We are living in strange times. Having said that, I realize that I might as well have said that water is wet and the sky is blue. It’s obvious that these are indeed strange times.
There are two aspects of these strange times that stand out for me – the incredible polarization of opinions in our nation, and the deep effect the pandemic has had, and will continue to have, on religious observances.
Not since the 1960s have we seen such deep divides between Americans. People of color are standing up to be counted, raising their voices in protest, seeking a system of justice that is fair and equitable. White people are pushing back, fearing becoming a minority, trying to protect a way of life that favors them, trying, in essence, to keep what they have.
Both feel that their rights are being impinged upon by the other. On the one hand, the status quo is being threatened. On the other, the status quo is being questioned. No wonder emotions run high. For many, the issue is life or death.
Adding fuel to the fire are the supporters of the two men running for the presidency. On the one hand we have toxic masculinity fueled by resistance to change. On the other, acceptance of the inevitability of change and its potential for a positive outcome.
Top it all off with religious differences and you’ve got a real mess on your hands. For me as a Jew, the deep animosities between and among Christian groups has been mystifying. But lately I’ve begun to understand, as some Jews have chosen to align themselves with the toxic masculinity group. Their rhetoric is loud and angry and full of hatred.
If we were truly honest with ourselves, most people would acknowledge that change is hard. The problem is that the outcome is uncertain. We say that we’re fine with it, but when it starts to happen we tend to pull back. Societal change on a grand scale sounds good – why should driving while Black be an issue? Of course Black men and women should be free to drive wherever they want, just as I am.
But when young Black men start driving through suburban neighborhoods, suddenly White people feel differently. Who is that guy? neighbors wonder. What’s he doing here?
This has been an enduring problem for Jews of color. It does not matter how liberal and open-minded the congregation, inevitably someone will sidle up to a visiting Black person and start asking questions. Innocent questions, huff the questioners, friendly questions.
But not so innocent or friendly when it happens again and again and again. Or when their White companion isn’t asked the same questions, but simply hears, “Hi, welcome to congregation such-and-such. Would you like an aliyah?”
Of course, nowadays that can’t happen. We’re all at home sitting in front of muted computers, rendering the entire congregation mute. While the class and color battles of today echo the fairly recent history of the 1960s, what’s happening to organized religion is almost unprecedented.
Almost. Judaism experienced a similar upheaval some 2,000 years ago when the second Temple was destroyed. Suddenly, it was impossible to perform the most basic elements of our religious practice. To dodge extinction, Judaism had to change, radically and quickly.
So too today. We are practicing Judaism in ways that just a year ago would have seemed unthinkable. High Holiday services where everyone stayed home, but still participated in a communal exercise? Absurd. I can hear it now – in fact, I do still hear it now. People tell me that they simply can’t bring themselves to pray on Zoom. It feels wrong. Awkward. Different.
So did praying instead of sacrificing, two thousand years ago. It was unthinkable to not have your prayer mediated by a priest. Absolutely absurd to think that merely reciting words could replace bringing first fruits to the Temple.
There are people to this day who wish that we could return to those times, who want to build a third Temple in Jerusalem. I don’t agree with them, but I understand the nostalgia for the old ways. It’s what many people are feeling right now.
And here’s the flip side. Thanks to the efforts of a small handful of Jewish leaders, a religion that could easily have become extinct learned to redefine itself, created new ways to honor the basic precepts of obeying commandments and loving your neighbor.
That’s what is happening today. Communities of Jews are shedding the old trappings of limited accessibility to Jewish practice. This isn’t brand new – we’ve been recreating Judaism for years. The pandemic just accelerated the pace.
When Kol HaNeshama began holding services in a building without a bimah, the raised platform at the front of the room from which rabbis and cantors presided, no one complained. It meant that anyone could approach the ark and the Torah, without impediment. It meant that the rabbi was literally on the same level as the congregants.
It was 1979 when an American seminary first ordained a woman. Now women rabbis are commonplace. I’m told that young boys routinely ask if boys can be rabbis too.
Musical instruments. Communal singing. Meditation and chanting. Concentrating on the meaning of prayers. All of these have become the norm in many communities.
And now we are moving beyond the walls of dedicated buildings and bringing Judaism into our own homes. More people attended our High Holiday services than ever before, because they could. From wherever they happened to be.
Was it different? Yes. Was it meaningful? Only if you allowed it to be. This new iteration of Jewish practice will take some getting used to. But if we open our hearts and minds, we can discover that it meets the needs of our souls.
This week is Bereishit, when we begin reading the Torah again, from the beginning. It’s a new year, and a new way to experience Judaism. Let’s do it together.