A version of this article appeared in The Shofar newsletter of Kol Hadash Humanistic Congregation in May 2012.
Humanity is ambivalent about change. Why should Judaism be any different?
On one hand, we are nature’s most adaptive species, changing the rules of evolution and natural selection through technology, medicine, collective action and human culture. We invent and adapt and create in ways and directions our ancestors, even our grandparents, could scarcely have imagined. Just about every aspect of texting while driving was inconceivable 120 years ago.
And yet, the more things change, the more we can want them to stay the same. Our cultural evolution has not kept up with our instincts and habits, as pre-historic tribalism all too often trumps enlightened socialization. Some use modern tools to reject modern values, and it can take a while for religious culture to catch up to the world around it. Even as we strive to accept change, we wonder if it could just stop for a few years so we could catch our breath.
We American Jews live in a world radically different from the worlds that created the Torah, and Rabbinic Judaism, and even the beginnings of modern Judaism. We no longer consider ourselves a diaspora, in exile longing for a return and always turning to our original homeland – we are “at home in America.” We are at least as American (if not more) than we are Jewish. Our values may find roots and reflections in our tradition but do not stem directly from it, as contemporary values of equality, tolerance, human dignity and scientific inquiry are stronger. When equality and tradition collide, a woman can become a rabbi, read from the Torah, contribute actively to Jewish intellectual life.
And yet, the words and rituals that traditionally define Jewish ceremonies are stubbornly resistant to change. Or, more accurately, the people who use them are. The traditional birkat ha-mazon, blessing after meals, says “I have never seen a righteous man go hungry;” the conventional blessing formula addresses a personal being who is “king” of the Universe. Is this the world we understand, the life we experience? Not for us, and not for many Jews in other denominations as well. The question is: do we have the courage to change to face reality?
This courage to face reality with the courage to change applies in many other areas, of course: how we define Jewish identity in an age of freedom and intercultural partnerships; how we accept a diversity of Jewish perspectives on Israel; how we revisit even our own traditions in the light of new ideas. Of all denominations, with all of the changes we have already shown the courage to make, Humanistic Judaism should be the last to say, “But this is the way we’ve always done it!” Jewish culture and tradition are our inheritance as much as they belong to any other Jews: ours to celebrate and ours to innovate. The courage to face reality a first step; the courage to change is the beginning of a journey.