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The Rabbi Writes

The Jewish Humanist, January 1983, Vol. XX, Number 6

1983. It’s our 20th anniversary year. 

In July of 1963, the idea of the Birmingham Temple was born. In September we held our first meeting. In November we were chartered. 

Some said that we would never last. But we lasted. And we grew stronger. And we helped to create sister congregations in other communities. 

What did we learn during the past twenty years? 

We discovered that we did not have to be imprisoned by the past. If neither Orthodoxy nor Conservatism nor Reform fit our beliefs, we did not have to adjust to what was unacceptable. We did not have to succumb to cynical resignation. We could pioneer an alternative that had never been tried before and make it work. 

We learned that maintaining our integrity helped us deal with hostility. The intimidation techniques of our enemies were less effective so long as we were defending what we really believed. Compromise would have undermined our self-esteem and made us vulnerable to attack. Beyond our integrity, boldness was our greatest asset. 

We discovered that we could be truly creative. Since there was no readily available working tradition for humanistic Judaism we had to make our own. We redid the holidays. We wrote new services. We transformed the Bar and Bat Mitsvah (sic) ceremony. We invented a new form of Jewish education. Our commitments forced us to do what we never planned to do. They made us see our own talents. 

We learn that we were able to serve people who had never been adequately served before by institutional life. Most of our first members were peripheral Jews who found their Jewish involvements uncomfortable and compromising. They never imagined that it was possible for them to feel at the center of Jewish commitment. But the Temple gave them a philosophic home where they never had to feel like strangers. 

We discovered that we were saying out loud what many people already believed. The Temple made no converts. It simply became a public voice for people who never had one before. The liberation of humanistic Jews is not their awakening to secular truth. It is a willingness to go public.  

We learned that we enjoyed pioneering. Starting something new was even more fun than inheriting something old. It enabled us to focus on our own present needs and not the needs of ancestors who had died a long time ago. We felt unique and useful. The pleasure of being our own person made up for any residual guilt that gave us anxiety. 

We discovered that we were continually changing. Some of our enemies claimed that we would end up as rigid and dogmatic as the people we opposed. But, very early, we experienced the frustration of trying things that didn’t work. We learned to try, to test and to choose. Our members were too good humored to let any procedure become sacred. Some of our first songs have been justifiably forgotten. And some of our best celebrations are very new. 

We learned that we could transmit our philosophy to the next generation. Many skeptics wondered whether children in a conventional religious world could embrace the humanistic alternative. But we saw our children grow up to enjoy the humanistic answers and to become articulate spokespeople for the Temple point of view. We developed a sense of continuity. 

We discovered that it is sometimes hard to be a humanistic Jew. We were denied the ease of joining just a neighborhood congregation. Joining the Birmingham Temple meant continuous training. Our friends, neighbors and associates did not regard our affiliation with indifference. We had to defend, to explain, to justify. And, in the process, we had to work hard at understanding our philosophy. Members of other congregations could hide behind the respectability. We had to prove ourselves. 

We learned, above all, that shared values and ideas help to develop a community. We started out as strangers who came together for philosophical reasons. But our common commitments made it easier for us to become friends. Our first attachments were to ideas. But they deepened into connections with people. The history of our temple is a story of friendship and community. We have always wanted to be for (sic) more than a discussion society. We have striven to become a family of choice. 

We have discovered many things in twenty years. They are part of our unique tradition.  

The Rabbi Writes – The Return to Tradition

Volume 13, No.6, February 1976

Are Jews returning to tradition?

Is orthodoxy on the upswing?

Is humanism passe?

Some say yes. They cite the following evidence.

The Lubavitcher Hasidim are popular, militant and growing in number. The public display of the yarmulka is increasing. Reform Temples have embraced Hebrew, Barmitsvas and prayer shawls. Parochial schools are getting bigger and bigger. Rabbinic students at the Conservative Jewish Theological Seminary are doing more and more ritual.

Denunciations of intermarriage are getting louder and louder. More and more Jews are wearing mezuzas around their necks. More and more Jewish students have signed up for courses about Jewish tradition at secular universities throughout America.

Etc. etc….

What does it all mean? Have secularized Jews seen the theological light? Has the recession exposed the futility of material pursuits and revived an interest in old-time spiritual values? Have young Jews discovered that the new American life style is vacuous and now yearn for the meaningful discipline of the old halakha?

Before we answer the questions, a few facts are appropriate.

1 There is no evidence that the behavior of Jews outside the synagogue has changed. Pre-marital sex, frequent divorce, intermarriage and female equality are on the increase. The pursuit of leisure, pleasure and individual happiness is absorbing not only the young but also the middle- aged and the old. The life styles of most contemporary Jews, even those who profess a love of tradition, is in total opposition to the decrees of both the Bible and the Talmud. A nude bathing pre-medical student who lives with her boyfriend in Ann Arbor, who refuses to eat pork as an affirmation of her Jewish identity is hardly a return to a tradition. Even without pork she would give Hillel a heart attack.

2. Orthodox Judaism has become Americanized. At one time the leadership of traditional Jewry was foreign and Yiddish speaking. It was unable to compete with the assimilated graces of Reform rabbis. It lacked the skills for successful social exposure. This past reality is not the present one. What we are now experiencing is the new-found articulation of people who could never before claim the public forum. Orthodox Jews today are as well-educated and as Americanized as their liberal opposition. Their new-found aggressiveness is a sign of their new security in the American environment. It is not a sign that they are holding or recruiting large numbers of American Jews to traditional life. Christian fundamentalism is more vocal and more conspicuous in urban America – not because thousands of new recruits are flocking to its standards but because the lower- class Appalachian refugee has now come into his own power and affluence in Northern cities.

3. Jewish ethnicity has lost its major expression in America. The Yiddish language is, for all practical purposes, dead. A non-observant Yiddish speaking atheist had no trouble identifying himself as a Jew or being identified as a Jew. But secularized Jews who have lost their linguistic uniqueness are now struggling to find other unique forms of Jewish behavior. In the absence of secular Jewish creativity, they are forced to turn to the one remaining behavior pattern which is uniquely Jewish – traditional religious ritual. Since they have no serious intent to adopt a traditional life style, and since they are totally divorced from the cultural context in which these rituals had meaning, they dabble in Jewish exotica. Mezuzas which are intended for doorposts are hung around necks. Avoiding pork becomes a dramatic gesture in seafood tasty Chinese restaurants. The kiddush becomes the family introduction to the busiest day of the week. Nostalgia in bad taste is hardly a return to tradition. It is simply a sign of secular laziness.

Is there a return to orthodoxy?

Not really.

In an age of life-style transition Jews who want to be Jewish are looking for unique ways to identify themselves to others.

Nostalgia most likely won’t work for long.

The only solution is to create new Jewish rituals that really fit our new life-style.

After all, celebrating Einstein’s birthday may have a lot more contemporary meaning than crying over the tallis you never use.

Modern Orthodox Judaism

“Modern Orthodox Judaism” from Judaism Beyond God (1985)

Modem Orthodoxy is the establishment Judaism of Western Europe. It is sedate and decorous. It is traditional and secular. Its leaders receive a good secular education and train in modern seminaries. Its members participate in all the professions of an urban society. Appearance-wise, they are indistinguishable from all the other citizens of the secular state. What is unique about their behavior is mainly evident in their homes and synagogues. These institutions become the focus of their traditional attachments. Since most of the unique behavior patterns of the rabbinic lifestyle are incongruous with secular existence, they are praised but rarely observed. Female segregation, ritual purity, and the dress code do not find any real community support and are not enforced by public opinion.

While it is important to the Modem Orthodox to be designated “Orthodox,” they are despised and denounced by the Rejectionists. Separate seating for the sexes in the synagogue is hardly a substitute for traditional belief. An “orthodoxy” that avoids discussing divine rewards and punishments, the salvation of the Messiah, the resurrection of the dead, and the importance of the World to Come undermines the motivation of the halakha and subverts the traditional justification for preserving Jewish identity. Proving that the dietary laws are good for health and hygiene (true or not) turns the argument into a rational consequential one and deprives the rabbinic tradition of the supernatural context out of which it arose.

The Rejectionists are right. Modern Orthodoxy sometimes looks like Orthodoxy. But it tastes different. And most of its adherents are more comfortable spending time with their secular friends than with pious Hasidim.