Is Judaism Mutating?

On the High Holidays, most American Jews will make their only visit of the year to a synagogue. Does this make them less Jewish than people who attend daily minyans? And what about the people who don’t even make the annual pilgrimage?

We’ve all read the statistics about assimilation and intermarriage, and the dire predictions about the disappearance of American Jewry. They have stimulated the organized Jewish community to focus on ways to create and revitalize Jewish identity. Left unsaid is what constitutes a Jewish identity. The truth is we are having our own “Who is a Jew?” crisis.

Judaism is not a static religion. It has changed over time. We don’t have priests, sacrifices or multiple wives today. Even the most rigidly Orthodox Jew bears little resemblance to the Jews of Biblical or even Greek and Roman times. So is there such a thing as authentic Judaism? Is there a minimal requirement for considering a person Jewish?

In Israel, the Reform and Conservative movements are not recognized as legitimate by either the government or the religious establishment. I remember studying in a Yeshiva where one of the Rabbis said he considered Reform Jews essentially Christians.

Of course Orthodox Jews have disputes among themselves. You have the Satmar, Lubavitch and “Modern” Orthodox to name only three of the many distinct groups that disagree on theory and practice. I remember a Lubavitch Rabbi at Berkeley observing how nice it was to see someone with a kippah on campus and then making a disparaging remark about people who wore what he called “bottle cap” kippot. I learned that in Israel, there’s a hierarchy among religious Jews based on whether they wear a colorful knit kippah or a black felt one.

I do not advocate intermarriage or assimilation, but it may be time to take a harder look at the nature of modern Judaism. Is it just possible that Judaism will be different one hundred years from now, just as today it is different from ancient days? What is the point at which belief becomes so diluted that it is no longer recognizable as Jewish? The Orthodox think the Reform movement has already crossed the line, while members of that movement assert their Jewishness.

I wrote a satirical piece in grad school suggesting the creation of a “Reconservadoxy” movement. It would hold the Sabbath sacred, but not consider the attendance of college football games a violation. Shellfish could be made kosher by boiling, frying or serving cold on a bed of lettuce with cocktail sauce. Conversion would involve immersion in a jacuzzi filled with Perrier. And children would be considered Jewish if they wear jeans made by a Jewish designer, a parent donates $10,000 or more to a synagogue or the family celebrates the Fast of Gedalia.

It is conceivable that another type of Judaism will emerge, based on some new consensus about rituals and beliefs. It may be too disorganized to become a “movement,” but it is likely to include people who rarely, if ever, step inside a synagogue. It could be comprised entirely of people who are intermarried and do not keep kosher. Perhaps the only thing that will make them Jewish is their desire to identify themselves that way, or maybe their connection is a belief in God, a feeling that the Torah is their book, an affinity for the culture of Judaism, and/or a love of Israel.

In America, at least, Orthodox, Conservative, Reform and, to a lesser extent, Reconstructionist Jews have gained legitimacy. Why? Why are these strains accepted? The non-Orthodox movements are relatively recent incarnations, why is it so difficult to believe another approach will emerge? What would it take for a new version of Judaism to have similar status?

We should invest more in trips to Israel for young people and Jewish day schools, but all the money in the world is not going to reverse the demographic trend. The best we can hope for is to slow it down. But the attempt itself assumes that we believe in some ill-defined threshold of Jewishness.

No matter what we preach, children will be influenced by our actions. What lessons will they learn from seeing Jews throwing stones at cars or reading about Jews assaulting women for immodest dress? What will be their reaction to seeing a Jew eating lobster or celebrating Christmas, or to hearing an organ or choir in a synagogue?

Isn’t it a bit conceited to believe that millennia of Jewish evolution should end with our generation? Have we achieved perfection?

All right, maybe the emerging strain of Judaism will be a mutation, but that is part of the evolutionary process. I’m reminded of a wonderful quotation I saw in the Diaspora Museum in Israel in which a Rabbi asked: How can God be God if he can only be worshiped in one way? This holiday season it is a question worth contemplating.