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RESPONSA – Sitting Shiva

Return to Tradition – Summer 1992

Question: Should Humanistic Jewish mourners sit shiva?

Responsum: The mourning practices of rabbinic Judaism were built around a belief system that no longer generally prevails in the Jewish community. This system began with an all-powerful judgmental God who was the master of life and death. Death was ambiguous. It might be a sign of divine anger and divine punishment. God’s dis­pleasure was not trivial. It needed to be countered. The deity needed to be ap­peased. And the spirit world of the dead, including evil and malevolent spirits, needed to be avoided and even driven away.

This ideology explains the traditional practice. Only the appearance of abject suffering and misery could persuade both God and the spirit world not to strike again. The mourners — the sons, daugh­ters, fathers, mothers, brothers, and sisters of the deceased — must be as pitiable as possible. They must tear their garments. They must sit on the ground or on harsh surfaces. They must not wash or dress in fine clothing. They must abstain from good food. They must not laugh or joke or participate in happy events. They must be confined to their homes during the first seven days (shiva) of mourning. If com­forters arrive, they must sit in silence until the mourners initiate conversation.

Of course, the ideological basis of tradi­tional mourning practices is unacceptable to us as Humanistic Jews. So is the notion of enforced suffering to ensure protection. Unwashed, uncomfortable, and underfed mourners are inconsistent with our view of dignified grief.

But the traditional mourning procedure had an unintended consequence. The prac­tice of staying home after the burial of loved ones to receive family and friends turned out to be therapeutic for mourners. In liberal circles, where most of the hard­ship routines were removed, being sur­rounded by caring friends became a won­derful source of human support.

Humanistic Judaism is very comfortable with a humanistic “shiva.” It does not have to last for seven days. It should last as long as the mourners want it. For some, one day may be enough; for others, eight days. Most Humanistic mourners choose three. A small minority find no need for any “shiva.”

Humanistic “shiva” is built around the notion that life and death are natural phe­nomena, with no intrusion by gods or spirits. It is based on the conviction that vulnerable mourners need as much human support as they can find. Mourners should be comfortable. Conversation should be free.

Many Humanistic Jews hold a brief commemorative celebration of the life of the deceased every evening, or one of the evenings, of the “shiva.” Family and friends sit in a circle and share stories about the life of the person who died. Prose readings and poetry selections about a humanistic response to death may be read. Inspirational songs may be sung. (Examples of these home commemoratives are avail­able from the Society for Humanistic Juda­ism.)

History is filled with ironies. What started out to serve one purpose later serves an­other.

“Shiva” has been transformed and is now ours.

The Return to Tradition

Return to Tradition, summer 1992

The return to tradition.

Everybody in the Jewish world is talking about it. Secular children have become Lubavitchers. Young, liberal couples are sending their children to day schools. Reform rabbis are donning yarmulkes and waist-length tallises. Lighting Shabbat candles with the children is becoming the rage. “Benching” is again a communal function.

There is no doubt that a significant shift has taken place in Jewish life, at least in conscious sentiment. The traditions of rab­binic Judaism, which were often mocked and discarded by the Jewish establishment and the Jewish masses in both the United States and Israel, are being treated with new reverence. Orthodoxy — once derided by reformers, liberals, and radicals as a dying superstition — has reclaimed its authority in Jewish life. Although most Jews no longer live by its precepts, they have come to believe that the “real” Juda­ism is traditional Judaism and that Ortho­doxy is the only true source of Jewish strength and survival.

Today, thousands of secular and liberal Jews give millions of dollars to the Lubavitchers. Although they are not pre­pared to change their personal lifestyle, they are prepared to support those who do. Today, feature writers about Jewish life in the Jewish and national press quote tradi­tional rabbis and religiously observant Jews in depicting what Judaism is all about. The writers have come to assume that Orthodox opinion is more authentically Jewish and, above all, more newsworthy. The Lubavitcher Rebbe and Shlomo Carlebach have become media stars. Even Reform and Conservative rabbis now praise Orthodoxy and designate the Orthodox as the hard­core saving remnant of Jewish spirituality. Liberals can afford to deviate from Ortho­doxy because the saving remnant guaran­tees the survival of the Jewish people.

The return to tradition is both nostalgic and radical. It is nostalgic because it seeks to recapture the Jewishness of the past. It is radical because it is often embraced by Jews whose families long since abandoned the religious tradition. The yarmulke as a familiar headgear on college campuses and at symphony concerts is something radi­cally new. Events and institutions created by the secular world are now deemed an appropriate setting for traditional “the­ater.”

Why this resurgence of Orthodox pres­tige and power?

The most obvious reason is concern for Jewish survival. The open society that liberal and secular Jews praised and de­fended has turned out to be a mixed bless­ing. Millions of Jews used their liberty to become educated and prosperous. They also chose to make their Jewishness a minimal commitment. While climbing the social ladder, Jews were enthusiastic about their freedom. Once they reached the top, anxiety set in. What if their incredible success in an open society should lead to assimilation and the disappearance of the Jewish people in the Diaspora? What if freedom should prove as powerful as the Holocaust in decimating the ranks of the Jewish people? The Orthodox insistence that they, and only they, can guarantee Jewish survival became a powerful appeal to guilty Jews who did not believe in Orthodoxy but who could not imagine any viable alternative.

The Americanization of the American Jew was completed by the 1960s. No new large wave of Jewish immigration appeared. Second- and third-generation American Jews felt comfortably American, especially with the decline of anti-Semitism. They felt no need to prove their American iden­tity by discarding the embarrassing ethnic baggage of the past. The de-WASPing of America and the rise of ethnic pride move­ments made them hungry for ethnic roots. The Eastern European shtetl, which their parents and grandparents had fled, was revived in romantic fantasy. Orthodoxy, which had been intimately woven into the fabric of this village life, was equally romanticized. Hasidic rebbes and Chelm stories became the rage. In a world where acting Anglo-Saxon was now easy and ordinary, dabbling in tradition became exotic and extraordinary.

The war in Vietnam helped to usher in what many intellectuals now designate as the postmodern world. Science, reason, and optimism were out. Spirituality, intu­ition, and pessimism were in. Objective truth vanished. Subjective feelings tri­umphed. Male left-brain “rigidity” was rejected. Female right-brain creativity was applauded. Meditation and mysticism be­came daily routines for millions.

In such an environment, the old super­stition turned into the new wisdom. The Torah became a fountain of spiritual truth. The Kabbala became the secret key to the universe. Roles were reversed. The spiritu­alists were on the attack. The rationalists were on the defensive. Jewish youth were caught up in the experiments of New Age thinking. If they had any strong Jewish interest, Jewish mysticism, or an Orthodox version thereof, was there for them.

Meanwhile, stimulated by the immigra­tion of militant ultra-Orthodox Jews after the Holocaust, American Orthodoxy had changed its organizational profile. Reject­ing the old self-image of being peripheral, passive, and doomed, which characterized prewar Orthodoxy, the Lubavitchers, in particular, wedded their reactionary mes­sage to the most advanced, American-style public relations techniques. They mobi­lized an army of underpaid devotees who were eager to become “missionaries” to the Jews. Their well-funded, aggressive stance became a role model for other tradi­tional groups. When the guilt of freedom, the search for romantic roots, and the postmodern world arrived, they were ready to take advantage of these new-found op­portunities. Like the Christian fundamen­talists, their zeal, combined with their organizational talents, made them much more skillful at recruitment than the smug establishment. The advertising and fol­low-up skills that secularists had invented were now theirs.

The most powerful reason for the return to tradition lies in the very nature of the Conservative, Reform, and Reconstruc­tionist movements. All three, from the very beginning, made a crucial, perhaps fatal, decision. In their eagerness for legitimacy, they sought to “kosherize” the changes, sometimes radical changes, that they were making. The authorities they chose to sanction these changes were the very docu­ments that Orthodoxy used. Like the Or­thodox, they appealed to the Torah and to the Talmud to give them permission to do what they did. Of course, they provided a different interpretation. But the problem was that the Torah and the Talmud are basically Orthodox documents. They fit Orthodox Judaism with very little adjust­ment. They do not fit Conservatism, Re­form, and Reconstructionism. A liberal Jewish lifestyle, embracing everything from free choice to feminism, cannot be derived from these documents, unless you burst them out of their context and make them mean what they obviously do not mean.

Conservative, Reform, and Reconstruc­tionist Jews are always apologizing, al­ways trying desperately to prove that they are Torah-true. But, as any observer can readily see, only the Orthodox are really Torah- and Talmud-true. If you base your legitimacy on the Torah and Talmud, and you are not Orthodox, you lack credibility. In the end, the sham and the pretense show through. Once the drive for social accep­tance with the secular world is spent, and the drive for Jewish authenticity begins, the only “authentic” movement is Ortho­doxy. Reform and Conservatism become merely watered-down derivatives. They have no real documents of their own. Their only strategy for survival is to do more and more Orthodox things. (Maybe if Reform Jews are dunked in mikvas, they will come to see Reform as more authentic!)

What does this return to tradition mean? What significance is to be found in the new Reform davening, in the fascination with traditional ritual, in the fervor of the new ba’al teshuva (returnee).

The first item of note is how thin it is. While a small minority of young Jews have become full returnees, repudiating the secu­lar world and joining ultra-Orthodox com­munities, the overwhelming majority of returnees are only partial. They want to do traditional things only once in a while, on a marathon weekend for Pesakh, at a bar mitsva, at a wedding, on a trip to Israel. They are too secular to want to do religion often. But when they do it, they want the “real” thing.

For this reason, the Conservative move­ment is shrinking and Reform is expand­ing. Conservative Judaism is not enough for the full returnee and too much for the partial returnee. Full returnees are turned off by the moderation of the Conservatives, while partial returnees do not want to be lectured about daily observances. Reform now provides a taste of tradition without burdening the returnee with the guilt of nonconformity. You can have your hour of traditional “schmaltz” on a Friday night or a Saturday morning and renew your secular life immediately afterward. You can belong to a Reform temple, sponsor a fundraising event for the Lubavitchers, and go to the symphony with your Gentile girlfriend. Partial returnees are rarely bur­dened with demands for consistency. They can feel traditional without doing many traditional things. Tradition is a “now” experience instead of a consistent life plan.

The return to tradition means the death of ideology in Jewish life. Contemporary returnees are rarely interested in the ques­tion “Is it true?” They are much more interested in the question “Is it Jewish?” Orthodox ritual is revived because it is good for Jewish survival, not because the theological ideas that spawned it are be­lievable. Even the Lubavitchers recom­mend action over belief. Say the prayer even if you do not believe in the prayer. The act of recitation will turn you into a believer.

Everything is linked to the urgency of Jewish survival. Integrity vanishes. The ideological framework of rabbinic Judaism is torn down and replaced by a bland commitment to doing more and more Jew­ish things. Does the El Male prayer refer to an afterlife in Paradise? Who cares, it’s Jewish! Does the bedeken (veiling) cere­mony before the wedding arise out of the male chauvinist need of the groom to identify the bride he has purchased? Who cares, it’s Jewish! Does the recitation of the ten plagues at the Passover seder suggest that God is a vengeful deity who punishes the good together with the wicked? Who cares, it’s Jewish! Sincere belief goes out the window. The body of tradition is retained. But the heart of tradition, its be­lief system and world view are dead. Only the ultra-Orthodox pay any attention to the necessity of both. And then not always.

The return to tradition means the new self-confidence of the Orthodox. On the one hand, there is the creeping polariza­tion of the Jewish community between the militant ultra-Orthodox and the secular­ized Jews (whether they be formally reli­gious or openly secular). On the other hand, there is the growing intrusion of Orthodox demands on the general commu­nity through the new army of devoted missionaries, who present themselves as our teachers and serve as a wedge of indoctrination and pressure. Partial re­turnees, who are ambivalent about tradi­tional lifestyles, are like putty in the hands of these missionaries. They do not want to be Orthodox. But they feel guilty not being Orthodox. They believe that the “real” Judaism is the old religious tradition. Only the Orthodox, in their eyes, have any legitimate authority. Despite the smallness of their numbers, the Orthodox have turned non-Orthodox Jews into ideological defen­dants. The ultra-Orthodox do not wish to participate in the general Jewish commu­nity; they wish to control it through a form of spiritual intimidation.

How do we respond to the return to tradition?

We refuse to view the return to tradition as something positive. The segregated lifestyle of the full returnees is unattractive to contemporary Jews who embrace an open society. And the ambivalent stance of par­tial returnees is without integrity or prin­ciple — an effortless, nostalgic indulgence.

We refuse to give the Orthodox the authority they do not deserve. We do not play the Torah and Talmud game. Only by boldly proclaiming that our authority lies in reason, conscience, and the Jewish ex­perience will we be able to counter the new intimidation. In that respect Humanistic Judaism can play an important role. We are the only Jewish movement willing to de­clare our independence from the old losing strategy. We cannot find our legitimacy in the sacred documents of Orthodoxy. The Torah and the Talmud are historically interesting, but they are not and cannot be the constitution for dissenting Jews. Only when we have a literature that clearly expresses what we believe will we be free of the curse of apology, inferior status, and hypocrisy. If we do not need to be “kosherized” by tradition, we do not need to return to it. There are other ways to be effective Jews.

We refuse to endorse the notion that only Orthodoxy can guarantee the survival of the Jewish people. The most dramati­cally successful Jewish movement in the twentieth century was Zionism. Zionism means more than the reestablishment of an independent Jewish state. It also means the redefinition of Judaism as an ethnic cul­ture. Only a bold cultural Judaism, which is unafraid to proclaim its radical break with Orthodoxy and to live with the virtues and risks of an open society, can reach the vast majority of Jews.

The return to tradition is a powerful challenge to Secular Humanistic Jews. It is also an opportunity to make our unique message heard.

Humanistic Judaism and Tradition

Tradition and Humanistic Judaism – How Do They Mix?  Autumn 1987

For many Jews, Judaism is identified with the literature of the Bible, the Talmud, and the Siddur. This literature is often called “the tradition” and has served as the ideological basis for Orthodoxy for over fifteen hundred years.

Can these books, which are so much identified in the public mind with Jews, also serve as the ideological basis for a humanis­tic Judaism? After all, both Conservative and Reform Jews retained these documents as their official literature. Why not Human­istic Jews?

The prestige of these documents makes them almost irresistible. Even though their vocabulary is theistic, even though their style is authoritarian, even though much of their history is mythology, they are so old and so famous that it would be nice to have them on our side. They could do for us what they do for Reform. They could give us the semblance of “legitimacy.”

This issue is not trivial. If these books “belong” to us, then secular Judaism is simply one of five different interpretations of the traditional texts. If they do not, then Humanistic Judaism is a radical departure from all existing Judaisms.

In trying to determine the place of tradi­tional literature in a humanistic approach to Jewish identity, we need to affirm certain realities.

Jewish identity does not depend on using the tradition. Jewishness is an ethnic iden­tity, not an ideological one. No adherence to any ideas or documents makes a Jew a Jew. A Jew who does not believe in the value and truth of the Torah is equally as Jewish as one who does.

The endorsement of the past is unneces­sary. We do not have to agree with our an­cestors in order to have ideas that are valid and Jewishly significant. If we want to understand the literature of the past, we do not need its endorsement. Some Jews are so anxious to identify with Moses, Isaiah, and Jeremiah that they do not pay any attention to what these people really said. They give these heroes ideas and sentiments they never had in order to prove that the beliefs of the past are the same as the beliefs of the present. In the hands of the desperate, Moses becomes a civil libertarian and the Torah becomes a plea for democracy.

The people of the past are entitled to their integrity. The author of Genesis 1 believed in a flat earth and a flat heaven. He is mor­ally entitled to have his opinions acknowl­edged. The author of Genesis 2 believed that the first woman was created from the rib of the first man. He has a right to have his idea recognized. The literature of the past is more interesting if we allow the authors of the past to say what they think than if we force them to say what we think. An ethical approach to textual criticism allows people to mean what they say, even if their ideas are embarrassing. Male chauvinism and theocracy may be offensive to us. But they were not offensive to our ancestors. The language of tradition is not obscure. It is refreshingly plain and direct. We have a moral obligation to respect that directness.

God is not removable from traditional lit­erature. The authors of the Bible, the Talmud, and the Siddur had a deep belief in a supernatural father-figure who governs the world with justice. Modern Jews who are uncomfortable with this intense convic­tion have to face up to it when they deal with traditional texts. To the authors of the tradition, the worship of God was supreme­ly important. Failure to worship endan­gered the survival of both the individual and the community. Since group survival was at stake, worship and morality could not be separated. The distinction between ritual and ethics did not exist. Ceremony guar­anteed the life of the community.

Traditional ideas vary from period to pe­riod. The official literature of Orthodoxy includes documents from four periods in Jewish history: the tribal, the royal, the priestly, and the rabbinic. In each period, the prevailing ideas of the ruling elite were distinctly different from those that came before and after. Kings did not agree with priests; and priests did not agree with rabbis. Despite what Orthodox rabbis main­tain, there has been a continuous change of beliefs throughout Jewish history. In the royal period, intermarriage was allowed. In the priestly period, it was forbidden. In the priestly period, the resurrection of the dead was unknown. In the rabbinic period, it was the cardinal principle of the establishment. A static view of the tradition is a distortion.

We must neither revere tradition nor ignore it. We must understand it and use it carefully.

One quotation does not prove anything. We cannot understand the message of the tradition in any given period by pulling at­tractive quotations out of context. “You shall love your neighbor as yourself’ is set in the context of Leviticus, with its intermi­nable laws of animal sacrifice and priestly privilege. “Proclaim liberty throughout the land” is set in the context of the institution of slavery and its fifty-year durability. “Whatever is hateful to yourself do not do unto others” is found in the middle of ritual minutiae. Simply picking and choosing iso­lated statements that sound ethically attrac­tive, with no acknowledgment of the sur­rounding literary territory, distorts the tradition. Orthodox Jewish life was and is a complex whole, not a set of fashionable quo­tations suspended in mid-air.

There are many motivations for ethical behavior. The major motivation for good behavior in the Bible and the Talmud is the authority of God and the rewards and pun­ishments he administers. But that does not mean that divine favor was the only motiva­tion. After all, most ethical rules arise out of the experience of small groups in their struggle for survival. Many of the moral ideals in traditional literature, which we find ethically acceptable because they con­form to our conscience and our reason, were also reasonable when they were first enunciated. Although the traditional writers did not articulate these reasons, we can.

The people who were denounced are also part of the tradition. It is useful to remember that people condemned by traditional writers were also Jews. They were the Jews who were not lucky enough to receive the approval of the ecclesiastic authorities. Job’s wife challenged the justice of God and was silenced. The “villain” of Psalm 1 ques­tioned the existence of God and was de­clared a fool. The opponents of Jeremiah refused to resign themselves to defeat at the hands of the Chaldeans and were pro­claimed to be sinners. But they obviously had their Jewish followers who thought that they were patriotic Jews, even though they lost out in the struggle for power. The underdogs of tradition are also traditional.

What really happened is as much tradition as what the authorities of the past thought happened. The Zadokite priests and the Talmudic rabbis believed that Moses, inspired by Yahveh, wrote the Torah. We now know that Moses did not write the Torah and that it was written over a period of five hundred years. Is the illusion of the past more tradi­tional than the reality of the past? Or is the actual event also a tradition? Jewish life was molded not only by what people thought happened but also by what really happened. Living without an official Torah was an im­portant part of the ancient Jewish experi­ence and in no way diminished Jewish iden­tity. In fact, it provided for a richness of options that could never be fully sup­pressed, even after a theocratic “constitu­tion” was imposed.

What people did may be different from what people said. Many of the laws in the Torah and the Talmud were purely theoreti­cal. They never really became part of the behavior of the Jewish people. The elaborate plans for the jubilee year at the end of the book of Leviticus, with its freeing of the slaves and the restoration of property to the poor, was never implemented. Attached to some priestly fantasy, it found no respon­sive public in the pragmatic world of Jewish economics. The law said one thing; the people did another. The Jewish tradition is as much the product of the real Jewish ex­perience as of the imaginings of Jewish lawmakers.

The tradition is morally uneven. There is an enormous number of ideas and values in traditional literature, many of them incom­patible one with the other. The ideas of in­herited guilt and collective punishment do not jibe with the commitment to individual responsibility and individual dignity. Devo­tion to the sacrificial cult does not fit well with the pursuit of justice to the poor. Some traditional values are humanistic. Others are anti-humanistic. Some of the tradition is humanistically offensive. Even more of it is neither here nor there. Humanistic Jews neither love nor hate “the tradition” as a whole. They love some of it. They like some of it. They deplore some of it. And the rest they view with historic interest.

It is quite clear that, despite its fame and antiquity, the official literature of traditional Judaism cannot serve as the ideological basis of a humanistic Judaism. Only the most unfair distortions could rescue this lit­erature for that role. Humanistic Judaism is a radical departure from the procedures of Orthodoxy and its liberal alternatives. It does not seek to legitimize its norms and recommend behavior by finding proof texts in the Torah and the Talmud.

What, then, is the function of this literary portion of our tradition in the world of Hu­manistic Jews?

Its main function is historical. It tells us where we came from. It describes the be­liefs and practices of our ancestors, whether we agree with them or not. It gives us clues to the real events of Jewish history. It intro­duces us to the ideas of its opponents, some of which may be humanistically attractive. It is a treasury of quotations that fit very neatly into the ethical conclusions of a modern humanism. It helps us to define our own perspective on the Jewish experience through the challenge of a powerful alter­native.

We must neither revere it nor ignore it. We must understand it and use it carefully.

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.