My weekly FreshThinking show yesterday on ChaiFM got really animated. I had asked the question: "Seeing as we're losing so many Jews, is it worth compromising some Jewish values to keep them?"
Well, you already know my answer: A resounding no.
But, the banter turned to debate and stoked emotive interaction around the subject. I live in one of the most traditional, committed Jewish communities in the world, they say. Just last week our Chief Rabbi ran a mega-successful Shabbos project that saw thousands of Jews, many secular, keep a full Shabbos. Coming on the heels of the unsettling Pew Research Centre survey about American Jews, we all realised that Jewish South Africa is light-years ahead of most other Jewish communities. So, I'll admit, some of the response caught me off guard.
During the show, I quoted an LA Times article that described humanist" and "Jewish secularist" communities in the States. These groups believe that we're so desperate to keep a hold on our Jews, that we should do whatever we can to make them comfortable in their Jewishness. "Whatever we can" includes having "intercultural" (read: intermarriage-supporting) communities and finding ways to ensure children "know their Jewish identity", without "having religion forced on them". Some even argue that we should shed our "tribalist attitude" and embrace the surge of assimilation.
When I posed the question on air yesterday, it was mainly out of curiosity. I figured that SA Jewry would not consider it worthwhile to compromise Judaism to try to hang on to Jews.
I was wrong.
Yes, plenty of party-line messages came through on the SMS-line and through social media. People felt it was a slippery slope" when you start moving religious goal posts. Some mentioned how Christianity started as a "new" version of Judaism. One tweet made the point that the "outdated" version of Judaism has outlived all the various attempts at creating a "modern" version. Good point!
But, I also had some vociferous dissent. Callers and texters insisted that Judaism need not be about religion, that the interpretation of rabbis past was no more relevant than the interpretations of modern scholars and that much of Jewish practice was "superstitious nonsense". Their message was clear: Judaism needs to shed some of the heavy religious baggage and evolve in order to survive.
To my mind, something about us Jews has empowered us to survive as a tiny minority in hostile territory for longer than any other people. And it hasn't been Hebrew (Aramaic, Ladino and Yiddish each had a shot at being "Jewish" languages) nor kneidlach or matbucha that kept us together. It wasn't even a nationalistic ideology.
It was Judaism. Real, unadulterated Judaism.
It was matzah and dressing up for Purim and studying Talmud and avoiding shellfish and Shabbat candles that kept Jews Jews throughout history.
And it's those things that will keep Jews Jewish. Nothing else. Not social clubs nor Jewish celebs nor kosher-style delis nor half-Jewish kids having glittery trees topped with Chanukah candles. Altering Judaism didn't work in Greece or Rome, nor in Medieval Spain or Germany of the last century. And it won't work in the US or here in traditional South Africa.
Is the ritual meaningless? Only if you've never explored the meaning.
Is it a matter of someone's interpretation? That, in itself, has to be interpretation. It's a code, a lifestyle, a tradition and a deep wisdom that has been passed down leader by leader, family by family, community by community for longer than any other extant tradition.
Tomorrow at Shul we'll read the bizarre story of Lot, Abraham's nephew, who lived in the ganglands of Sodom. When G-d decides to save Lot before wiping out the city, He sends two angels disguised as humans. Lot invites them to sleep over in his house- a risky move in a city where harboring foreigners was a crime. Somehow the news gets out that Lot has guests and a seething mob surrounds his house, insisting Lot hand the guests over to be "dealt with". Lot, playing the role of benevolent host, offers the crowd his two unmarried daughters instead.
Which is nuts! Who willingly offers his own children to be abused in order to protect some strangers he's just met?
But, Lot had grown up in Abraham's home. His formative years had been shaped by the man who embodied hospitality, so he imagined that treating a stranger like a mentsch was the most noble thing to do. Never mind that Abraham's life was also about absolute morality- of which Sodom was the antithesis- or that Abraham had dedicated his life to knowing G-d. Lot picked up on the idea of being a good host and that defined being a "good person" for him.
Lot had assimilated. He had bought into a flashy culture that negated his roots. Whatever mini-identity he did hang on to was so misguided that it almost cost him his family.
Abraham's greatest accolade from G-d is "I know that he will instruct his family after him to follow the way of G-d." Abraham did, and his descendants still do. They tell his story, spread his wisdom and follow his traditions. Lot melded into the prevailing culture. His ragtag bit of Abrahamic identity failed him in crisis. His descendants have disappeared into the melting pot of history.
Lot's Judaism can't save Jews. Abraham's will.