The world's a'changin

I believe it was Albert Einstein who once said that the only constant in the Universe is change. Maybe it was somebody else but it does sound like Einstein.

I recently finished reading a book about Darwin's theory of evolution written by Carl Sagan. The book explained, with a clarity I've never seen before, how Darwin's theory works. Simplifying it, it means that if any particular organism has a mutation which gives it an advantage in the prevailing environmental conditions, that organism will be more likely to produce offspring than others - leaving behind more descendants. Over time, the descendants of that organism will become prevalent over the descendants of organisms without that mutation.

The way I understand it, in a plainer language, is that when your environment changes - you either change with it or you are left behind and replaced. What is true in the biological sense, is also true in the sociological sense. Soviet Communism could not adapt to the rapid evolution of the global economy and could not keep up with the technological advancements - it failed to respond to the new realities, including the yearning for personal freedoms in Modern societies. So Soviet Communism fell.

We are now living another time of revolutionary changes in our Global village. New forms of communication are shrinking the distances in our planet. When I can have a videocall including my brother and nephew in Washington State, my parents and cousins in Buenos Aires, my Uncle and cousins in Chicago and my cousins in Israel, it is obvious that the game has changed.

It used to be that in order to participate in Organized Jewish Life you needed to go to a building or to a physical location; a Synagogue, Temple, JCC, etc. Some of it is still true; kids still attend overnight Summer Camps or Day Camps; and if you need a minyan you still need to go to a Synagogue or Temple. But many congregations are getting more creative to get their minyan. During COVID, in some Orthodox sections of New York, Rabbis ruled that it was OK to go out to you balcony and count as a minyan your neighbors on your same floor who also came out to the balcony. In some Conservative and Reform Congregations, online service attendees were also count as part of the Minyan. And this is just one part of a deeper change.

It used to be that if you were a Jew, that identity defined you in fundamental ways. This was certainly true in the old country, and for many decades even in America. But the meaning of being a Jew in an open society has been changing gradually but surely. Today, being a Jew is for many people important, but not as central as it once was. We are no longer defined primarily by our being Jews. Jewish Identity, once the Northern Star of who we were, has become one more competing star in the constellation of our Identity.

And even the idea of being a Jew has changed. Jews of mixed heritage, of alternative ancestral traditions, Jews by choice, Secular Jews, Zionists (and anti-Zionists). We are all Jews. How do we adapt to this world that keeps changing around us? How can we effectively function in Modern society without losing our Jewish Identity? 

We've been looking for an answer since the beginning of the Emancipation. We opened our religious beliefs to modern interpretation, giving birth to Reform and Conservative Judaism; We tried to reduce our Jewishness to an exclusively religious dimension ("Germans - or French, or Americans - of the Mosaic Faith"); we sought to rebuild our National Being through Zionism; we embraced political ideologies which we felt embodied our ancestral beliefs (socialism, communism, Unionism, etc); we did everything we could to fit in - even converting - sometimes succeeding and sometimes failing.

So can we find an answer? I postulate here that the answer is less important than the journey of discovery. While we can (and we do) disagree in the answers we seek about our Jewishness, the fact that we are collectively seeking those answers defines who we are; our arguments and disagreements define us. Shimon Peres once defined the Jewish people and being perpetually dissatisfied, always looking over the horizon and always looking for challenges; never taking "yes" for an answer; always questioning, always doubting.

As in so many other things, Peres hit this one on the nail. Being part of the Jewish community is to be willing to question, to be opinionated, to doubt even our own doubts. It is a hell of a system, which has been working for over 3,000 years and allowed our culture to constantly evolve and adapt to new environments and new challenges. Join me. Embrace your own doubts and question your own questions. It is who we are.




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