Posted on May 2, 2022
Not ever-dying. Ever-evolving, ever-adapting, and ever-reforming
In 1948, the Jewish thinker Simon Rawidowicz wrote a paper entitled: “Israel, the Ever-dying People”. In the aftermath of the Holocaust, one might have thought that he was talking about the fact that we as a community have faced challenges from the outside who have sought to destroy kill us. But that was not what he was focusing on. Instead, as he wrote in the introduction, “the world makes many images of Israel. But Israel makes only one image of itself, that of being constantly on the verge of ceasing to be of disappearing.” Ravidowicz’s basic idea was that throughout our history we have imagined ourselves to be on the verge of disappearing and ceasing to be.
In many ways, he’s right. We don’t so much have problems in the Jewish community, we have crises; moments of existential threat where everything hangs in the balance, everything might be destroyed, and where we might be that final generation carrying the torch before it is extinguished.
We can go back throughout Jewish history to identify moments in our past when it seemed like we might have reached the end. Calling time on what had been “a good run.” In the wilderness at various points the Israelites were ready to give up and abandon this “project.” And once we reached the Land of Israel, we might think especially about the destruction of the Second Temple. At that moment, our center of worship had gone, and our future looked very, very bleak. Many in the community were willing to give up saying that God had deserted us and there was nothing more for us to do.
But one man, Yohanan ben Zakkai, believed that things could be different. He recognized that Jerusalem would be destroyed, and so he went to the Romans and requested Yavneh, a town west of Jerusalem. There he reimagined what Judaism could be, there they developed the idea of the synagogue as a center of Jewish worship and life. No longer would we rely on a Temple or animal sacrifices. Instead, the synagogue emerged from that moment of crisis as a solution, as a new opportunity, as a new institution, as a beacon that would shine for us into the future.
But we must recognize that it was a moment of crisis; it was a moment when our survival did appear to hang in the balance.
Right now, we are hopefully emerging from this period of COVID, and people are once again asking questions about what the future of Judaism will look like. Some people are suggesting that we’ve had a good run; but that it doesn’t look like there’s a future for the way that we do Judaism today. People question: Will synagogues survive this moment? Will people continue to join communities? Is there really a future?
We are again, the ever-dying people experiencing a moment of crisis. But I actually think that while Rawidowicz puts forward a compelling argument in his article, I don’t think we are an ever-dying people. Instead, I think more accurately we are an ever-adapting, ever-evolving and ever-reforming people. We face these moments of challenge, of crisis, of existential threats – and we reimagine a new way that Judaism can survive; we rethink and rebuild upon the foundations that have gone before.
We are in one of these moments of “crisis.” The institutions that we built; the synagogues, the Federations and various other central agencies were constructed along a model to serve the community of the 1960s and 70s. It was a different time. Just think about the way that society has changed in these past 50 years. And yet many of the models have barely shifted.
But that doesn’t mean that we can’t adapt. That doesn’t mean we can’t change. It doesn’t mean that once again, we can’t reform what we’ve been doing to imagine something new.
I actually think that rather than this moment being a moment of crisis, it’s a moment of opportunity. As we emerge from this COVID pandemic, I sincerely believe that people are going to be looking for community in a way that they have never done before. For two years, we’ve been robbed of the connections that we’ve yearned for; the ability to be together with one another, to gather in ways that we would want. And I think there’s going to be a rush to find those communal opportunities as people feel safe to pursue them.
Much has also been written about the unique role that religious communities can play in ensuring and securing human flourishing. In an article in Psychology Today, the Harvard professor Tyler van der Wiel writes from Harvard out of touch out of Harvard, Professor Tyler van der Wiel, wrote about the “the important role that religious communities play in human flourishing, including preventing depression and suicide, extending longevity, improving marital outcomes, facilitating happiness, meaning, forgiveness, and hope. The size of the effects of religious community participation tend to exceed those of other forms of social participation.”
Religious communities have survived and thrived and reimagined themselves, because what we are offering is what people truly need. They needed it back then and we need it today; and we’ll still need it tomorrow. In that way, for us at Temple Shir Tikva we will be thinking about how we can continue on this path of reimagining what the synagogue can be. Approaching this moment as we emerge from COVID, not as a crisis, but as an opportunity to build something new, something enduring, something that will answer the questions of today.
We’ll be a welcoming community, opening our doors, both in person but online as well. Because the digital service is here to stay, the virtual experience is not going anywhere. But we’ll ensure that people are welcomed both in person and online. And then from that welcome, we will establish a culture of belonging. What does it mean to feel like this is your place, that this is your home, that this is your community? We want our members and their friends to walk through these doors, to step into this building, and to feel a sense of ownership that this is theirs. It’s a place where they come to see themselves, see their friends and see their people. And then we’ll ensure that the Temple offers a source of meaning. Because ultimately, the reason that Judaism has survived is not just because of its adaptability; but also, because what Judaism offers, is what people need and have always needed.
For so many of the challenges of the world today we can find answers and responses in our Jewish tradition. Just think about what we’re doing right now. We live in a 24/7 culture and people are always looking for opportunities to take a break, to put their devices down, and to pause – I give you Shabbat, an ancient answer to a modern problem. We are tired and jaded, but Judaism calls on us to offer 100 blessings a day, recognizing the miraculous that is all around us and reframing the way that we see the world. And I could go on and on with this list of the ways that Judaism offers us so many important lessons for the way that we should approach our lives today.
Right now, I don’t think it’s a moment of crisis for the synagogue, for Judaism, or for the Jewish community. Instead, I think it’s a moment of opportunity, because we’re not an ever-dying people. Ultimately, we are really always ever-adapting, ever-evolving and ever-reforming. And I think that’s an exciting invitation, for each and every one of us, to reimagine what this community, what this synagogue, what Judaism can look like for the future.
 The essay is available in the collection: Israel, the Ever-Dying People, and Other Essays by Simon Rawidowicz.