Adapted from Nothing Sacred

Back to the Future


Can we talk? Why aren’t I surprised that none other than Joan Rivers is responsible for one of the most accurate condensations of the core values of a three thousand year old tradition. It was the Jews’ struggle for self-preservation, after all, as well as their deeply held humanist beliefs, that made them promoters of open discussion—so much that third century Romans purchased memberships in Jewish synagogues just so they could take part in intellectual conversations.

Sadly, for many Jews today, Judaism is a closed book. Jewish texts are not open for scrutiny; they are intentionally left closed. In many synagogues, community is either forgone or leveraged in the name of fundraising for a besieged Israel. The iconoclasm intrinsic to the descendants of Abraham—the legendary idol smasher—has been discarded, but the obsolete racist and sexist beliefs of our ancestors—some prayer books still include a prayer that thanks God for not making us women1—have been preserved.

The good news is that Judaism has faced such crises before and survived. In each instance, a small minority of the Jewish population adopted a radically recontextualized understanding of its fundamental tenets. And in each instance, only that small minority flourished, carrying into the next era what would from then on be called “Judaism.” Each successful shift involved experiencing, or reexperiencing, Judaism’s most essential insights of basic humanism and iconoclasm.

Unfortunately, the current landscape of Jewish offerings isn’t pretty. Take the New Age movement, which offers a wide variety of spiritual choices for those fed up with the institutional biases of religion. Kabbalah feels cool and controversial: not your father’s Judaism. But its “secret” truths have nothing to do with the origins of Torah or the development of Jewish law. Devotees pay thousands of dollars for multi-volume sets of the Zohar, an ancient mystical interpretation of Judaism that is written in ancient Aramaic. They don’t read these books, but instead, pass their eyes over the cryptic text and absorb the energy within them. Seeking something spiritual while still getting to be Jewish, most get neither.

The reinvention of Judaism as “cool” is also the aim of philanthropies and outreach organizations that have taken it upon themselves to repackage a religion for a vast population of lapsed and disaffected Jews. Outreach organizations define Jews as people who are affiliated with a Jewish organization. Their efforts fail to take into account the sociological research indicating that most Americans define their social, political, or religious affiliations not through centralized institutions, but through a more complex and self-defined set of “loose connections.” Instead of working to strengthen these connections most outreach groups think of Jews as being “in” or “out” based on their willingness to pay temple dues. People who don’t belong to a synagogue are considered “lapsed” and in need of active recruitment. Through focus groups and consumer research, these organizations seek to identify their target market’s barriers to participating in organized Judaism and then appeal to these sensibilities. It all comes down to making Judaism look more hip to a modern audience, even if this means resorting to the tactics of a soft drink advertiser.

The challenge to Jews, and to all thinking people, is to resist the temptation to fall into yet another polarized, nationalist, or God forbid, holy posture. Instead we must resolve ourselves to reaching back to Judaism’s core beliefs. The prophets stressed social ideals and compassion; the Jewish holidays are meant to instill a sense of compassion on behalf of Jews and strangers alike. And what is the parting of the Red Sea in the Exodus fable if not a singular act of social justice—the liberation of an oppressed people? While Judaism holds no exclusive claim to these values, its ability to turn them into life practices makes it an indispensable resource for a civilization experiencing such a series of disorienting shifts. It is high time these core values were exhumed and revived.

Just as the definition of social justice had to evolve over time, so must the definition of what it means to be Jewish. Fortunately, Judaism is open to discussion. It can be questioned and reinterpreted; indeed, it is supposed to be reinterpreted, for the paramount Jewish tradition is to question and break with tradition itself. Is it so very presumptuous that we might spearhead a discussion that launches a new set of inquiries into and expressions of what it means to be Jewish today? It is the way we’ve launched renaissances, after all.

Though it is with great reluctance that we assume this mantle, we—the literate, intelligent, and somewhat lapsed Jews of today—are as likely candidates as any to revive Judaism, on our own terms, together.

Back to the Future was adapted from Nothing Sacred: The Truth About Judaism (Crown Publishers, 2003), and published with the author’s permission.


1 Part of the Birkot hashachar, or morning blessings, still often recited by the Orthodox (and some Conservative Jews, as well). [Ed.]