Lonye Debra Rasch
Hadassah Editor, Writer and Member, Hadassah's National Assembly

Jewish Continuity Reimagined

Image courtesy of Hadassah.
Image courtesy of Hadassah.

If an original Steinway grand piano is completely rebuilt, is it still an original Steinway?

Rabbi Angela Buchdahl, senior rabbi of New York City’s Central Synagogue, posed this question during a recent meditation session. She had been telling the story of a Steinway grand piano owned by her husband Jacob’s grandfather. Though the family heirloom had been sold long ago, Jacob, a pianist himself, had dreamed of owning an original Steinway.

Finally, many years later, a dealer tracked one down for him and the Buchdahls bought it. Though an original Steinway, it desperately needed repair. A restorer gutted the insides and inserted a new soundboard, new keys, new pins and new hammers. He even stripped the shell’s veneer and replaced it with new wood. Rabbi Buchdahl wondered, “Could I call it an original Steinway anymore?”

Why this story?

Rabbi Buchdahl noted that, like the piano, Central Synagogue no longer has any of its original “components.” None of the original clergy remain. The community membership has changed since the synagogue’s formation. The liturgical melodies the congregation chants are different. “Is it enough that we are housed in the same sanctuary?” she asked. And “What can we change and what must remain the same for an identity to have some type of continuity over time?”

Rabbi Buchdahl proposed that continuity is “the continued ‘doing’ of Judaism, even though it will look different, sound different and feel different.” She explained  that, just as, in playing his restored Steinway, Jacob connects to his grandfather and his family’s past, so, too, the “doing” of Judaism creates Jewish continuity.

I have thought often about what constitutes Jewish continuity. To what extent can I transform Jewish ritual and tradition and still claim I am preserving Judaism?

I tell myself that if I grasp and retain the essence of Jewish spirituality, I am practicing Judaism. For example, I usher in Shabbat by lighting Shabbat candles. Once I say the blessing over the candles, I thank God for specific blessings in my life and, sometimes, request healing for those I love who are suffering. (Occasionally, I also request something for myself.) But I can’t say that I follow through with the rest of the Shabbat mandates, whether engaging in prayer or studying Torah.

I know that many people will emphatically say that just lighting Shabbat candles is a ridiculously truncated version of Judaism. But, for me, this one tradition keeps alive two of Judaism’s core tenets: pausing to appreciate my portion in life (samayach b’chelki) and maintaining a direct relationship with God by initiating a conversation each week.

In “How to Talk to God,”  Rabbi David Jaffee explains the Hasidic prayer practice of hitbodedut. Literally, he says, the word means “seclusion,” but it refers also to meditation, based on Hasidic Master Rabbi Nachman of Breslov’s practice of urging his followers “to set aside time every day to talk openly with God in one’s native language.”

Rabbi Jaffe says we can speak with God even if we are “completely removed from any relationship with God.” He adds, “Nothing is too big or too small for hitbodedut.

Just as I regularly light the Shabbat candles and speak briefly with God, my husband Stephen is “religious” about saying the kiddush over a glass of wine. Why? “It helps me to separate from the rest of the week and to enter a sacred space,” he says. Typically, he achieves this separation from his busy law practice by riding his bike outdoors, where nature becomes his synagogue.

Is this Jewish continuity? I think so, but here’s a stronger example:

Recently, I attended the bat mitzvah of a terrific young woman named Adrienne Numbers. Adrienne focused her “sermon” on the eternal light that God commanded the Jewish people to place above the Torah scrolls in the synagogue, as a reminder of God’s eternal presence. As Adrienne explained, light is a significant theme in Judaism. For example, God tells the Jewish people to be a light unto the nations. “We,” she said, “are called to be a light in the world,” because God’s light is within us. “We can set an example for others to follow and help repair our world.”

Adrienne emphasized that the light over our Torah is always there to remind us that “all our ethics and behavior, every day, should reflect the light within us.”

As Adrienne’s words uplifted me, an optimism surged through me, for I sensed that she had captured Judaism’s spiritual essence. I realized that, if that essence continues to be valued from generation to generation, we won’t have to worry about Jewish continuity. Even if future generations sustain Judaism in a way unfamiliar to us, Jewish values will endure and nurture our world.

About the Author
Lonye Debra Rasch is a special projects writer and editor for Hadassah, The Women’s Zionist Organization of America and Hadassah International, HWZOA’s global fundraising arm. She is also a member of the Hadassah Writers' Circle. Having spent her professional writing and editing career specializing in health care and psychology, she now is a volunteer full time and a member of HWZOA’s National Assembly, its governing body. Married to an international attorney, she is the mother of two daughters and the grandmother of three small children. She is a big advocate of practicing yoga, being a member of a book club group with smart, kind women, and spending time laughing and sharing life’s little sagas with family and friends. She lives Short Hills, NJ, and New York City and is the past president of Hadassah Northern New Jersey.
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