To answer

February 19, 2012 § Leave a comment

In the Passover Haggadah, when the simple child asks, ‘what is this?’ we are instructed to give that child a theological answer: ‘because God brought us out of Egypt.’  Our first answer, the very first thing we are to teach to our children, is the content of our theological narrative, the story that forms the bedrock of our tradition.  It is only as the child matures into wisdom that we are to explain the laws and customs.

But in the Reform context, in our Introduction to Judaism courses, when a newcomer raises the question – “what is the relevance of this observance?” – our response is usually a labored explanation: “traditional Jews do such-and-such practice because they believe that they are commanded to do so.  Reform Jews embrace the idea of informed choice, so some people find meaning in this practice, but others do something else, and of course some folks do nothing at all” – an answer which gives the impression that Reform Jews do whatever moves us at the moment.  But, in our communities and as a movement, Reform Judaism is in need of a coherent, compelling answer as to the purpose of observance beyond what merely feels right.

The difficulty, however, is that there has been a shift in our relationship to the Bible which has created a fracture in our narrative which has not as yet been addressed.  We acknowledge that the Bible’s worldview is contextually-derived.  We readily accept the insights of history and archeology.  So we want to know: how can this text remain valuable to us, after the mystery is gone?

To give an example: the Bible says that we ought to observe Shabbat because God made the world in seven days – but an overwhelming majority of us have learned about the Big Bang or the theory of evolution – and many here have an even deeper understanding of developing currents in scientific theory.  If the literal reading of the creation story is not consonant with scientific explanations of the origins of the universe, then what does that mean for Shabbat?  We also celebrate Shabbat to remember the exodus from Egypt.  But if the Biblical account has mythic elements and is not necessarily an extended exposition of historical fact, does that mean Shabbat is no longer relevant?  We know at some level the answer is obviously in favor of the relevance of Shabbat, but we are faced with the dilemma of a fractured narrative: how exactly do we go about explaining ourselves?

I believe that we need to have well-considered answers to these questions which demonstrate respect for the persons asking them.  Also, for those Jews who have not grown up in the context of Jewish religious observance, we need to have a better answer than the inertia of tradition.  For the non-Jew in a mixed marriage or for a secular Jew, the reasons for Jewish affiliation and practice need to be more compelling, and more visceral, than nostalgia.  To tell them that we observe Shabbat “because the Bible says we should” or “because our tradition says so” is to provide an insufficient answer.  For them, neither the Bible nor the tradition is authoritative enough to be convincing on its own.  If it were, they would not have left their own religious upbringing.

What should we do in the face of this challenge?  How do we respond?

I would suggest three things:

First, we need a framework for explaining how we might move past the difficult passages in the Biblical literature without destroying the remainder of the text.  Toward this end, I would suggest that we employ a psychological explanation, one that makes intuitive sense.

The task of maturity is individuation – learning the boundaries between one’s self and one’s parents.  A healthy adult is able to heed the parental tradition yet make decisions independently of it when needed.  Sometimes the parental inheritance involves exalted moments intermixed with painful legacies, and it takes the span of our adulthood to fully respond to them.  But our task nonetheless is the integration of this history into our own personal narrative, to learn that our parents are not infallible.  Just as we learn individuation in relation to our parents, so too should we learn to approach the Bible in this manner: after all, the word Torah is built on the same linguistic root as horim, the Hebrew word for parents.  We should honor our parents’ legacy, the tradition that gave birth to us, yet we still must go forth from our father’s house.

Second, we need to reassert the value of community.  In response to the question, ‘why celebrate Shabbat?’ our answer should reference the basic human need for genuine community experience, the kind of multi-generational concern that is exceedingly difficult to nurture in our fractured society.  It is not uncommon to have moved cross-country at least once in a lifetime; most of us have family spread over a far-flung geography, some in multiple continents.  And many of us do not have any kind of consensus regarding religion within our extended family. At my family reunion, we have Jews, Methodists, and Catholics. Given this situation, the synagogue has something to offer that we generally cannot find anywhere else: a community of people who share our core values.

It is true that people come to synagogues with a variety of backgrounds and a plurality of needs, but (at very least) we all ultimately agree that we should raise our kids as Jews – it is the primary reason why people join.  That common goal by itself can be used as the basis for forming a genuine community, because it implies a set of shared values.  Raising a Jewish child entails resisting the mainstream, to wade against the cultural tide. Some inchoate desire makes us want to do that: a desire for connectedness and continuity, for communion and community.

Third, we need to create a narrative that supports the need for communal prayer.  I think that we might want to act upon an insight provided by such varied thinkers as Abraham Joshua Heschel and Mordechai Kaplan: that is, prayer allows for the possibility of gaining freedom from the oppressive narrowness of the self.  It is a genuine relief to let go of petty self-regard, to become part of a larger group with grander goals than mere pleasure.  Group prayer allows for the emptying of the self and merging with a higher purpose.  In the case of Heschel, this merging involves mystical experience, the influx of divine radiance.  In the case of Kaplan, this merging involves erasing the finitude of one’s life by becoming part of a larger multi-generational experience.  Either way – whether supernatural or natural in its origins – the release experienced in the context of group prayer has the potential to be transformative.

So, when the newcomer asks, ‘what is this?’ we should say: we are Jews because we are committed to raising our kids in the context of a community that shares Jewish values, particularly social action.  We celebrate Shabbat because it gives us a chance to pause in the course of our week to come together, reconnect to our community and pray.  And our communal prayer provides the context in which we may let go of the petty concerns of the individual self in order to seek the greater good, to sanctify our lives in the context of our community.

Copyright 2012 Kari Hofmaister Tuling


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