Mining the Tradition or Losing it

March 2nd: Ki Tissa
Rabbi David E. Ostrich

Though the Golden Calf Incident is the big story in this week’s Torah portion, I would like to look at the passages around it: the continuing commandments for the priesthood and the sacrificial cult—a form of worship which we no longer practice. We read about this system in great detail, but we have not worshipped this way for almost 2000 years. Though there is the traditional hope about returning to the glories of Temple sacrifices, there is a strong sense among many Jews that our prayers can get us just as close to God as the ancient sacrificial meals. The great mediaeval scholar, Rabbi Moses Maimonides, even says as much: God did not need the meat or the blood. What God wanted was the attention of our ancestors and their piety and obedience. Understanding that the sacrificial form of worship is what was commonly understood as worship at that time, God turned it into part of the Israelite religion. Now, however, worship has been redefined as prayers, piety, and obedience, and therefore God has no need for sacrifices again.

This religious transformation is one of the largest changes—or, as historian Ellis Rivkin would put it, quantum leaps—in Jewish history, but it is not the only one. Think for a minute about how Chanukah has changed from a minor holiday to a major Jewish event. Think about how Sukkot and Shavuot—once major pilgrimage festivals—are now observed in minor ways, if at all. Though we often hear someone railing against the importance of Chanukah, insisting that it is a minor holiday (a statement that is historically and Talmudically true), the fact is that Chanukah has grown significantly in the last century. The insistence that Chanukah is minor is only argued because the holiday has morphed into something much more than minor.

 I used to be one of these railers, and I remember going on and on at an adult study group about how Sukkot is supposed to be much more important than it is. Complaining about the relative inauthenticity of modern Judaism because we have changed the priorities of the traditional holiday calendar, I thought I was being fairly eloquent when one of the participants cut me down and changed my thinking. “Don’t we have the right to find meaning in what is most meaningful to us? If we are not celebrating Sukkot in the traditional and emphatic way, could it be that we modern Jews do not find it particularly meaningful? Could this be a case of Judaism developing to meet the religious needs of each new generation of Jews?”

Perhaps for those of us who do not live agrarian lives, a harvest festival does not resonate with our lives—certainly not like it struck a chord with farming communities who worked and waited anxiously all summer, hoping for a good harvest. Perhaps, our ways of making a living call for a different kind of celebratory “harvest festival.” Perhaps, in our modern and decidedly non-Jewish world, a more meaningful holiday is one which celebrates the courage of standing up for our religious beliefs—both back in 165 BCE and now. Perhaps the Maccabees are the kind of role models we need now. Perhaps we are intuitively finding meaning in our Jewish Tradition in ways that feed our modern spirits.

Yes, I stopped railing and started looking at modern Jewish religiosity a little more anthropologically. Rather than comparing modern observance to that of the past and finding fault, I began to look at modern observance as Jews mining their religious tradition for ways to nurture and express their Jewish souls. So, when I see a religious change, I feel the need to invoke patience and sit back in observation. Is this an organic development in religiosity, or is it something to resist?

How, for example, am I to regard the fact that our congregation’s Saturday morning service is dying? Though Jewish Tradition has always considered the Saturday morning service to be the primary worship experience of the week, the 20th Century saw the Friday night service rise in popularity—especially in the Reform Movement. Indeed, in many congregations, people stopped attending Saturday morning services and chose Friday night instead. This is why many Reform congregations read Torah on Friday night: they want their congregants to have a full worship experience. In many congregations, the only Saturday morning services are for B’nai Mitzvah.

This is the way it was in Congregation Brit Shalom for our first forty years. According to the stories I have been told, the main and only service of the week was on Friday night, and the only times there was a Saturday morning service was for a Bar/Bat Mitzvah. Then, around twenty-five years ago, a group of people decided that they wanted a Saturday morning service, too. They got the minyan together and, for many years, it functioned very well. However, during the last several years, a variety of things happened to dampen participation. Some people moved away. Others passed away. The Bar/Bat Mitzvah families felt less motivated to attend services—particularly the longer and hebraically more difficult Saturday morning service. Minyans were harder to get, but we limped along. Recently, however, infirmity, death, and relocation have really hit the service hard. We get a minyan less than a quarter of the time. The only times we are sure of a full service in when we have a Bar/Bat Mitzvah—or Rosh Hashanah or Yom Kippur. (This last year, when Yom Kippur was on a Saturday, our “minyan” was over 300 strong!) However, on an average Saturday, we’ll get four or eight worshippers, and those who come to say Kaddish cannot. I have compiled a special non-minyan prayer so that mourners can memorialize their departed loved ones, but there is no minyan, and a full service is not possible. It has gotten to the point where I say to people who want to say Kaddish, “Friday night is a much safer bet.”

So, is this a time for railing, or is this a time to simply observe the changing nature of our congregation? Can the Saturday morning service be saved, or is it like the ancient sacrificial cult and priesthood, something that was good at one time but which is simply not the way we do Judaism anymore?

Our congregation has much to celebrate: a spiritual and well-attended Friday night service, a vibrant and well-attended Adult Torah Luncheon, a very active and exciting religious school—and Tot Shabbat and Teen Torah and High Holy Day Services and a Communal Passover Seder and a film series and lots of great programming. We have lots of ways to be Jewish and to do Jewishly. We get what we want by voting with our feet. It will be interesting to observe our choices.