Jewish Survival Depends on Our Ability to Adapt
In 1991, it was rare to see a female rabbi leading worship services; today, women comprise more than 25 percent of the rabbinate. In 1991, most American Jews would have found the appearance of rice at a Passover seder meal an abomination—even though that has always been standard fare (and kosher) among non-Ashkenazi Jews. Today, the Sephardi/Mizrachi allowance of kitniyot is gaining traction outside those communities.
Things change. Which is a good thing. In the words of Albert Einstein: “The measure of intelligence is the ability to change.”
I wrote Living a Jewish Life: Jewish Traditions, Customs, and Values for Today’s Families in the early 1990s as an open-door “Introduction to Judaism” that I would have found useful as a young mother raising a Jewish child. The book provides all kinds of options, but there is no “Thou shalt not” and no “Thou shalt.”
I updated the book in 2007, because after 16 years in print, the first edition seemed dated and out of touch. Some omissions in the 1991 version made me cringe. There was no mention, for example, of gay and lesbian Jews, much less alternative language that would gladden the hearts of same-sex wedding couples.
Even so, an update to the update was needed. The new 2023 edition goes further in embracing Jewish diversity, using, for example, inclusive pronouns and a non-binary Shabbat blessing for children in Hebrew and English.
At the same time, much has remained the same across all three editions, including the sentence, “Shabbat is the way Jews arrange their lives to stay in touch with what is perfect in the world on a regular basis.” The rhythm of the holidays remains constant and life-cycle rituals continue to give us words to express wonder, joy and grief. But the reason we Jews are still here is our ability to change.
The new Living a Jewish Life reflects a community that is cognizant and proud of its gender, cultural, ethnic and racial diversity. The new edition notes that Ladino melodies have been adopted into the Shabbat liturgy in congregations full of Ashkenazi Jews and that chuppahs are being made of fabrics that reflect the identity of the people who stand beneath them, including mantillas, saris and rainbow flags.
Of course, technology has changed Jewish life worldwide. First perceived as a threat, the internet has proven itself a convener and connector. Covid accelerated the already burgeoning use of online resources to erase barriers of distance, age and physical ability. Synagogue attendance overall rose during the pandemic. I attended b’nai mitzvahs, weddings and shivas in three states without leaving my home, and I know that my presence mattered to those who were in the rooms where they happened.
The internet has also democratized the vast library of Jewish living and learning—providing access to everything from the Talmud to contemporary biblical commentaries, from Jewish history to Passover recipes from Iraq and India. The web weaves us together in unexpected ways, a Jewish academy without walls, with lectures and classes at all levels accessible to learners of all levels, means and abilities.
For example, years back, when I received emails from people who wished to convert to Judaism, including one from Peru and another from rural Ireland, I didn’t know where to send them. Today, there are many online Introduction to Judaism classes offered by reputable organizations, including by the Reform and Conservative movements.
On July 27, we will be observing Tisha B’Av, which is less a holiday than a communal day of mourning. It is a somber yahrzeit for the ancient Temple in Jerusalem, which was destroyed twice: in the year 586 BCE by the Babylonians, and again, seven centuries later, in 70 C.E. by the Romans.
The end of the Temple meant there would be no more tithes or sacrifices, no more pilgrimages to Jerusalem, no more hereditary priesthood. It was seen as the end of a national identity for the Jewish people, most of whom were exiled from Israel and dispersed; it was feared to be a sign that God had withdrawn from the world and would no longer intervene on our behalf. Without a homeland, it surely seemed like the end of our story.
But the end of the Temple was not the end of the Jews. That calamity made it necessary to create a new Jewish civilization. So, prayers and songs replaced tithes and burnt offerings. There was room for interpretation and debate about Jewish observance and laws as seen in the Talmud, where even losing arguments are recorded for posterity. The Jewish home became a mikdash ma’at, a little sanctuary, where the dinner table was an altar and women as well as men recited blessings.
It is hard for Jews to trust change given our history of grievous loss—from the destruction of the Temple to the murder of six million in the Holocaust to current threats to our safety. But our tradition tells us to hold fast to the Torah, which is called “a tree of life.” That beloved and kaleidoscopic metaphor might teach us to have faith in change.
The trees in my neighborhood appear to die in winter only to blossom in the spring. We now know that in some forests, tree roots are connected to one another, nourishing the young and sick, supporting the well-being of the whole community. Etz chaim hee, she is a tree of life.
Anita Diamant is the author of five novels, including The Red Tent, and six guidebooks to contemporary Jewish life. Her newest book, an update of Living a Jewish Life, is slated to be published in September.