New this year: AARC Children’s Services for High Holidays

Melanie Rivkin

Melanie Rivkin

This year, AARC High Holiday Services will include services for children–special time and space for kid-centered communal prayer and learning. Our AARC Children’s Services during Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur will each be an hour long; they will be abbreviated but full services, with extra movement, singing and a story. The service is geared towards elementary-age children, but all (including parents) are welcome!

The Children’s Machzor (High Holiday prayerbook) we will be using is based on a lovely service created by Congregation Agudas Achim in Attleboro, MA; it will include songs and melodies familiar to AARC’s young congregants. These services will be a great way to introduce new families to our congregation.

Melanie Rivkin, a second year student in the Jewish Communal Leadership Masters Degree Program at the University of MI School of Social Work, will lead the services, along with Beit Sefer director Clare Kinberg. AARC member and parent Debra Gombert will assist with many songs and prayers. Services will be from 10:30 to 11:30 am on both Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur.

Melanie grew up in Cherry Hill, NJ near Philadelphia where her family were members of a Reform congregation. She has a BA in Judaic Studies from Binghamton University and has explored Judaism in Israel and around the U.S. through various non-profit fellowships, including Adamah, a Jewish farming program in Northwest Connecticut; Repair the World: Pittsburgh, a community service and social justice program; and Masa Israel Teaching Fellows, an English second language teaching program. While in JCLP, Melanie has had field placements at the Anti-Defamation League (Michigan Region) and the Education Department of the Jewish Federation of Metropolitan Detroit. Melanie is really looking forward to leading egalitarian, musical and fun services for our kids!

Childcare is available before the children’s services if needed.  And after, the littlest kids can go to childcare while the tweens and teens who don’t want to join the adult services will have organized indoor and outdoor games and activities let by Aaron Jackson, a long time area religious school teacher and youth coordinator. (Please sign up here for either childcare or the kids’ activities.  Both are free to members and low-cost for others.)

Yom Kippur Workshops 2016

It’s our Yom Kippur tradition at AARC to have several afternoon sessions where we can together study, meditate, and discuss. This year, there will be three sessions; two from about 2:15 to 3:30 pm, and one from 3:45 to 5 pm.

One of the 2:15 sessions will be guided meditation, led by our member, Barbara Boyk-Rust, who writes:

Soul Nourishment: Meditation and Sacred Chant for the Quiet of the Day.
As we fast and pray on Yom Kippur we are asked to be in more direct contact with our spirit and with our connection to God than any other day of the year. While we move toward this during the evening, morning, and late afternoon services, what assists us during the spaces between the services? A walk, a nap, a quiet conversation? Each may be of help. A different way of prayer is also fitting. It is a time of day when we may be longing for sustenance. Together we will create a form of soul nourishment through meditation and offering up a few sacred texts in chant. May this time augment and amplify the expression of our soul on this holy day.

Our member Ellen Dannin will facilitate a conversation about the Book of Jonah:

Yonah – It’s Much More than Just a “Whale”: We will share reading the story of Yonah / Jonah, with time for participants’ contributions, questions, thoughts. Feel free to bring your own texts.

At 3:45, you can choose between a walk, a chat with a friend, or whatever else moves you, and a session that uses Jonah, again, as a starting off point a conversation about solitary confinement. We’ll start with some materials from this T’ruah study guide (which is based on a Yom Kippur d’var member Margo Schlanger gave at AARC in 2013).  But we’ll move fairly quickly into the modern experience of imprisonment and examine the question, What kind of conditions–physical and programmatic–create the best chance of t’shuvah?  Our leaders for this session will be member Margo Schlanger and Ronald Simpson-Bey.

Ronald Simpson-Bey, leading Ann Arbor Yom Kippur workshop

Ronald Simpson-Bey

Ron is the Alumni Associate for JustLeadershipUSA (JLUSA), part of the steering team of the newly formed Collaborative to End Mass Incarceration in Michigan (MI-CEMI), and co-founder and advisory board member of the Chance For Life (CFL) organization in Detroit. He served 27-years in the Michigan prison system, where he founded many enrichment programs rooted in transformation, redemption, and self-accountability.  In the course of that time, he spent two years in solitary confinement. He was a jailhouse lawyer who got his conviction reversed by the courts and got himself out of prison.  He attended Eastern Michigan University, Mott Community College, and Jackson Community College, and he has worked as a staff paralegal at the former Prison Legal Services of Michigan.

On this day of atonement, join this workshop to better understand American imprisonment, and what kinds of change we need and can help with.

Your Story Adds to our Shofar Service on Rosh Hashanah

Cover of Rachel Barenblatt's machzor/high holiday prayerbook

Cover of Rachel Barenblatt’s machzor/high holiday prayerbook

Deb Kraus is looking for several people to tell 3-5 minute personal stories as part of the Rosh Hashanah day (October 3, this year) Shofar Service. Deb offers some explanation and background:

The Shofar Service, which happens in the later part of the Rosh Hashanah Service, is divided into three parts:  Malchuyot (majesty/sovereignty), Zichronot (remembrances) and Shofarot (call to action). For the last few years, AARC congregants have offered short 3-5 minute personal stories to introduce each section of prayer. This has been a really meaningful way for our members to participate in communal leadership and share an important part of themselves with the community.  For example, in past years, Kevin Norris shared about a health challenge (Shofarot) , Dina Kurz talked about higher power (Malchuyot), and I talked about hiking in the alps (Malchuyot) and (another year) how my daughter Molly and I shared memories of our old house in an attempt to get it sold (Zichronot).  Last year, this is where Clare called us to welcome Jews of all colors (Shofarot). So,  do you have a story to share? Contact me (drdebkraus@gmail.com) with your story idea, and I’ll try to fit it into the service.

In this blog on her site, the Veleveteen Rabbi, Rabbi Rachel Barenblatt introduces each section of the Shofar Service with a poem, directing our hearts to open to the prayers. Another resource on the Shofar Service is offered by T’ruah: The Rabbinic Call for Human Rights, with these kavanah/intentions for Malchuyot, Zichronot, and Shofarot. These may help you get started on finding your story.

Mishkan/Sanctuary: Encountering the Sacred in Space and Time

Yom Kippur talk by Carole Caplan

sunsets-over-farmThe day outside is cool, but the bright sun filters through the trees and warms me every now and again. I can hear the rustle of the wind in the branches above, and the call of something further away, maybe a loon, making its way to more hospitable winter accommodations. The crackling of the leaves under my feet step after step, make it clear to me that out of nowhere and all too soon, fall has arrived.

Baba walks ahead of me, and my soul, battered and bruised from the turnings of seasons before, struggles to keep up with this wise man in every way. “I tend the path,” is all he says to me, and I wonder, if I am here to learn from him, how or why or when. We walk quietly together, yet completely alone, for a long time, step after step.

The woods grow deeper and I can smell the moss on untouched earth in this old wood forest that has stood here longer than I will even be alive. Baba moves a tree limb that has fallen in our way. Come this way he motions, and without words I hear him say, “I tend the path, Carole, for you.”

Step after step we make our way along the edge of the forest to an opening that overlooks a large field. Its expansiveness holds the possibility of future crops, of dreams, of desires, of growth, of success, of nourishment, of failure, of disappointment, of need, of drought, of lack; of death. I sense that all of these have happened here in this field before. Is it knowledge or preparation that makes the difference? Is it repentance or punishment? Is it chance or luck? I hear no answers, and quickly retreat back to the woods, overwhelmed by the acknowledgement that so many things will always remain outside of my control.

How is it that I have found myself here…here in this place…following a monk through the woods? I know I am searching. I know I am completely lost, yet I know I am somehow exactly where I need to be. Truly, this must be grace cradling me in her strong and loving arms.

My soul, that which time has completely walled off and simultaneously entirely exposed, begins to soften. I feel compelled to stop and lean against a tree too big for my arms to wrap around.

I watch as Baba walks ahead step by step. And then it happens. Through the deafening silence and the tears streaming down my face, I hear clearly and loudly what I never even knew I had been longing to hear… “I tend the path, Carole—and it is enough for me to do just that.” It was a simple but elusive validation. A much needed directive, urging me on. It is enough just to be. It’s not about how much you can do. Enough just to walk. Not to always be striving, struggling, hurrying, worrying to get somewhere. Not about what you can produce. Enough just to tend that which is in front of us on our path with our time, our talent, our hearts, and yes, with our broken souls.

Baba and I turn to head back to the others making lunch at the central house. In a wordless flash, I recognize this as a magic moment−a door through which I have passed and will have been changed forever. I don’t know how it is that I have found myself here in these woods, but I do know that here I have somehow found myself renewed.

So, this I know: I am here to tend the path. The path that has led me to a farm outside of Ann Arbor where I tend the gardens, and know it to be “enough.” The soil there outside my door holds the seeds that become the plants that provide the fruits that adorn the tables that I am being called to set–and this cycle nourishes every part of me. I hope you will visit me sometime. You see, there is a path there that wanders through the growing things that turn with the seasons. And perhaps once there, you’d like to join me, step-by-step, for a walk.

Our Kahal, Our Sacred Community

Rosh Hashanah talk by Margo Schlanger

margoHi, I am Margo Schlanger, and I’m the chair of the Ann Arbor Reconstructionist Congregation. I’m here to welcome you, whether you’ve been a part of our community for its full history of 22 years, or this is your first time spending time with us, or—as with me and many others—something in between.

My two children are 15; it’s been two-and-a-half years since their b’nei mitzvah. There was something about that morning that really epitomized AARC for me. Something, in particular, about the Torah service. The kids read Torah—the parsha was Mishpatim, laws—and they gave drashes in which they talked about the function of some of those laws at the time they were promulgated, and how we need to notice and critique the Torah’s failures with respect to equality in particular. Those of you who know my kids know that they have strong views about religion—like pretty much everything else. I was really proud of them—their moral and intellectual seriousness, their sustained engagement with Jewish texts and tradition, and their Hebrew skills. All that was nourished here in our AARC community. As usual in our services, someone else also read Torah, too—in this case, it was my sister-in-law, Ellie. Ellie is orthodox, and she had never read Torah in a mixed gender congregation before. We invited her, and she accepted, as an act of bridging her orthodoxy with our more liberal Judaism. It was about shared family feeling, and shared Judaism. I was really proud of her, and proud to be her sister-in-law, both because of her evident erudition, and because she was willing to participate, just for a few minutes, in our community that is so very unlike hers.

Anyway, back to why I’m standing here before you. To me, what happened at my kids’ b’nei mitzvah—both with them, and with Ellie—was the essence of our kahal, our sacred community. As it did during that Torah service, AARC during High Holidays and all year round offers a space and community where so many different kinds of people can gather, and can share whatever it is about Judaism that is most meaningful to them. Whether that is prayer and communal services, on Fourth Fridays, Second Saturdays, and holidays; connecting at our monthly pot lucks that follow Fourth Fridays; social justice projects; book club, Beit Sefer. For different members, different families, the draw is different—but we have created a kahal, a sacred community, out of all of us together.

And so now I get to the ask. Our community depends on you. That means both money and effort; we count on both, in so many ways. For many of the folks here, we depend on your membership, and your efforts on our behalf, and your membership dues. For non-members, perhaps you’d like to take the (very easy) plunge and become a member. But even for non-members not interested in membership—and we love having non-members come to our services, including these lovely High Holiday services—we depend on your support.

So welcome to our service, and welcome to this next year in our community. We will this year, together, enjoy many events and activities and meals and study sessions. We’ll do that with rabbinic leadership—Rabbis Strassfeld, Levitt, and Alpert—and with lay leadership, as we conduct our more permanent rabbi search. Please support this community—your community—as generously as you can.

L’shanah Tovah

[Editor’s note: You can easily renew your membership online right here.

Eyn Od/There is Nothing Else

Rosh Hashanah talk by Deb Kraus

FullSizeRenderI’ve been thinking a lot recently about the passage of time. I’m turning 60 in a few weeks, and a few months back, my daughter Molly turned 20 (I know, right?) and while writing this up north, a place where time seems to both stand still and pass much too quickly, the frustration of not being able to just stop time at the parts we like, to slow down the passage of our lives, hit me pretty strongly.

I think it hit me particularly strongly because of an experience I had while hiking in the Alps this summer. Lest this sound as pretentious to you as it does to me, let me explain a little about this trip.

Looking back, I’m not sure why I thought this middle-aged amateur hiker—late to the notion of exercise in any form, from a long line of people who were entirely sedentary—could do it. Obviously the idea of hiking 102 mostly vertical miles through three countries—literally into three countries—with the backdrop of majestic mountains, the sound of cow bells, the taste of cheese, chocolate and baguettes, and the bragging rights that would come with completing something as difficult as the Tour du Mont Blanc, all of this appealed to me, and as many of you can attest, training for this trip over the past year had given me a new sense of competence and strength.

And while it was beautiful—and yes, tasty—to be in this part of the world, the hiking was much, much harder than I anticipated. And I’m not even going to talk about the punishing downhill part! As I tried to scurry up the inclines to keep up, depriving myself of photo opps because “the slowest one should not incur the wrath of the group any more than is absolutely necessary,” two things happened.

First, I got teachable. My friend sat me down after the second day and quite harshly told me to “follow the leader” who had been trying to slow me down the whole day, but in French words I didn’t understand. How counterintuitive to be told to go slow, slower than I could have ever imagined, up each long (several hour!) incline. Don’t look up to see where you are going; that will only freak you out. You’ll lose your breath.

And yes, it’s all about the breath. And as I followed the leader the next morning, I found that my friend was right: when I focused on my breath first, and matched my step to that, amazingly I was able to get up every incline on the trail. After a while, I could even look up to see where I was going, and then look back down and focus on where I was. Eyn Od

Breath by breath, then Step by step. A walking meditation.

A very looong walking meditation.

The second and more universally applicable thing I learned is what happens when I did this, when I did slow myself down.

The phrase that kept coming to me, over and over, was Eyn Od. There is nothing else.

Just this breath. Just this step. Just this moment.

As a psychologist who is current on neurobiology, I have known for a long time how important meditation and mindfulness are. I just never took the time.

But on the mountain, there was nothing else to do.

Eyn Od. There is nothing else.

But here’s the most remarkable thing: the slowing down has continued. I no longer want to be so busy all the time, to run from thing to thing, to always maximize my productivity, to wonder what I should or could be doing even as I’m working as hard as I can already. To play mindless computer games that continue the racing thoughts when I could be resting. Well, OK, that last thing I really do want to do, but I’ve been told it’s really bad for me, and from the vantage point of what I learned in the Alps, that makes total sense.

So it’s still a struggle. Much easier, on the mind anyway, to take my time when all I have to do every day is to hike from point A to point B, or point F to point G. Harder when I juggle work, community responsibilities, the responsibilities of a home and neighborhood, and all the other things I do. I still am reaching for that #*($&# game between clients or when someone is two minutes late. There is a part of me that is truly addicted to that sense of busy-ness.

But I’m finding out, each time I slow down, I can put myself back in the Alps or floating down the Crystal Rver, and when I do that, in comes that same phrase,

Eyn Od. There is nothing else.

Just this moment.

Nothing to be afraid of. Or impatient about. Or judgmental about.

Just this moment, and then the next. Just like each step on the trail in the Alps.

Eyn Od.

There is nothing else.

Choosing Life?

Kol Nidre 5776 talk by Rabbi Michael Strassfeld

MJ_Strassfeld_photo-B&WIn the Torah portion we read just before the High Holidays, God says: I set before you life and death, choose life. Seems kind of obvious, doesn’t it? Except in the most dire circumstances, we would choose life if we could. So what does the Torah mean when it enjoins us to choose life?

What is life? How would we define it? For Judaism, a core part of the answer lies in what we are doing right this moment. Not praying, not talking, not even studying, but doing any or all of those things together in community. As Robert Putnam, noted in his seminal book entitled Bowling Alone, fewer and fewer Americans are participating in civic and community life. Through an examination of bowling leagues and other forms of group activities, he found a serious change in the pattern of Americans as the role of the individual was elevated and the group demoted.

The internet has only made this issue more complex. Does the enormous virtual community created by social media diminish or increase peoples’ connections to one another? If you have 200 or 500 Face book friends—is that real connection even if it is only virtual, or is it a superficial “friendship,” or no friendship at all? Is it enabling connections you couldn’t possibly have face to face or is it a way of distancing yourself from others and controlling their access to your life?

In our contemporary world, Judaism is counter cultural when it suggests community as an essential aspect of religious life. The intimate act of pouring one’s heart out to God is not done in solitude but rather in the context of a minyan, a prayer quorum. The language of prayer, even the al het the confessional of Yom Kippur, is recited in the plural, though it is clear to most of us that the litany of sins we recite may have little to do with us. Shabbat and holidays are to be celebrated with family and friends.

While some religious traditions encouraged a renouncing of the worldly, Judaism called for an embrace of the world. Tikkun olam—repairing the world—may be a newly coined expression but love your neighbor as yourself has always been an essential teaching of Judaism. We are meant to live life in relation to other people—not in a cave alone, subsisting on a few berries. Don’t gossip, don’t put a stumbling block before the blind, don’t oppress the stranger because you were a stranger… all these injunctions found in the Book of Leviticus are about the challenges and opportunities for holiness in the everyday interactions with other people. Yes, we, each of us is created in the divine image/tzelem elohim. The Torah said it first: each human being is created with inalienable rights. Yet, those individual rights are supported and modified in the context of relationships. Caring and supportive relationships lead to community. [Read more…]

Jews Come in All Colors

Rosh Hashanah 2015 talk by Clare Kinberg

The Jewish Multiracial Network visited the White House in July 2015

The Jewish Multiracial Network visited the White House in July 2015

When our daughters were infants, my wife Patti and I made commitments to them and to ourselves that to the best of our ability we would not put the girls in situations in which there are no other African Americans, in which they are the only ones. Given the very high level of social and organizational segregation in the US, this has been a very difficult commitment, and one that has affected our family in countless ways. A wonderful effect has been our seeking out of organizations of Jews of color such as the Jewish Multiracial Network. And there have been times when other commitments have drawn us to break this commitment. For instance, three years ago when my older daughter was in 9th grade, I wanted her to participate in the Ann Arbor/ Nahalal student exchange in which she went with a group of 20 Ann Arbor 9th graders to Israel for 10 days. My unease with knowing she would be the only black student in the group was heightened by several exchanges we had with Israelis we met in Ann Arbor who felt compelled to warn my daughter to prepare herself for Israeli racism. She didn’t know what to expect, and really neither did I. I figured one thing that may happen is she will be asked the ubiquitous, unwelcome and invasive question foisted on non-European appearing Jews, “How are you Jewish?” I thought I should tell her, just say “my mother is Jewish,” and leave it at that. But being the kind of mother I am, before advising her of what to answer, I asked her how she would respond to the “How are you Jewish” question. Her 14 year old answer? “I’ve celebrated becoming bat mitzvah, and Jesus is not my best friend.” I decided she could handle it, and left it at that. And in fact, we found that when embedded in a Federation delegation, her Jewishness was not questioned.

But I want to talk more about that “How are you Jewish question?” because it is a good stand in for all the many barriers in the Jewish community from full participation by Jews of color. The catch phrase of the Jewish Multiracial Network is “Jews come in all colors.” Once we awake to that simple truth, we can touch on its corollary: if you look around at a Jewish communal event such as this, and you don’t see a mixed multitude, you are seeing racism at work.

Fortunately, there are people in our community over the past twenty years who have come to understand this, that American racism is manifest in our communities when there are no or only a few Jews of color. The luminescent Rabbi Susan Talve, at Central Reform Congregation in St. Louis is one such person. You may have heard of her as one of the rabbis who has been on the front lines in protesting police brutality and seeking racial justice in Ferguson, MO. I want to share with you some words from her magazine article from a 2010 issue of Reform Judaism titled “Breaking the Color Barrier.” She wrote:

1997 was a transformative year in our congregation: The beautiful Josephine was born to a white Jewish mother and a non-Jewish African American father. There was no question that her parents would raise her to be a Jew. And when I held her at her naming ceremony, I promised her: By the time you begin to notice how you fit into your surroundings, we will have a community that includes others who look like you. You will see yourself reflected in the diversity of our temple. Your parents’ good intentions [to stay active in the synagogue] and our own [to treat you with respect] are not enough.

Jews of color were starting to find their way into our sanctuary.

Some of these Jews attended services at various area congregations. A few attended Orthodox congregations and day schools where, by their own accounts, they felt marginalized. Another two Jews of color had grown up in white Jewish homes before CRC was founded. In third grade they’d noticed they were different. By junior high they felt they had to make a choice between being black and being Jewish; there were no role models for being both. They couldn’t choose not to be black, so they stopped identifying as Jews.

Her article then goes on to detail the many specific, organizational, spiritual, steps the congregation took to change. In my opinion, this article should be studied like words of scripture. I have printed a couple copies you could grab on your way out. Rabbi Talve concludes her article:

About 20 of our active adult members are black and many of them have children. On some Friday evenings, African drumming and dance are part of our Shabbat service, and a growing number of African Americans worship with us. I’ve even officiated at a marriage of a biracial couple who decided to raise their kids to be Jewish because of us, because they have a place to do this. Still, I know that we have a long way to go to keep my promise to Josephine, who will celebrate her bat mitzvah next year. But for this congregation, situated in the city just a few miles from the Old Court House where the slave Dred Scott lost his case for freedom, I have hope that we are chipping away at the racism that plagues us.

In our prayers for Shabbat we read:

To pray for a Sukkat Shalom is to pray for a full house; a shelter that reflects creation in its glorious diversity. As we continue the holy work of uprooting the scourge of racism from this and all communities, we look forward to the time when our Jewish family will embrace Jews of all colors. Then, our Sukkat Shalom will become truly multi-racial as it was always intended to be.

May it come soon.

Sympathy for Azazel

Yom Kippur 5776 talk by Sam Bagenstos

samuel bagenstosWhen Deb Kraus asked me to give a talk on the scapegoat parsha, I was intrigued and intimidated.  It should be obvious why I was intimidated—this is a deeply learned crowd, and the chances of embarrassing myself by offering some half-baked reaction to one of the most studied portions of Torah were high.

But why was I intrigued?  Well, in part it goes back to my days misbehaving in Hebrew School.  In Fourth Grade or so, all my buddies and I did was try to learn to curse in Hebrew.  I remember one of them leaning over in class, whispering to me what he said was the Hebrew for “Go to Hell!”—I still don’t know whether he was right; we were all just making stuff up—which is the first time I recall hearing the word, “Azazel.”  Yes, even though it was the Seventies, “Go to Hell!” was as transgressive as we got, I’m ashamed to say.

Ever since then, I’ve found the scapegoat story somewhat fascinating.  I mean, we’re Jews—I thought we didn’t have much of an idea of Hell, or a devil, or anything like that.  Yet here we see, right in Leviticus—the most prescriptively legalistic book of the Torah—that Aaron must take the two goats and draw lots, with one goat designated for the Lord and the other “for Azazel.”

This is apparently the only place in the Torah in which the word “Azazel” appears.  And a debate has raged for centuries about what, exactly, the word means.  Some do in fact interpret “Azazel” as referring to a demon, evil demigod, or fallen angel.  (The suffix “-el” often denotes an angel’s name.)  Others interpret “Azazel” as referring to a rough mountain—in other words, it’s the place where the goat is sent.  Note that the Torah does not say anything about what happens to Azazel’s goat once it is set free.  It just says that “the goat shall carry on it all [the Israelites’] iniquities to an inaccessible region; and the goat shall be set free in the wilderness.”  Nonetheless, the Mishnah tells us that the tradition during the time of the Temple was to push the scapegoat off of a hard, rocky cliff.  And “Azazel” may simply have referred to the cliff.smpathy for the devil

But then there’s the third, simplest interpretation.  “Azazel” might refer to the goat itself.  “Ez”—Hebrew for goat—plus “azal”—apparently the Aramaic word for “to go.”  So “Azazel” might simply mean, roughly, “the goat that went away”—just as the English “scapegoat” means “the goat that escaped.”  Obviously, it’s the first of these definitions that inspires my title, Sympathy for Azazel—thanks Mick and Keith!—but I’m actually more interested in the other two, as you’ll see. [Read more…]

Torah Accompanies Us in Our Uncertainty

Rosh HaShanah 5776 talk by Rabbi Michael Strassfeld

Editor’s note: The Ann Arbor Reconstructionist Congregation wants to take this opportunity to profusely thank Rabbis Michael Strassfeld and Joy Levitt for leading our High Holiday observances, teaching us, and sharing the New Year with us.

MJ_Strassfeld_photo-B&WThere is a great deal of discussion these last few years in the Jewish community about its future. Based on recent surveys including the Pew study, there is concern about decreased participation in Jewish life by many people. The open society of America has led to assimilation.

A related phenomenon is a growing perception of religion as a force for intolerance and conflict in the world. What is and what should be the future of Judaism as a religion?

In pre-modern times, religion was a way to explain and understand a mysterious world. Why did things happen? Why did people get sick? Why did one side win a battle?

The answer: because God or gods created the world and controlled what happened. Over time, a belief in one God, a God of justice pre-dominated. It became the unified theory to explain the world. God punished sinners and rewarded the righteous. If the suffering of the innocent wasn’t completely explained by this notion at least there was some context for a way to strive to understand the world or a foundation to have faith that God had a plan even if you didn’t understand it. The world was not random but a world of purpose. But then over time, humans came to understand the world more clearly and discovered the laws of nature. Humans discovered germs and contagion, and disease no longer seemed either random or the scourge of God. Or as the atheist Christopher Hitchens wrote in 2007: “Thanks to the telescope and the microscope, [religion] no longer offers an explanation of anything important.”

Does religion in general and specifically does Judaism still have a purpose? Is that why recent surveys show an increasing number of Jews who define themselves and their Judaism as non-religious?

Reconstructionism encourages us to ask what needs reconstructing in Judaism—not just tinkering around the edges—but what needs to be radically recast or reunderstood. In his time Mordecai Kaplan, the founder of Reconstructionism, propounded a different understanding of the nature of God. In the face of the growing evidence of the decline in the adherence to Judaism, especially as a religion, I have come to believe that it is the fundamental way we think about Judaism that needs reconstructing. It struck me that part of the problem of religion in the modern world is that we both look to religion for certainty, especially in moments of crisis, and as moderns we rarely find that certainty. The theology of our ancestors, if it ever was their theology, simply doesn’t work for most of us. We don’t believe God saved this child fleeing from Syria because we don’t believe God caused that three year old to die on the beach in that terrible photo we all saw. We don’t think God gave cancer to that person, and let the other person recover from a heart attack. We just don’t organize our world this way. Religion for liberal Jews is not about certainty. [Read more…]