It was August 1981 when I got the news. I was really excited — and equally nervous. Because I knew that sharing it with my Dad would mean a clash of two religions — Judaism on the one hand, high school football in Texas on the other. Admittedly, making varsity wasn’t a terribly big deal at my school — we were hardly an athletic powerhouse — still, it meant games on Friday nights in front of stands full of students. But in the Dow house, Friday night lights meant Sabbath candles & dinner with family. My Dad Melvin was well-known for his sharp mind & keen intellect — less so for his patience & flexibility. So with some serious trepidation, I told him the news.
“That’s great, congratulations! And don’t worry, we’ll figure it out.” I was relieved — and surprised. My father had long been my greatest teacher on subjects like Jewish history & Rabbinic discourse — both of which were regular parts of the hand-written, Xeroxed discussions we had every Shabbat — but in this case, he modeled something entirely new, ritual modification.
To be sure, there is often an alluring power in maintaining ancient traditions. They can connect us with history, community, divinity. For example, when my son was born, I knew he would be circumcised — a sign of the Covenant between Abraham & God according to Jewish law; my reasoning wasn’t irrational, but it didn’t depend on medical science either. In my view, the practice is tantamount to tribal marking. And yet, I did it anyway. Still, change does seem compelling in some cases.
When a group of rabbis met in Pittsburgh about 100 years before my football story above, they believed that modernizing Judaism was the only way to ensure its relevance & survival. They argued that maintaining certain Biblical rites was “more likely to obstruct than further spiritual elevation.” (Think animal sacrifice, for example.) But the first Reform Rabbis went too far. They used terms like “Mosaic law,” not “Torah,” preferred English to Hebrew, and ridded themselves of kashrut & kippot. Leaving aside their rejection of Jewish Peoplehood, their rejection of so many distinctive practices resulted in a loss of differentiated identity. In time, however, the pendulum swung back. Today’s Reform Judaism is a rich, beautiful blend of then & now.
Still, how to pray is one thing — it’s a matter of personal preference — but who can pray is another, it’s a matter of right & wrong. Put another way, whether an ancient ritual still “speaks to us spiritually” is completely subjective; but do we really want to relegate ethical considerations in the same way? Moral absolutes may be risky, but relativism is dangerous too. Of course, acquiescence is easier, so the question is what prompts us to act.
Last month, my twins celebrated their Bar & Bat Mitzvah — it was a joyous & moving occasion. I can’t imagine my daughter not having been a part of it — nor can I imagine subscribing to a religion that would not have allowed her to do so. But that was the case until relatively recently, when a radical Reconstructionist named Mordechai Kaplan challenged authority & convention in order to create a new norm. I’m thankful that he did.
With my father, the inducement was strategic; with the Reform Movement it was spiritual; and with Rabbi Kaplan, it was moral. The prompts may have been different, but in all these cases, ritual modification was a wise response. For those of us who value our relationship with Judaism, the challenge will always be when, whether & how to modify — not to lessen, but to strengthen.