpart, the Haskala, offered Jews new opportunities, vast possibilities, a fresh and exciting lifestyle. By the beginning of the twentieth century, Jews faced a “radical discontinuity” between their modern lifestyle and their lifestyle of the past. A new Jew, yehudi hadash, was born; new options within Judaism appeared. Jewish identity became subject to choice. Jews could attempt to return to their past, rejecting assimilation and the modem ideas that were introduced by the Haskala. Or they could engage in a holding action, attempting to preserve as much of the past as possible, while opting to live in the present as much as the practices and beliefs of the past would allow. Many chose a third option: creating new ways to be Jewish, rooted in the past, but not a slave to it. These Jews, and the new Jewish identities they created, provide the starting point for Colloquium ’99: “Beyond Tradition, The Struggle for a New Jewish Identity.”

It is not enough to merely talk about the excitement of creating the new Jew, of founding new movements within Judaism. We must also examine what has happened to these bold options within Jewish identity. We must ask difficult questions: What constitutes a full and meaningful Jewish life? Did the Enlightenment undermine Jewish faith and lead to assimilation? Is the return to tradition the Jewish answer for non-traditional Jews? Have the Reform and Reconstructionist movements betrayed their founding vision? What happened to the secular vision of the Zionist movement? Can Jewish feminism find its roots in Jewish tradition? How do we establish an appropriate balance between tradition and innovation, between continuity and creativity? Is Jewish survival the most important value of Jewish life? Is it important for Jews to remain Jewish? Does Judaism in modern times bear a unique message that cannot be found in any other place? What is the place of a Jewish state in Jewish self-awareness?

Colloquium ’99 sought to answer these questions, and to explore what we can do to create a Jewish identity that will blaze a path “beyond tradition” to a meaningful Jewish life in the twenty-first century.

From October 7-10, 1999, more than three hundred people gathered at The Birmingham Temple in suburban Detroit for Colloquium ’99. Often called a voice for secular Jews in Israel, columnist and author Ze’ev Chafets set the stage for our exploration of Jewish identity. Speaking from his own experiences, he boldly stated that the messages of the past no longer work because they are no longer relevant. Stressing that the old taboos no longer apply, Chafets examined the reality of Jewish demographics today. As he explored the changes that have occurred in the past fifty years, he led us to an inevitable conclusion: It is impossible to predict what Jewish identity will become. Jewish identity in the twenty-first century will be whatever Jews want it to be. Just as Jews created bold, new options one hundred years ago, so will future generations create bold, meaningful options for themselves. Ending on an optimistic note, Chafets emphatically stated that the Jews have proven themselves to be expert survivors. We do not have to worry about the survival of Judaism.

We began our exploration of the new Judaisms of the past two centuries with the birth of Reform Judaism. Dan Cohn-Sherbok, professor of Judaism at the University of Wales and a Reform rabbi, characterized Reform Judaism not as a movement of radicals but as representative of a drive for respectability among Jews. Depicting Reform Judaism as symbolic of an enlightened, modernized, rational form of Judaism, he contrasted it with what he described as the stifling narrowness of orthodoxy. The early reformers were not religious revolutionaries. They were merely seeking social acceptance and integration into the secular world. As Cohn-Sherbok led us from the modest changes in Jewish practice made by the early reformers through the 1869 Philadelphia conference of American Reform rabbis and the establishment of the Union of American Hebrew Congregations up to the radical break with the past that the Pittsburgh Platform of 1889 represented, we discovered a movement that had daringly shattered the walls of the ghetto, creating a transformation in Judaism. Reform Judaism, at the beginning of the twentieth century, boldly provided Jews an escape route from the isolation for the past, a path to a successful secular life in which Judaism ceased to be a way of life and became simply a religious belief system, connected to the past but not bound by it.

The first half of the twentieth century saw the rise of an even more radical departure from the tenets of orthodoxy. As described by Dr. Emanuel Goldsmith, a professor of Yiddish language and literature and rabbi of a Reconstructionist congregation in New York, Recontructionist Judaism, as conceived by its founder I Mordecai Kaplan, sought to preserve the culture, the ethnicity, the ethics, and the nationalism of rabbinic Judaism while rejecting its super-naturalism. Kaplan, as portrayed by Dr. Goldsmith, was an innovator, a philosopher whose ideas paved the way for the formal establishment of a new movement within Judaism. For Kaplan, modernity was the test of tradition. He preached a Judaism for the present and the future, a religion that encouraged Jews to select from the past that which was meaningful and relevant in the modern world. But with Kaplan’s death in 1983, Kaplanian Reconstructionism entered a new era. Post-Kaplanianism, asserted Dr. Goldsmith, has replaced Kaplan’s concepts of ”transnatural” and ”religio-cultural” Judaism with a return to the symbols and practices of orthodoxy. Like Reform, Reconstructionism has forsaken the daring and openness of its founder, surrendering to it-rationalism and neomysticism and the quest for spirituality that is rampant at the close of the twentieth century.

The end of the nineteenth century saw the rise of another vital, active movement within Judaism, less religious but more political in nature: the Bund. The role of the Bund, as described by Dr. Jack Jacobs, professor of government at John Jay College, City University of New York, and a life-long secularist, was to instill a new spirit and vitality into the Jews of Eastern Europe. Dr. Jacobs carefully introduced us to the rise of the Bund as a mass movement in Jewish life. Focused on transforming the pale, timid Torah scholar of the shtetl into a vigorous, healthy, active, new Jew, the Bund enthusiastically embraced a Marxist socialism and cultural autonomy for the Jews of Russia while rejecting Zionism. Ultimately driven out of Russia by the Bolsheviks, the Bund prospered in Poland between the two world wars, creating a complete cultural, economic, and physical life for Polish Jews. But this prosperity was short-lived. With the coming of the Second World War, the Bund was all but wiped out. Despite tales of courage and bravery among Bundists who dared to fight back, the story Jacobs told was a tragic one. Only a handful of Bundist leaders survived the war, their world erased by the Holocaust. Today, those survivors and their descendants proudly strive to maintain their traditions in the countries they now call home. But, as Dr. Jacobs sadly related, prospects for the survival of the Bund are not good. With its proponents slowly dying, Yiddish disappearing, Jewish economic prosperity undermining socialism, and Zionism realized, there is little but a legacy remaining of this vibrant organization of the first half of the twentieth century.

Zionism, a movement born, like the Bund, in the nationalistic fervor that marked the end of the nineteenth century, appears to be a success. Its goal — the creation of a sovereign Jewish state, a state built on Jewish values – appears to have been achieved. But, as we listened to the tale related by former Knesset member and cabinet minister and founder of the Ratz party in Israel (now part of the Meretz coalition), Shulamit Aloni, we discovered that appearances can be deceiving. The secular founders of the Jewish state, with whom Ms. Aloni stood, sought to create ”new Jews” who would be free in their own land, a unified Jewish state exemplifying the values of freedom, peace, justice, liberty, and equality. Ms. Aloni boldly charged that these values have been betrayed. Despite the successes, despite the victories, Ms. Aloni claimed, the country that wanted to be a free, liberal democracy has become a state of warring parties, in which the religious parties control the granting of freedom and equality. No constitution, no bill of rights, has ever been adopted. In an effort to unify the settlers of the new state, who arrived from around the world, the secular founders sought to build coalitions among the various parties, many of whom were driven by ethnocentrism and a desire for power. However, Ms. Aloni offered us hope: In a state that guarantees freedom of speech and the right of assembly, new parties will form, new ideas will be heard, and new freedoms will be claimed. A free, democratic society can be created in Israel; the ideals of its secular founders can be fulfilled.

Joseph Chuman, a long-time leader in the Ethical Culture movement, visiting professor at Columbia University, and faculty member of the International Institute for Secular Humanistic Judaism, introduced us to another incarnation of the new Jew: the cosmopolitan Jew. The Haskala, according to Chuman, unleashed in many Jews an activism and trust for freedom. Embracing modernity, the cosmopolitan Jew rejected the parochial, marginal role tradition demanded. Halakha makes the requirements of Jewish identity very clear. But, claimed Chuman, it cannot be the only arbiter. Freedom of choice must be the guiding principle in all things, including religion. Universalism, a natural outgrowth of the Enlightenment, had great appeal for many Jews who sought integration and assimilation. And, related Chuman, the cosmopolitan Jew, believing in a social conscience, was ready for a movement espousing universal ideals, thus setting the stage for classical Reform Judaism as well as for Felix Adler and the birth of Ethical Culture. Though not a specifically Jewish movement, Ethical Culture attracted many Jews. Whatever the choice one makes, it is clear, asserted Chuman, that the option to choose from among many Jewish identities, or even to discard Jewishness altogether is a freedom that will not be relinquished easily.

Just as the Enlightenment inspired many new options in Judaism at the turn of the century, it continues to give shape to new movements, sometimes bold, sometimes innovative, that seek to reshape Jewish identity into a philosophy that has meaning and value in the modem world.

Marcia Falk, noted author and liturgist, introduced us to a feminist Judaism. A powerful voice for a feminist spirituality, she described her thoughts upon first translating Shir haShirim (Song Of Songs). Her moving readings of her translations demonstrated the lyrical, passionate, erotic nature of a poetry she believes could only have been created by women. She asserted that it is dangerous to leave theology to theists. Building on the poetry of Shir haShirim and the feminist strand she believes was kept hidden by the patriarchs, Ms. Falk has assumed the responsibility of weaving these long unrecognized women’s voices wither own to create a feminist liturgy—from which she read with fervor—that captivated her audience.

The end Of the twentieth century has been marked by individual isolation and dissatisfaction, producing a quest for connection and spiritual enrichment. Tirzah Firestone, rabbi of the Jewish Renewal congregation in Boulder, Colorado, portrayed the Jewish Renewal movement as a response to this quest. Growing out of the ’60s, Renewal questioned the givens of traditional Judaism, seeking the divine impulse within each individual person. Rabbi Firestone described the Renewal movement as postdenominational, informed by the ethical, mystical, and spiritual texts of the past but willing to take prayers out of the synagogue, mold them, and really make them our own. Using music, poetry, dance, meditation, and what she described as “drashudrama,” a Renewal service, pieces of which she demonstrated, creates connection, mindfulness, joy, and a sense of peace and purpose in its adherents.

The final movement explored during Colloquium ’99 was Secular Humanistic Judaism. With communities, congregations, educational institutions, and organizations worldwide, this movement is rapidly becoming a force within Judaism today. The deans of the International Institute for Secular Humanistic Judaism – Rabbi Sherwin Wine, founder of Humanistic Judaism, and Yaakov Malkin, prominent Israeli scholar and professor at Tel Aviv University – spoke on creating a Secular and Humanistic Judaism.

Addressing the nature of Secular Judaism in Israel, Professor Malkin described a pluralistic culture bound by a common denominator: the quest for good in human beings. Stressing the importance of building on tradition, of not relinquishing our Jewish culture and heritage to the religious, he referred to himself as a ”a very traditional Jew,” saying that he is an atheist, his father was an atheist, and his grandfather was an atheist. He challenged us to create communities, to train “teachers of people” (Martin Buber’s moreh am), to create spirituality out of the symbols we embrace, to build and grow the Secular Humanistic movement.

Rabbi Sherwin Wine began with a description of the environment in which the new Jew lives, an urbanized world of affluence, achievement, choice, isolation, changing family structures, obsolescence, and spiritual yearning. He offered us thirteen requirements for a successful philosophy of life in this world, articulating how Humanistic Judaism provides the framework for building on our heritage, for answering the important questions in life, and for leading a meaningful life of truth, courage, and dignity.

Colloquium ’99 was the third such colloquium sponsored by the International Institute for Secular Humanistic Judaism to explore the critical issues of Jewish life today. Unique in its efforts to analyze the various Jewish options that grew out of the Enlightenment, the colloquium offered both speakers and audience the opportunity to understand and evaluate modern Judaisms. Participants praised Colloquium ’99 for bringing together spokespeople from the new Judaisms of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries to explore the pluralistic Jewish mosaic that enters the twenty-first century.

The International Institute has collected some of the presentations of the speakers in this volume to enable readers to better consider and explore the ideas expressed during the weekend. We hope you will find the published talks interesting and provocative. DVD recordings of the presentations, which will enable you to better share in the excitement of the colloquium weekend, are available from the International Institute.

Note: Readers might notice inconsistencies in the transliterations found in this volume. These are the result of preserving the individual preferences of the authors.