There is tremendous concern about the future of Judaism around the world. About 150 years ago as the emancipation of the Jews occurred in Europe and beyond Jewish leaders grappled with how to keep Judaism alive and relevant. Some leaders decided to reform Judaism and make it “more relevant” to an age of enlightenment. Thus, Reform Judaism was born. However 150 years later on it is apparent that, rather than keeping Judaism alive, the Reform movement together with its sister movements such as the Conservative Movement and others, is just slowing the pain of Judaism’s demise.
Orthodox Jews also known as Haredi Jews took a different approach. Instead of changing Judaism they rebuilt the walls of the Jewish enclave and blocked out all outside influences. In modern times the extreme of this was the Satmar Hasidic group which shunned anything secular or modern. But in the age of the Internet and eBooks even this seems not to be working well. A perusal of blogs and reports from the Haredi world shows that there is a sizable subculture which does not see Jewish ritual or religious observance as important to their lives. Orthodox Jewish atheist seems to be a growing phenomenon.
So the question remains: how do we keep Judaism relevant to the modern thinking and educated person who has more information and potential knowledge available at his or her finger than any other time in our history?
Simply put what is needed is a modern day Maimonides. In his time Maimonides reinterpreted traditional and Orthodox Judaism in a way that would appeal to the thoughtful, philosophically inclined and questioning young Jew. He was a world renowned philosopher, physician and Talmud scholar and he managed to explain Judaism and make it relevant to the lives the Jew in his generation.
Judaism was always a living religion. Throughout the ages Jews relied on living teachers and leaders to make the tradition relevant to their epoch. This is what the sages of the Talmud did after the destruction if the Temple and it is what the Hasidic leaders from the Baal Shem Tov onwards did in the aftermath of the destruction and despair brought about by false messiah Sabbatai Zevi.
This type of innovative leadership is lacking today. Instead of interpreting Judaism in a way that makes its ritual and religious observance relevant to the unique challenges of this generation entire communities are living in the past and following leaders of previous generations.
The challenges of today are entirely different than those of even 20 years ago. As one studies Torah it becomes obvious that Judaism has a tremendous amount to say to the current generation. It is also clear that the level of religious understanding needed for today’s information overloaded generation must be deeper than ever before. The more superficial explanations that worked in the past just won’t satisfy the person who can Google and find better and deeper rationalizations from non-religious sources.
All the necessary explanations and inspiration exists in the Torah. But all those who are either leaving Judaism or not being attracted to it are being short changed by the lack of innovative leadership and teaching necessary to make the tradition relevant to this generation of Internet age and Smartphone carrying Jews.
Judaism never lived in the past. After Moses passed away Joshua took over. One of the reasons given for why Moses was unable to lead the Jews into the Promised Land was because a new leader was needed to relate Judaism to the new generation. The type of leadership that worked for Moses’ generation would not necessarily work for the next generation. And whilst Moses is mentioned in the Book of Joshua—it is Joshua himself who is leading and interacting with God and the people of Israel.
Judaism needs current and living leaders who are able to relate the Torah to this generation. There is little doubt that such leaders exist today. Judaism has always had luminaries and it still has. The question is whether the generation is willing to leave the past and accept new leaders—this maybe in fact Judaism’s greatest challenge.
Rabbi Levi Brackman is author of Jewish Wisdom for Business Success: Lesson from the Torah and Other Ancient Texts