Sunday, May 31, 2009

In with the Old; In with the New

On Thursday night I attended "The California Street Corridor Traveling Shavuot," a series of study sessions sponsored by the JCCSF, Sherith Israel, Temple Emanu-El, and Beth Sholom. We walked from place to place, choosing from a number of teaching sessions at each facility. The evening ended with Marsha Attie leading the 50-60 assembled in song and dance. The three young rabbis who organized it--Micah Hyman, Jonathan Jaffe, and Julie Saxe-Taller--took a chance on this concept, and it worked. And it has the potential to get better in future years.

Rabbi Peretz Wolf-Prusan, an amazingly gifted teacher, held the last session of the evening in the chapel of Beth Sholom. His topic was "Ever Since Sinai: Pirke Avot and the Rabbinic Revolution." He had us look at the beginning of Pirke Avot--part of the Mishnah that contains six chapters of sayings from the rabbis of Yavneh. These rabbis needed to recreate the rituals of Judaism following the fall of the Second Temple.

They created a religion that was centered within each person in their home. There was no longer a homeland, no central place of worship, no priestly intermediary. And that is the Judaism that has survived these thousands of years. It is what the Dali Lama found out when he listened to the presentations of the Jewish leaders gathered to answer the question: How had the Jewish people survived through all these years in exile. (You can read about that in Roger Kamenetz's The Jew in the Lotus.)

When there was no central "authority" the rituals controlling the practice had to balance between the central shared traditions and home practice. Customs were influenced by the different cultures of the lands of exile--these lands that have now become home. The rabbis of each generations in all different places studied the Torah, the Tanach, the Talmud, and other critical writings of sages through the eras. They had the task of transmitting the traditions of this ancient religion to people living totally different times and places. As long as that process continues, Judaism will continue to thrive.

Some of my struggles lately have been with the rabbinical interpretations from past eras that still rule today. I don't mean to just shrug off what doesn't work in the name of modernity, but we need to look at the teachings through the lens of their time, and then bring them to a clearer place while looking through the glasses we wear now. It feels like we're held captive by the Shulchan Aruch, Rabbi Joseph Caro's epic interpretation of Jewish Law written in the late 16th century. So much of what is called halachah - law - seems stuck in that time, in that document. Why did so many aspects of our living religion become stagnant.

I admit that I'm not sure that I am knowledgeable enough to come to that conclusion. It definitely comes more from my heart than my head. And I know that not all parts of Judaism got stuck there. But the conflicts over practice that too often tear Jews apart from one another seem to stem from there.

Those who want to keep their practice clear from as much as the last 500 years as possible are welcome to do so. But why do they need to exercise so much influence over those of us who wish to live as practicing Jews in this 21st Century world.

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