Untraditional in a traditional age – The future of British Jewry

While Masoret – tradition from Moses (as he heard it from God) passed through each generation – was the fabric of our faith, tradition took on a different expression narrated in Fiddler on the Roof and experienced through the practice of ‘traditional’ Judaism in today’s modern world. For the last centuries Jewish philosophers and Rabbis have addressed this dilemma of Judaism vs modernity.

I began writing this article a few months ago but it has new meaning with the incredible report by the Institute for Jewish Policy Research on the state of British Jewry.

For the first time ‘Jewish identity’ can be studied and analyzed, no doubt further comments will fill newspaper pages. As pulpit Rabbi of The Saatchi Shul, a Shul that does outreach as well as tradition, this report is most inspiring, but not surprising.

My average week consists of a flurry of questions: Rabbi, I took my boys to Shul each week, why don’t they do Friday Night with their families? Rabbi, can my non-Jewish fiancé and I come meet with you? Rabbi, my husband is becoming too religious for me!

This article should speak to the many, and there are many, who consider themselves ‘traditional’ and middle of the road. You see after all we are in the middle of the road. I write to parents with children who will have a bar/bat mitzvah, seniors whose sons and daughters are married, and to the ‘seculars’ who believe that being an upright British citizen is equal to, or more important than, being Jewish.

The world around is free. Yet, technology has ever more control of what we want, when we want it, and how we communicate it. The advertisers know where we check in, what we have liked and who we follow. The life that we lead is well determined too: education, friends, holidays and careers. Of course we have choice. But democracy has become the age of the common denominator. We do not ask: How honest ought a man be, but: how honest are most men? Not: what books are the best, but: what books do most people read? In other words: The world as we know is Traditional.

Judaism was never meant to be traditional. Tradition means doing something because someone else did it at some other time. This has left us with Passover, Kosher and some high holyday participation. We must be totally untraditional we must live each step of Judaism like no one ever lived it before. Bechol yom veyam cahyav adam lirot et atzmo kelu yatza mimittzarayim. In every generation one must look upon himself as if he personally had gone out of Egypt. And Judaism means something different at each step.

Your son’s Bar Mitzvah, should be like the very first that ever was. What importance would that mean to him? The Shabbat dinner like the very first Shabbat that ever was. What is its significance to you? Why are you doing it?

Torah and Mitzvot are not to restrict us, or drive us left or right. Rather to liberate us and guide us as we journey through the middle of the road, of life. Meaning, purpose, spirit and support in the ritual and traditional life we find ourselves in.

Facebook, Instagram and Twitter help you communicate with others. The Torah and Mitzvot are there, to help you communicate with yourself. Be the best you, and then be the best to everyone else that needs you.

The Kotzker Rebbe used to tell followers, who would come to the city of Kotzk to study with him: “Remember: you may think you came to Kotzk to find God. But why would you think you need to find God? We know where God is! God is everywhere! If you want to find God, you might as well stay at home. You may think you came to Kotzk to learn Torah. But there are other places to learn Torah. The real reason why you came to Kotzk is — to find yourself — to gain a glimmering of God’s plan for your life –to figure out your character, your dreams, your destiny. That is why you came to Kotzk.”

We live in a traditional time and the Torah has timeless untraditional perspectives. Click here for the report

About the Author
Rabbi Mendel Cohen serves as Rabbi at The Saatchi & St Johns Wood United Synagogue.