Wednesday, April 12, 2006

Not Kosher But Traditional

While we continue to be awash in population studies and other statistical exercises, our best sociological nuggets are found in ordinary Jewish life, in what we read and what we see. We should curb our voracious appetite for numbers games and pay attention to happenings that serve as a window into a world where at once Jews are rapidly abandoning what it has meant to be Jewish even as they earnest seek to cling to their Jewish identity.

As an exhibit, there is the ad placed in the Times by Lattanzi, a mid-Manhattan eatery, seeking patrons for its "Non-Kosher Traditional Passover Menu," and announcing that "private seders are welcome." Even in an era when a "trend" is something that happens twice and a "tradition" is whatever a handful of people designate as such, we probably should not be surprised that Pesach is being celebrated in this fashion. After all, we now have non-Jewish Jews, they being persons who aren't Jewish by any definition. A great number of participants in contemporary seders are not Jewish and the number is growing. Doubtlessly, we will have additional sociological realities that invert Judaism by designating as Jewish practices that which always was alien to Judaism.

Whatever history's verdict on such innovations or the obvious hostility of these developments to halacha, sociological realities are what is taking place today, not how we behaved previously or what we expect to happen down the road. Today's realities speak of a critical mass of persons who somehow are designated as Jews who want to be Jewish in ways that previously were not thought to be Jewish. Although intermarriage takes an ever-increasing toll and Judaic abandonment ensnares greater numbers, this critical mass is expanding. Perhaps paradoxically, it is aggressively fed by those who have intermarried and who want to remain committed Jews and also by their non-Jewish spouses and family members who also somehow want to identify as Jews, as well as by persons who aren't Jewish and have no Jewish family ties but who somehow want to be tied to the contemporary Jewish experience.

Orthodox Jews, myself included, can decry this odd malange and say that history will show that much of what is now being passed off as Jewish was bogus, as in fact it surely is. Yet, we live in the present and decide and act in the present and what we are witness to are powerful realities that expand as the ranks of those who have departed from traditional Judaism expand.

The smaller number that clings to religion and tradition cannot build a communal fence that excludes this critical mass and perhaps they choose not to build such a fence. Persons of questionable status are routinely included in all sorts of communal transactions, ranging from demographic surveys to conferences to fundraising and a multitude of projects. We do not hear advocates of tradition saying that claims of five-million American Jews are errant because many who are included should not be, as they aren't Jewish according to religious law. We are caught in a process that feeds on itself, a process that we cannot escape and may not want to escape.

This process results in creative efforts to accommodate the polar tendencies of abandonment and identity. A Times' front-page story reports on synagogues departing from their regular routine in order to attract newcomers. "Jewish leaders," we are told, "are revamping worship in their synagogues to make the experience more lively and participatory; they are reconfiguring their sanctuaries to make them less intimidating; they are rethinking how to welcome newcomers; and they are getting increasingly creative about getting people in the door."

It's obvious that the services are too long in many synagogues, especially those that seek to attract people who are not religiously committed and who often cannot follow the liturgy. Although it is not possible to be optimistic that innovations will achieve much in view of the toll taken by intermarriage and other forms of advanced assimilation, the notion that our religious activities must have more emotional content and adapt to what people find attractive has merit. It isn't sufficient to dismiss innovations and not only because such dismissals are feeble protests against realities that cannot be readily dismissed.

It is also true that we ought not embrace every proposed change on the ground that tradition is yesterday's story. The most effective innovations are those that have some link with the past and move people toward tradition and religious commitment. If the goal of innovation is to attract the unaffiliated and nothing more, what is being instituted is ephemeral and soon will be gone.

Furthermore, efforts to attract those who are distant and alienated cannot succeed - that is, not have long-lasting results - unless there is a strong religious infrastructure throughout American Jewish life that serves as a magnet drawing those who are being attracted to greater commitment and religiosity. Else, the innovations will be empty shells or to borrow from the Times' headline, they will consist of yoga, comedy, parties and other fluff that do not need synagogues as props. It should be obvious that without Jews of strong religious commitment, there scarcely will be anything Jewish about the new outreach techniques.

This lesson is unfortunately lost on many who have the keys to our communal priorities. Inadvertently or not, they disparage that which has sustained Judaism, choosing instead to exalt trivial pursuits whose only hope for success is dependent on there being meaningful Jewish experiences down the road. If we are going to add the bathwater, let's not throw out the baby.