As you know I’ve been studying at the Hartman Institute for the past week, and I want to thank them publicly for the opportunity to study and reflect with so many notable scholars, teachers and participants. This post is among the fruits of this wonderful retreat.
The greatest transformation of the Jewish religion is usually credited to Rabbi Yochanan Ben-Zakai, who together with his colleagues at Yavneh, reinterpreted and reestablished Judaism as a religion based around law, and the house of study and prayer. But his was not the first transformation of Judaism, nor is it destined to be the last.
In sweeping terms, the great reformulations of Judaism responded to the greatest moments of crisis and redemption in Jewish history. Let’s explore them briefly.
The Judaism of the period of the Judges is really the first historical Judaism – a Judaism not based on the ongoing revelation of God to Moses, or even to Joshua. Instead, it was the religion of a people living in history, day by day and generation by generation.
We need not detain ourselves with precisely which texts and practices these Jews had. It is sufficient to consider that this was a time when Jews did not celebrate Rosh Hashana as we do today – as a day of judgment – nor did they celebrate or commemorate many other moments, including Purim, Chanukah, Tisha B’Av, Simchat Torah, and so forth. They did not pray in a minyan, or celebrate a Bar Mitzvah. They did not gather together in shul on Shabbat, and they did not study the Talmud or draw inspiration from Isaiah. Nobody sat around a Shabbat table and explained what was bothering Rashi, or told over a vort from the Rebbe. Truly these were very different Jews!
Their religion was not centralized. A tabernacle existed, but Jews continued to worship, through sacrifice, in many places, including their own homes, as the Tanach attests. There were no kings, but there were many prophets, local potentates, and family worship rituals. Whatever texts were possessed were not studied by the general populace, and literacy was limited to a very few people. Religious worship was also closely tied to agrarian and pastoral cycles.
David, Solomon, and the First Temple changed all that. Central governance and worship created a state religion, and an attendant bureaucracy. Sacrificial worship was restricted to the Temple, even if unsuccessfully, and the king and High Priest joined the prophet as the means through which the nation and God advanced their relationship. The construction of the Temple encouraged pilgrimage as a more significant aspect of worship.
The destruction of the First Temple led to even more significant reforms. Ezra the Scribe redacted a Torah text that became standard, and other books, such as those recorded by the prophets, began to appeat. The institution of prayer began to emerge, even as prophecy declined. The notion of a Diaspora community took hold, as most of the exiled community in Babylon did not return with Ezra and Nehemia. In this Diaspora, Jews did not perform sacrificial worship, nor did they make pilgrimage. New modes of organization and communal life began to emerge.
The Second Temple period within the land of Israel was marked by even greater centralization of worship in Jerusalem, and during the Hasmonean dynasty, a merging of the offices of king and High Priest. Judaism had largely shifted from a rural religion to an urban one, complete with a central High Court – the Sanhedrin – but around the edges, the seeds of a backlash began to sprout. Synagogues, houses of gathering, Batei Midrash (houses of study), sectarian communities, prophets in the hinterland and scholars in the villages all flourished outside of the sphere of influence of the Temple.
When the Great Rebellion led to the destruction of the Temple and the second great exile in 70 CE, there already existed the beginnings of institutions that would reshape Judaism for the next two thousand years. They turned Judaism into a religion of text study and interpretation, prayer and community. The primary institutions were the aforementioned synagogue and Beit Midrash, with their attendant practices of prayer and study. Without an investment in schools, this highly literate mode of religious life could not have emerged.
The Holocaust (and the destruction of many other Diaspora communities, especially in the Sephardi world), and the birth of the State of Israel, along with the rise of another great Diaspora community in the United States has reshaped our religion once again – and we’re just at the beginning. Judaism changes in response to challenges, not in some sort of vacuum. Reform Judaism and Zionism were only the first responses to a world changed by the social and political values of the French Revolution and the economic values of the Industrial Revolution. It is impossible to understate the impact of these twin forces, and nobody, including Jews and the entire world, is done responding and adjusting to these changes.
I believe that the most important changes for their impact on Jewish practice are gender and racial equality, the ease and speed of travel and communication, and the transformation of societies away from traditionally mandated groups and associations towards wholly voluntary participation.
We’ve already seen how some of these changes impacted Judaism, but we have not yet reformulated our institutions around them. On any given Shabbat, our synagogues are populated only by whomever is celebrating a lifecycle event. Our students fill prep schools and universities, not Batei Midrash. We deconstruct our texts and often eviscerate them, and our new texts go unread except by a cloistered few.
What we need to do is to reshape Judaism around these realities. The Orthodox will not lead this change, as they feel the need less sharply. Their isolationism buffers them to a greater extent from the new reality, but this too is a matter of time. For the non-Orthodox the time need is hard upon us.
The new Judaism will not be about sacrificial worship, or about the synagogue in its current form. It will be about travel, including pilgrimage to Israel and travel to communities in need. It will be about leadership in non-profit organizations and social change ventures. And it must be about education, including mandatory high-school-level Jewish education and high-level continuing adult education. Not service learning. Not one-off lectures. Not the rabbi’s speech. We need more intensive learning, perhaps structured around our holidays, to connect our ideologically rooted think-tanks and institutes to the laypeople. We must realign our laity and our clergy once again. The task is before us, let’s get to it!