Monday, July 23, 2012

On "Sunday Styles," Privatized Spirituality, and Revolutions

When my Sunday New York Times arrives each week,  I read "Sunday Styles"  first.  In part because it allows me to ease in to the heavier content of the other sections, but also because I love to see if I know any of the rabbis or cantors who might be officiating at the listed weddings!  Of late, more and more, instead of reading about weddings officiated by clergy, I read: "a dear friend of the bride/groom was ordained as a universal life minister especially for the couple's nuptuals" or something like that.  Many will say that this reflects only interfaith couples reacting to their rejection by synagogues and clergy who won't officiate, but a closer look reveals both exogamous and endogamous couples seeking this option.   Looking to add personal meaning and intimacy to their weddings, couples seek out the people who know them best to honor them in this most special way on their most special day.  It's not that they are outright rejecting the Jewish part of their lives, as often,  Jewish traditions are "acknowledged" in some way, perhaps in the form of a groom stepping on a glass or someone's relative leading haMotzi before the dinner is served.   But by and large, those are the only Jewish notes in an otherwise completely customized and privatized symphony commissioned to reflect the couple's individualized and particular desires and love, because at the end of the day, personalized customization is what's most important. 

And it isn't just weddings either.  The truth is, any Jewish lifecycle moment is up for customization these days.  The "privatized" route of arranging for private venues for Baby Namimgs and Britei Mila, Bnai Mitzvah, weddings, and even Shiva observances, where these Jewish rituals are "observed" in the same ways as the weddings I mentioned earlier.  Just last month, The Jewish Times published an article on the Reform movement's new effort to "revolutionize" Bnai Mitzvah.  The author cited a recent example from a well-known Reform synagogue in Los Angeles, describing how, instead of chanting Haftara, a Bar Mitzvah spoke about "his recent ride alone on a city bus... across Los Angeles on a Friday at rush hour “to see my city from a different perspective.”**   Noting the understanding that a ritual marking a transition out of childhood should reflect the skills required to become a Jewish adult in the community, the synagogue's senior rabbi remarked, "It was a reframing of the bar mitzvah ceremony.” 

And I get it.  I can see how a Bar Mitzvah  would find more "meaning" from a bus ride than from learning Haftara trope.  I see how a custom candy buffet with the child's initials imprinted on each pink or blue sugar coated chocolate proves more memorable for people than welcoming a child into the Jewish covenant with a Hebrew name and hopes in Hebrew of Torah, Chuppah, and Gimilut Chasidim.  The world we live in, the world I live in, is one where, for any number of sociological, historical, and phsychological  reasons, we are all desperate for real, personal acknowledgement and intimiate connections -and many believe those cannot be achieved through Jewish cerermonies now perceived as too "one-size-fits-all."

But here's what I wonder: do these customized "meaningful" observances actually provide the meaning and connection that so many seek? I think that people think they do, but I also believe that they are missing an entirely different, deeper type of meaning and connection that can only come when we tap into that which is larger and more enduring than ourselves.  Jewish markings along the lifecycle serve the explicit purpose of putting meaning into what are otherwise limited, both in time and space, experiences. 

When lanky and awkward pre-teens do an aliya, chant Torah and Haftara on a Shabbat to mark the experience of Bar or Bat Mitzvah amidst a larger Jewish community, not just their invited guests, they link themselves at once to their own local community, every other Jewish community around the world, not only that Shabbat, but for every Shabbat beforehand for countless generations and hopfully for countless to come.  It is a failure of the non-Orthodox institutions, leadership and lay community for creating a reality where our people have become so estranged and thereby disinterested that Hebrew matches to any other foreign language they don't know.  And yet, even so, there is deep meaning and significance, both practical and spiritual, from knowing that a young person might have the skills to navigate and lead any Jewish community in prayer any where, any time.  It is significant for the Bar Mitzvah boy and it is significant for the comuninity - not just his invited guests, but the Jewish community as a whole. And that is something the "bus ride" just can't do. 
When the wedding couple has witnesses sign a Ketubah, stands under a chuppah,  sanctifies themselves to each other with the words intoned over the generations, sips wine after 7 blessings, then even if each of those components is made fitting for them individually, they join together in a way that links them in a moment that mimics nothing less than the world's Divine creation. Not much else can get you that, even with a mazal tov and HaMotzi.

I'm not saying we can't have customization and personalization.  We can, and we should.  They enable us to acknowledge who we are and where we are in our own lives in an important way.  But to do so while whitewashing partially or entirely the "Jewish" expressions of these moments is to truly travel upon the turbulent sea with no compass nor anchor. At its heart, Judaism may be personal, but it is NOT private.  Part of the enduring profundity and beauty of Judaism is its mandate of connecting to that which is outside of ourselves: our families, our communities, our world and the Divine.  The true "Revolution" of the denominations that take modernity into account has always been and continues to be when they make Judaism, its teachings, and practices more meaningful, more personal, more inclusive, and more relevant through embracing and lifting up those core values, not diluting or disolving them in part or entirely.*** 

***As an example, Rabbi Dr. Rachel Adler did this with her cutting edge work around Brit Ahavah, and her son and daughter-in-law Rabbis Amitai and Julie Pelc-Adler have updated her work in a notably compelling, inclusive and intergity-filled wedding ceremony.


  1. Helpful reminder as many of our children date those of other faiths.

  2. I think it is so important for us to remember that we are part of something larger than ourselves. When one stands on the Bimah and reads from the Torah they should know that around the world other 12 and 13 year olds are doing the same thing. My son loved his Israel Bar Mitzvah trip but he always said that his "real" Bar Mitzvah was at NSCI with his own Rabbi. My daughter never considered anywhere but the Temple for her wedding. In a very modern world with very modern thought there is comfort in tradition.


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