One of my favorite Religion writers is Lisa Miller of Newsweek magazine. In the double issue of Newsweek (May 24& May 31, 2010) she wrote an article about Yoga and its Hindu roots. (http://www.newsweek.com/id/237910 ) I do recommend the entire article but I warn any Jew who reads it that it might make you think that if Yoga is a Hindu practice, that may make it too pagan for Jews to participate in any way. Judaism is vehemently anti pagan, we are forbidden to take part in any activity that is connected to paganism, so if you love Yoga, you might want to stay ignorant of its Hindu roots. Hinduism clearly falls under Judaism’s definition of paganism.
The question that Ms. Miller asks however, is an important question. Can we co-opt rituals from other faiths and use them in our own way for our own purposes? In fact, Judaism has done this many times in our lengthy history. Clearly the Lulav and Etrog have been borrowed from pagan rituals. Much of biblical sacrifices was taken from the rituals of the people who lived around the People of Israel. Circumcision may have been borrowed from Egypt and much of our laws in relation to conversion seem to come from Roman common law.
The article then quotes a professor of religion at Boston University, Stephen Prothero, the author of a new book “God is Not One” who has this quote, “The American creative, materialistic, pluralistic impulse allows religion here to grow and change, taking on new and unimagined shapes.” It got me thinking about how American Judaism has been received in Israel. It is a topic that is never far from my mind, especially after reading the news stories coming from Israel over the past weeks: about how non-fundamentalist Judaism is being walked on by a bill in the Knesset, about a Conservative/Massorti woman in Israel assaulted for having the marks from tephillin still on her arm, and the latest example of harassment by the Haredi toward women wanting to pray at the Western Wall in a non-fundamentalist fashion.
I began to see why these ultra Orthodox Jews are so angry at what we have made of our Judaism in America and have now exported to the rest of the world. It is an example of the “American creative, materialistic, pluralistic impulse” at work in Judaism. What Conservative Judaism has added to the Jewish faith is something that is a unique addition, one that requires American Jews to bring it to the Jewish table.
I am sure that there are those who would see these additions to Judaism; egalitarianism, liberalism in ritual and in Halacha (Jewish Law) and the establishment of homosexuality as no longer being an “abomination” in Judaism, as examples of how American Jews have “watered down” what Judaism stands for and have breached Jewish Law in ways that have severed any connection to what “real” Judaism is all about. And yet, it does not take a very sophisticated examination of the last 2000 years of Jewish history to see that in every place that Jews have lived, they have brought something from the local culture into Judaism. The next time you see a Haredi Jew who says that Judaism never changes, ask him where Judaism picked up the long black coat, the fur hat, and the belt he is wearing. I can promise you that they are not indigenous clothing worn by the Sages of the Talmud. (who probably dressed like Romans, who are also not a Jewish sect).
There is a story of a man in Krakaw that dreams of a treasure buried near a bridge in Budapest. He goes to Budapest and finds the bridge but it is guarded by soldiers. He tells the captain of the guard that he had this dream about a treasure buried under the bridge. The captain laughs at him and says that he does not believe in dreams, if so he would be in Krakaw looking under a stove for treasure. The man thanks him, goes home and finds the treasure under his own stove. The moral of the story is that the treasure is in Krakaw but knowledge of the treasure is in Budapest. Sometimes we have to go far afield to find the information we need to move ahead in life. The same applies to faith. Sometimes we have to go into exile to find the knowledge we need to keep our faith growing and meaningful, and not stagnant and irrelevant for modern living. American Jews have added, in our own unique way, a new dimension to world Jewry. I don’t think that this is a bad thing at all, and the “purists” who think that by holding at bay any changes at all are making our faith poorer and less relevant.
A Judaism that continues to struggle with modernity, from America, from Europe or in Israel is a living, vibrant faith.