Reinventing Judaism

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The Jewish community is built upon a foundation of rituals. Lighting candles, the prayers we say, telling the story of our liberation from slavery on Passover – these are elements of our religion that have not changed in hundreds, if not thousands, of years. But they have been “reinvented” time and again. Prayers have been put to new tunes and stories have come to include references to modern day events. Is all this “reinvention” a good thing, asked Meredith Jacobs in the Baltimore Jewish Times? Or should we just leave things alone? “After all, what’s so wrong with the way we’ve been doing things?”

Jacobs asked these questions after talking to JOI’s executive director, Rabbi Kerry M. Olitzky, about what she could do to “reinvent” Passover. He suggested she create a haggadah during the Seder. “Each participant was asked to introduce a discussion or suggest a new way of thinking about one part,” she wrote. “I would collect the new ideas an incorporate them into a new haggadah for future use.”

The “discomforted response of participants was surprising,” Jacobs noted, but it still got her thinking about others who had tried to “reinvent” holidays and rituals. “I know that when Sixth & I Historic Synagogue ‘reinvented’ Shavuot last year and called it ‘The Ten,’ 600 young people filled the building,” she said. And the “Sabbath Manifesto” is inspiring “thousands of 20-somethings” to place their cell phones in sleeping bags to help them connect with Shabbat.

In this sense, reinvention helps us “gain ownership” of our traditions and builds a stronger relationship to our Judaism. Looking at Jewish ritual from a different perspective also helps create new pathways into Judaism. It can introduce new meaning for people, giving them an opportunity to explore both Judaism and their heritage in a way they hadn’t before. A new and creative approach is often times just what it takes to encourage unaffiliated Jewish families to that first step towards participation in Jewish life.

As we strive for innovation, what’s important is not what we end up creating, Jacobs writes. “What’s important is that these ancient laws and traditions and rituals are still being thought about and that meaning is still being gleaned from them.”

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