Center Field: Paradox and struggle

Our challenge is to balance old and new, faith and reason, the best of Judaism and the best of modernity.

Gil Troy (photo credit:)
Gil Troy
(photo credit: )
I recently attended a conference which invited participants to pose questions about the Jewish future. I asked: Why is life for centrist Jews so lonely these days? I wanted to talk about my troubles finding passionately committed, spiritually sophisticated, Jewishly ambitious, morally rigorous, deeply learned, non-Orthodox Jews. No one signed up for my session, proving my point. As the center withers, the modern Jewish problem grows. Modern Orthodoxy is growing in confidence more than in numbers. Barely 20 percent of Israelis are religious. In North America, population estimates hover around 13 percent. Orthodox triumphalists tout the expanding families and ba'alei tshuva - newly Orthodox - Jews who returned to the path. They ignore the many who lapse, or as Israelis call them Datlash, dati lesheavar, formerly religious. Moreover, whatever religious growth there is cannot compensate for the broader spiritual, organizational, marital, and demographic collapse. Scott Shay notes in Getting Our Groove Back that, among other problems, businesses losing customers at the rate that America's Conservative movement has lost congregants would go bust. In fairness, powerful technological, cultural, and political forces threaten modern Judaism. The Internet's immediacy, the iPod's intimacy, television's temptations outdraw the synagogue's spirituality, community's camaraderie, ritual's reassurance. Our modern throwaway materialist culture of the here-and-now forgets the past, dismisses the eternal. Modern politics, confusing liberty with license, often dismisses religions as smothering straitjackets not meaningful frameworks. Facing such a hostile environment, many modern Jews opt out. JEWS LIKE to think it is a Jewish problem. Actually, this religious malaise is widespread. "Christianity is difficult, both in practice and in theory… ," one New York Times book reviewer observed last year. "The suggestion that Christianity is a matter of both intellect and imagination, however, has fallen from popular favor. Many secularists see the whole business as fanciful, or, at best, as a comforting tale impossible to square with empirical truths." Christopher Hitchens has proclaimed: "God is not great." Choosing either modernity or religion is a false choice. Most Jews today live in the most creative, free, personally empowering, prosperous countries in history. Our challenge is to sift, select, synthesize, balancing old and new, tradition and change, faith and reason, the best of Judaism and the best of modernity. Fortunately, some rays of lights are shining amid these dark clouds of demographic depression and communal confusion. After decades of too frequently choosing trendiness over transcendence, the Reform movement is embracing some of that "old time religion." "[W]e are not very good at saying 'no' in Reform Judaism," the movement's North American president Rabbi Eric Yoffie confessed in 2006. "We are the most creative and forward-looking movement in Jewish life, but in the realm of personal behavior, we are reluctant to ever use the word 'forbidden.'" In 2007, Rabbi Yoffie urged Reform Jews to find "spiritual sustenance and meaningful ritual" by rediscovering Shabbat. THESE IMPORTANT, overdue mea culpas transcend questions of teenage sexuality or who turns lights on and off. Fearful of appearing too fundamentalist, too many moderns sacrifice all standards. Too many parents in our indulgent consumer culture fear saying "no" to their kids, from cradle to college - and rarely resist their own impulses either. Too many progressive rabbis fear challenging congregants, worrying that if they say the wrong thing, this will be the congregant's last rabbinic chat. It is impossible to parent, to lead, to stretch anyone spiritually, psychologically, intellectually, while floundering in a soothing bath of hip affectations, popular culture worship, calming clichés and happy talk. Across the Jewish spectrum, innovators are helping Orthodoxy make women feel as valued as Jews as they do as moderns. Despite Jerusalem's reputation as fanatic-ville, many different synagogues are addressing this dilemma, carving out new spaces for women within traditional frameworks. Visit the living Jewish laboratory of heavily Anglo-Saxon southern Jerusalem, from Rehavia through Arnona, on Shabbat. There, modern women are embracing traditional Judaism: sometimes by reading Torah and praying with equal standing; sometimes by staying on the traditional side of the mehitza dividing the genders but nevertheless finding new status and leadership roles. Just last week, Jerusalem's cutting-edge but traditional Shalom Hartman Institute launched the first program offering women Orthodox rabbinic ordination. AND AFTER losing more than 255,000 members from 1990 to 2000 alone, the Conservative movement may be reviving. The Jewish Theological Seminary's visionary new chancellor, Arnold Eisen, embraces a vital, Torah-based, Jewish center that, he says, does not average between extremes but joins "commitment to criticism, faith to tolerance, rigor with passion." In Israel, the Masorti movement just celebrated its 30th anniversary. Every schoolday, more than 30,000 pupils in nearly 200 schools and kindergartens benefit from the Jewish learning and values the pluralist TALI program provides. Meanwhile, the centrist Schechter Institute of Jewish Studies just launched a $3.5 million Jewish cultural center in the hip Neveh Zedek neighborhood of what is often caricatured as Israel's "sin city," Tel Aviv. All these initiatives welcome modern Israeli Jews who crave open-minded, dynamic, substantive Jewish anchors in their lives. Modern culture's glitzy superficiality and harsh rhetoric blinds secularists and absolutists, feeding one extreme or the other. Christianity must be more than ornamented trees or fire and brimstone; Judaism must be more than gefilte fish or guilt trips. We need intellect, imagination, a healthy appreciation for paradox and an appetite for spiritual struggle. We cannot fear challenging questions or tough answers. We have to stand for something and choose, set limits, impose structures on ourselves and, most especially, on and for our children. Human beings need a moral, spiritual, ideological, and personal GPS. Those of us lucky to be born Jewish should take advantage of our marvelous guide, not because the Jewish people need us, but because we need Judaism to navigate the challenges of modern life. The writer is professor of history at McGill University and the author of Why I Am A Zionist: Israel, Jewish Identity and the Challenges of Today, and Leading from the Center: Why Moderates Make the Best Presidents, to be published by Basic Books this spring.