Aaron Starr
Rabbi, Senior Rabbinic Fellow of the Shalom Hartman Instiitute

When at the Crossroad, Do Something…

I used Facebook recently to ask of friends around the community, “What are the two biggest “challenges or obstacles” facing Judaism today? Or, alternatively, what two aspects of Judaism do you think ought to change in light of the 21st century in order to encourage more Jews to “do Jewish” deeply? The responses covered a variety of areas. Some suggested that 21st century non-Orthodox Jews need a Judaism not rooted in institutions, like synagogue or Federation. Others suggested that free day-school might be one step toward turning the tide. Many people spoke of expanding Jewish borders to permit intermarriage or simply to be less judgmental of others’ decisions. Still others said that Judaism needs to speak to contemporary problems like immigrant border crossings and others said we need to reinvent our prayer services so that they’re not 2.5 or 3 hours long.

I wonder how you would answer the question: What are the two biggest “challenges or obstacles” facing Judaism today? Or, alternatively, what two aspects of Judaism do you think ought to change in light of the 21st century in order to encourage more Jews to “do Jewish” deeply?

We are, I believe, at a crossroads in Jewish history. The theological ripples of the Holocaust and the birth of the State of Israel less than a century ago simultaneously challenge and affirm our traditional thinking about God and covenant, about notions of halachah and mitzvah. In addition, the success and prosperity of the American Jewish community are like nothing seen before in the history of the Jewish diaspora while, at the same time, predictions are rampant for the full assimilation of non-Orthodox Jews into mainstream America. We are at a precious moment in Jewish history, when we are confronted by complex moral and spiritual questions that transcend the application of ancient biblical and medieval rabbinic texts, when we must set our eyes to analyzing how generations of our biblical and rabbinic ancestors responded to revolutionary change in their day and time with an eye toward addressing the radical changes afoot in our own day and time.

Preparing then to confront multi-layered ethical and ritual questions that strain traditional answers, from gun control and immigration reform to contemporary modes of prayer and our relationship to Israel and the future of the American synagogue, we ascend the shoulders of the giants who came before in order to build upon their successes. We look backward in order to look forward.

We Jews know of two great epochs in our history and we stand at the cusp of the third. The first of those epochs, the biblical era, began that moment God called our patriarch Avram to go forth to abandon idolatry, to build a people and to pursue justice, and it continued through the destruction of the First Temple in Jerusalem; our subsequent expulsion to Babylonia, the first Jewish diaspora; and our return to the Land of Israel to rebuild the Temple. During that primarily agrarian existence that saw our people both in and out of the Land Israel, the Judaism of our ancestors enabled them to exert a sense of control over their own agricultural destiny by fulfilling the Commandments as part of the covenant. That is to say, if our ancestors followed God’s laws, food and water would be plentiful for them, crops would grow and streams would flow, and they would live safely in the land. If they failed to follow God’s laws, they would suffer famine and drought and their enemies would gain the upper hand.

We worshiped God in the Holy Temple through Temple sacrifices. We were instructed exactly how to utilize our homes and our farmland to care for the widow, the orphan, and the Jewish and non-Jewish poor among us. In so doing, by separating ourselves from the idolatrous practices of our neighbors and by directly caring for those living in need among us, we were to become a light unto all the nations of the world. Perhaps most importantly, we were to live as a kingdom of priests and as a holy nation and God judged us based both on the communal observance of the commandments and by the moral standards of our sovereign Jewish nation.

For our biblical ancestors’ demographics, geography, government and economy, the Bible answered the pressing moral and ritual questions of their day. However, that first great epoch of Jewish history, the biblical era, came to an end with our return to Jerusalem to build the Second Temple and our people experiencing a change in demographics, in government, in geography and in economy.

Thus began the second great epoch of our people, the rabbinic era, which saw the destruction of the Second Temple and second great expulsion from the Land of Israel. The early rabbis saw different circumstances than our biblical ancestors that affected how they sought to apply God’s will to their milieu. During this era and its nearly 2,000 years of exile, the rabbis responded to our inability to perform the sacrificial rites by creating thrice daily prayer. They responded to our loss of sovereignty and our miserable diaspora full of oppression, murder and suffering by teaching that reward for mitzvah observance comes not in this life but in the next life – that there is divine justice because in Heaven the good will get their reward, and they taught that we do not need Temple or prophets when we have the synagogue and rabbinic interpretation of the Torah.

In so doing, the number of commandments multiplied exponentially. Religious observance was recentralized to our synagogues, our learning centers, and to the Jewish home, where we served God through prayer and study, and we kept ourselves from assimilating by practicing a vast array of rites and rituals. The laws of tzedakah too changed dramatically, with money replacing agriculture as the means for providing for those in need. This rabbinic era also saw the expansion of ethical rules, of Jewish values, using the Bible as a base but extrapolating therefrom to govern our most intimate and our most anonymous of interpersonal relationships.

Moreover, whereas the biblical prophet Micah told us only to do justice, to love mercy, and to walk humbly with God, our rabbis created codes of law that quite literally govern every aspect of daily life. For example, did you know that traditionally there is a special order to how we put our shoes on? It’s true. We put our right shoe on and then our left, then we tie our left shoe before tying the right one (Orach Chayim 2:4). Or, when cutting our nails, we don’t cut the nails on 2 consecutive digits one after the other; instead, we skip every other one and then go back (Orach Chayim 260:1). In dictating the minutiae of daily living, our rabbis sought not only a path for us to feel God’s presence, but a distraction from the miserable, impoverished existence of living among a non-Jewish world that wished us harm. The lives of those to whom those rabbis dictated their teachings, were exilic lives; their interaction with their non-Jewish neighbors and especially their non-Jewish governments were at best, purely financial and were, at worst, murderous. In so living and teaching, our rabbis answered mostly out of fear and isolation the pressing moral and spiritual questions of their day.

The early Jewish pioneers of the modern period, that is to say, the framers of Reform and Conservative Judaism, proclaimed an end to that rabbinic era with the dawn of the Enlightenment – an era of science and technology, an era of biblical criticism and of mostly secular nationalism. Ushering in a third epoch of Jewish history that continues to unfold in our time, the massive migration of Jews from Russia in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, as well as the horrors of the Holocaust, brought an official end to European Jewry and understandably facilitated the rapid assimilation of its survivors into non-Orthodox, American Jewish practices as well as the birth of the State of Israel. Setting aside Israel for the time being, three-quarters of a century later, we see that American Jewry has achieved greater personal safety and financial success than at any other time in our diaspora history. As Rabbi Bradley Shavit Artson pointed out at my congregation a couple weeks ago, the Jewish man is even considered by non-Jewish women to be the most desirable type of spouse to attain! If that’s not a new era, I don’t know what is!

How then do we today answer the most pressing spiritual and moral quandaries, like “where is Heaven if we can enter outer-space?” Or, perhaps more timely, how do we balance our sense of moral obligation to those children detained rightly or wrongly and suffering at our southern border with the challenge of poverty and malnutrition of countless American citizens, including American children, around our great country today? Put more broadly, we are seeking to fulfill God’s expectations of us in our time for our time. We are wondering, with our advanced technology and radical autonomy, how to experience community and to establish a relationship with the Holy One. If the Bible primarily guided us through a time of national sovereignty, and the Mishnah, Talmud and Codes guided us through a time of diaspora oppression and persecution, we need new sources and insights in order gain moral clarity for today’s issues. In some moments, we must wisely and humbly choose to conform to 3,000 years of Jewish tradition and in other moments we must proudly revolutionize our practices so that Judaism will provide us with meaning and with purpose.

Left unchanged, in 25 or 50 or 100 years, non-Orthodox Judaism very well might disappear in America. We must determine how Judaism today can speak to the non-Orthodox in order to elevate the individual American Jew in deep, profound service to God. We must wrestle with how Judaism will, in an era of unprecedented globalism and intermingling, continue to unite us as a people with a shared history and a mutual destiny. We must work so that a person will choose as his or her primary identity a Jewish identity even though America offers a broad marketplace of sometimes competing and sometimes intersecting identities. We must be bold so that Judaism, amidst an American nation turning on itself, can continue to guide us in making ethical decisions to address the human condition here and around the world.

What is clear to me is that the next era of American Judaism is one that will have to contain bridges between the Orthodox and the non-Orthodox and between the non-Orthodox and the State of Israel. The next era of Judaism will need to offer a sense of continuity to the past and authenticity within the language of the Hebrew Bible and rabbinic discourses, while at the same utilizing the modes of the modern American who is more comfortable in the university than the synagogue or in the board room rather than the beit midrash.

What is clear to me is that birthrate matters, and that building Jewish families ought to be among our primary goals. What is clear to me is that the Jewish home is vastly more important than the synagogue but that the synagogue must educate us in all that Judaism provides regarding familial relationships and it must serve as a central address for joyful Jewish living. The synagogue must also serve as the spiritual collaboration center from which Jews unite to further their efforts toward g’milut chasadim (acts of Loving-Kindness) and toward fulfilling the various mitzvot that guide us in caring for those in need. The synagogue must remain the sanctuary where Jews come together to affirm through joyful and engaging prayer to express our individual hopes and collective aspirations, as well our profound gratitude for the many blessings life offers us. And what is clear to me is that rabbis and cantors are making prayer services way longer than anyone wants them to be.

I do not yet know entirely how to build this 21st century Judaism that is both relevant and deep. What I do know, though, is what we read in Pirkei Avot (2:16): “Lo alecha hamalacha ligmor v’lo ata ben chorin l’hibatel mimenah– we might not be able to complete all the work, but that does not mean we are free to do nothing.” What I do know is that we must explore these answers together, with kindness, compassion, and humility. What I do know is that when it comes to human suffering, whether  the plight of the immigrant or of the impoverished American, we must do something. And when it comes to strengthening the future of the Jewish people, even though we do not have all the answers figured out, we must do something.

So let’s do something … together, in open dialogue that is honest and at all times respectful and compassionate. Let us join on a journey of learning and discovery, of kindly listening to each other and humbly learning from each other. Let us find ways to come together in partnership in building a strong future for Jews and for Judaism. As it pertains to the leading spiritual and moral questions of our day as well as the crisis of identity within our own Jewish community I plead of you simply: no blaming; no finger-pointing; just that each of us should do something … together.

So, I ask you: What are the two biggest “challenges or obstacles” facing Judaism today? Or, alternatively, what two aspects of Judaism do you think ought to change in light of the 21st century in order to encourage more Jews to “do Jewish” deeply?

May our awareness of the Holy One fill us with a sense of humility and may our sense of God’s presence embolden us to act.

About the Author
Aaron Starr is a rabbi at Congregation Shaarey Zedek in Southfield, Michigan and a senior rabbinic fellow of the Shalom Hartman Institute. A member of the Conservative Movement's Rabbinical Assembly and the Michigan Board of Rabbis, Rabbi Starr is author of the books, "Don't Forget to Call Home: Lessons from God and Grandpa on a Life of Meaning," "Taste of Hebrew," and "Because I'm Jewish I Get to ...".
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