Judaism's Plebeian Awakening

The rich trove of Jewish symbols that is being consolidated seeks authenticity; it demands the revival of past traditions, of models that were once practiced and which have fallen into neglect.

Amongst everyone I have met on the diverse paths of religious Jewish leadership of the various communities and movements that I have visited, in Milwaukee, New York, Boston and Richmond - among the Orthodox, Conservative, Reform, and those who refuse to define themselves within any of these categories - I encounter interest in developing Jewish study frameworks. And to this end, much time, energy and funding is being invested.

The Executive Director of Hadassah, Morlie Levin, is just one of the many talented, capable individuals who has turned down prestigious positions in the private sector in order to work within Jewish organizations and initiatives, with an understanding that this is what is needed right now.

What motivates them to make such choices is their concern for Jewish identity and the fear of its erosion? I call them "guardians of Judaism", and it makes no difference to me how they define themselves or how they are defined by others. For this temporary sojourner among communities in the United States, the model for action is the same. They sense - rightly - that the most critical task at this time is to make Judaism accessible. To draw thoughts and insights for today's generation from ancient texts and half-forgotten traditions.

In recent years, in Israel and throughout the Jewish world, growing numbers of individuals and groups have begun creating books to mark occasions and special moments related to the life cycle. People are looking for blessings, texts, and other religious, ritual content - old and new - for family occasions: childbirth, bar/bat-mitzvah, the wedding day, the birth of a grandchild, loss and bereavement.

This thirst, and the creative awakening that has accompanied it, are a sign of a new trend. The rich trove of Jewish symbols that is being consolidated seeks authenticity; it demands the revival of past traditions, of models that were once practiced and which have fallen into neglect. It seeks nourishment from the practical side of Judaism which, in the past, played such a central role. The task of the present generation of "gate-keepers" is to allow and facilitate renewal and revival. We must seek and explore knowledge and information from the past, draw values and meaning from them, and then express them in language suited to today's context.

This role is entrusted partly, if not mostly, to the world of academic research. It is no secret that over the past few years, departments of Judaic studies at universities in Israel have gradually been shrinking. There are no new posts, research funding is scarce, the number of students is dwindling, courses are being closed, and the corridors are emptying.

At the same time, the informal frameworks are growing and flourishing. There is a steady current of searching, a widespread popular desire to touch and grasp the Jewish essence. Two days after my arrival in Boston, at the beginning of November, I happened to visit the Etz Chayim Beit Midrash in Cambridge - a house of study established from the outset with no qualifying or labeling definitions. Its members come there to study, to become familiar with their tradition, to claim their share in the texts, to broaden their knowledge. The key to the renewal of practical Judaism is to be found in such battei midrash, where the new generation is quietly studying and deepening its roots.

The religious and academic establishments would do well to nourish their respective spheres with the resources that are emerging from the lay community, with knowledge that has disappeared from our lives - sometimes having been marginalized and ignored for political reasons. The spiritual leadership must learn to contain this Jewish renaissance and to embrace it. Similarly, the world of Judaic research needs new research methods and tools in order to share knowledge with the contemporary Jewish masses. The fascinating and important studies that are carried out by leading experts, to appropriate scientific standards and in specialized language, are to be found buried for the most part in academic publications, with their limited audiences. Thus they become prized additions to libraries, instead of reaching the general public so thirsty for knowledge, for values, for Judaism in contemporary garb and language. It is imperative that this knowledge be published through non-academic platforms, too, as a contribution to the community and to the public.

The time is right and the conditions are ripe for a joining of forces, and for a combined telling of the story. We must wake up and seize the opportunity before it is too late.

Dr. Lavie is a visiting research associate at Brandeis University. Her best-seller, "Tefilat Nashim", was published this month in English, as "A Jewish Woman's Prayer Book" by Random House, NY