Change is Inevitable

During the 1960’s and 1970’s mainstream Orthodox Judaism in Australia was politely termed “traditional”.  This is best interpreted as a euphemism to describe a community that is non-observant in nature, yet holds an affiliation to the tenants of Jewish law.  The culture was fairly lax, but there were red lines particularly surrounding matters such as assimilation, and rites of passage when it came to lifecycle events, including death and mourning.  Communities across the country had Rabbi’s whose religious lifestyles were (mostly) tolerated, but whose leadership did not always engender a shift in knowledge and observance from across a complacent Shule membership.

The evolvement of such a culture was a combination of many factors.  The post Holocaust influence, where the overt display of Jewish custom had been shaken the world over, delivered not only a first and second generation gap, but also a fear of identification.  The typical Rabbi (or Reverend) of the Australian Synagogue followed in the British tradition.  Photos adorned with Rabbi’s in canonical robes and clergy vestments grace the halls and libraries of large Shules, an environment where the Rabbi was to his congregation nothing more than a Jewish equivalent of a Church Minister, Priest, or Pastor.

Thankfully, Jewish communities in Australia underwent a renaissance during the latter decades of the 20th Century.  Whilst many of the older style communities remained, with an increasingly aged demographic, the diversity of Orthodoxy spread and new communities arose.  Within Orthodox settings, Rabbinic leaders were no longer propelled as a religious figurehead to compensate for the absence of observance.  It was recognised that a Rabbi is no less or more religiously accountable for keeping Mitzvot than a fellow Jew alongside them.  The Rabbinic role reverted to its traditional function of tuition, and the communal function of the Synagogue was restored to a predominant environment of learning and prayer.

A new generation of children, those of the past decade and of the next decade, have been born into vibrant and thriving Orthodox Jewish communities in Australia.  Of the 120,000 Jews in this country, approximately 20,000 lead a religiously observant lifestyle that is “shomrei mitzvot.”  Each day there are more than 10,000 Jewish children that attend Jewish Day Schools and are integrated into the routine of tefillah, Jewish learning and identification.

It is a mistake to assume that this new generation will relate to their Judaism in the same way as their parents.  The sociological argument is compelling.

In the past twenty years there has been an incredible change in our world, in technology, lifestyle and expectation.  Twenty years ago we did not communicate by electronic medium.  Email and the internet hardly existed.  We did not procure kosher provisions from the mainstream supply chain of a supermarket, taking for granted the availability of consumer driven commodities for ease of living.   We were sheltered from the global news wires and fickle media, and did not have unlimited access to a search engine at our fingertips.  Such seclusion delivered protection from ideological influences, and the expectancy of instant gratification.

It was recently suggested that the total amount of complied and documented knowledge in the entire world, from the start of civilisation until the year 2000, is now replicated in totality within a two year period.  This is exponentially growing.  In his book The Age of Spiritual Machines Kurzweil proposed “The Law of Accelerating Returns”.  It is a theory that suggests that the rate of change in a wide variety of evolutionary systems (including technologies) tends to increase exponentially.  With the power of the internet, the creation, storage and accessibility of information is unprecedented.  The live streaming of data delivers analytical abilities that are powerfully frightening.

It is time once again for Modern Orthodox Judaism to save itself from itself.

The tenants of Judaism, its foundation and purpose will remain unchanged.  However the evolving medium of Halacha has proven itself as the mainstay of Judaism, adapting Jewish principles to the culture and ethos of each era.

What Modern Orthodox Judaism needs to offer its next generation is different to what it offered to us.  It needs to accentuate the benefits it can deliver a young person in a complex and challenging global economy.  Judaism can offer self-regulation, discipline and balance.  Rather than an imposed protection and sheltering, a young person can seek their own distinguishing identity through Jewish observance.  Their Judaism however is more likely to blend with universal ideals and social projects than to conflict with them.

Modern Orthodoxy needs to provide less institutionalism and dispense with the ceremonial style of Shule, supplementing this for more community in the form of social engagement.  Education, critical enquiry, and skill development should continue to position Jewish learning as a philosophical lead and a challenging moral barometer. Greater opportunity needs to be extended to women, providing spiritual expression through prayer, leadership and legal jurisprudence in a qualified environment that conforms to halacha.  Israel is taking the lead in this development.

Finally, the channelling of Zionism into Diaspora Jewish identity will remain focussed on Nation building.  It may however shift to become less historical and more economic, bringing technology and innovation further to the fore.  The partnership of Israel to its Diaspora must strengthen, and Australian Shule’s must do even more to “import” Israel into their day to day activities.

I do not fear for the future, and watch in awe as the renaissance and revolution continues. Our children see positive, rational and beneficial reasons to grow and develop their Judaism when extended an opportunity for a real Jewish education with substance.  They are proud and confident in carrying their Judaism.

The warning for us is that we must provide the opportunity to encourage this and not thwart it.  We need to provision resources, leadership positions, and above all, ensure that we ourselves are not resistant to change.