From Continuity to Renewal

by Donna Berman


From New Menorah, Fall 1995
Reprinted With Permission.


“Jewish professionals” have been in a collective panic since the 1990 National Jewish Population Survey indicated that modernity is taking a toll on Jewish numbers, that there is a “strengthening of assimilatory trends…” Responding to the results of this survey as if they represented something new and shocking, Jewish leaders across the country have catapulted themselves into full gear, creating committees and programs focused on what have become the buzz words of the 1990’s, “Jewish continuity.” My fear is that this work being done in the guise of concern with Jewish continuity may itself, by drawing our attention away from the real issues, contribute to the weakening of our people.

If the number of people who are identifying themselves as Jews is declining, it is not more meetings, committees, surveys which are needed. While “Jewish professional” are keeping themselves occupied with these activities bureaucratizing Jewish life even further, Jews will continue to be voting with their feet as they search elsewhere for meaningful encounter. Potentially then, when Jewish leaders emerge from their chambers there could be no one left to enjoy the new “programming” they plan to set in motion.

The survey results have been used to reinforce the myth that the problem is “out there,” that it’s the fault of the community members themselves because they are intermarrying, unaffiliated, too influenced by secular values, uninterested in Jewish education, not sufficiently committed. In reality, it is Jewish leaders who need to take a long, hard look at themselves. Why aren’t Jews feeling engaged and embraced by their tradition, by their spiritual leaders? (Part of the problem may be that rabbis, cantors, educators are too readily considering themselves to be part of a “professional staff,” rather than providers of spiritual leadership.)

In response to the survey, mainstream Jewish leaders have tended to fall back into what has become our brand of default mode: a focus on our history of victimization. We can’t rely on reference to the Holocaust or the precariousness of Israel’s existence or the threat of anti-Semitism here and abroad to fill the spiritual vacuum in which many of our people are existing.

If we are truly serious about our concern for our Jewish future we need to roll up our sleeves and start doing some difficult and demanding work. We can begin by doing four things. First and foremost, we must honestly confront the sexism inherent in our tradition. We must recognize not only that sexism is morally abhorrent, but that it is a major factor in the tenuousness of Jewish survival. How can we expect to thrive after so many centuries of Jewish misogyny? Women have been excluded from Jewish education opportunities, from Jewish leadership roles, from the inner sanctum of Jewish organization life and yet we expect women not only to make Judaism an important part of their own lives, but to make Judaism an important part of our children’s lives as well.

This is not to say that many women haven’t tried — and tried valiantly — to do this. But we haven’t given women either the proper tools or, some might argue, sufficient reason to want to expend the energy to do this. It is only recently that prayer books have been introduced that recognize that God is not male and that not all people, that not all Jews are men.

Most of the women who are now raising children grew up as invisible members of their synagogues. Even if they were lucky enough to grow up in a congregation which offered them the same opportunities as their male counterparts, they still had to feel the alienation of being seen as “other” in the prayer book, in the torah, in Rabbinic literature. What we need are not excuses about why Judaism was so sexist given the world-view of ancient cultures, or stories about how, compared to other peoples, we were less sexist. What we need is an honest acknowledgment of how much Judaism’s androcentrism has hurt women and therefore how much it has hurt the Jewish people.

Psychoanalytic theory has taught us that we must come to terms with the past before we can move on to the future. It is not enough to create an inclusive Judaism as of now. We need to do teshuvah for past injustices that have been perpetuated in the name of tradition. We need to do teshuvah for the belittling, demeaning, damaging statements about women found throughout Jewish literature. We need to do teshuvah for all the brilliant, talented, wise women who died forbidden to offer their gifts to their people. We need to set up public days of fasting and mourning for the destruction of something far more important than a physical structure: the destruction of the esteem, the psychological and often physical well-being of so many Jewish women. This might be done in the context of an ancient tradition which has sadly but not surprisingly been forgotten — an annual four day retreat in memory of Jepthah’s daughter, a woman killed by her father because of a vow he had made to God. The story is found in the book of Judges, chapter 11. ( I am indebted to Helen Albertson, Janice Zeltzer, and Bayla Lovens who so beautifully exegeted this story at their Bat Mitzvah this past June. They have inspired these reflections.)

These four days could be dedicated to mourning the death of Jepthah’s daughter and all that she symbolizes as an abused woman. It could also be a time set aside for bonding among women, for creating new rituals and experimenting with new worship, while a mourning ritual (which might involve going to the mikvah) could simultaneously be observed by Jewish men.

It must not be forgotten that implicit in the concept of teshuvah is not only atonement but change. Once atonement is made (which, by the way, would be cathartic both for men and women) then we need to make fundamental changes. Here are a few examples of the kinds of things that would need to be done:


  1. The use of inclusive language should be made a basic tenet of Judaism. We cannot tolerate sexist language either. It is immoral.


  2. A commitment must be made to develop rituals which celebrate the stages of a woman’s life (menarche, menopause, miscarriage, etc.) And which are fully accepted into the canon of Jewish life cycle events.


  3. The Torah must be looked at critically, not adhered to blindly, and assessed in terms of its role in perpetuating the eclipse of Jewish women and other marginalized people. How can it be considered a tree of life if it continues to promote oppression?

The second thing we must do as part of our quest to ensure a Jewish future is to confront the paradox, indeed hypocrisy, inherent in the expression of deep concern over decreasing Jewish numbers even as much of the Jewish community continues to reject members of our own people. Logic tells us that we need to embrace gays and lesbians, the intermarried, Jews by choice and create a safe and completely accepting place for all people in our synagogues. We who have lived through the Holocaust, who know how it feels to be oppressed must not opress others. This, after all, is at the heart of Jewish belief. Why should these people continue making an effort to be a part of a community when they are made to feel uncomfortable and unwanted?

The third step we must take is to address how our synagogues in general and our worship services in particular can better serve our people. Our community doesn’t need to be force-fed, it needs to be nourished. There are still far too many synagogues which stubbornly adhere to a linear form of worship: straight rows of pews, instead of circles of sharing; words taken straight from prayer books which are usually sexist and irrelevant to the lives of most people; sermons that take the straight and narrow route, dwelling on the p’shat, the simplest meaning of a text, rather than grappling struggling with, opening up a text so that it can have meaning to a contemporary Jew, rather than straying form the text entirely when there are burring issues in the community, in the world, in the souls of individual members which need to be addressed.

For too long the synagogue has ignored the real situations people face: alcoholism drug addiction, child and spousal abuse, illness, infertility, etc. We need to have regular services of healing so that those whose lives have been scarred by abuse can feel cleansed and loved and supported. We need to have regular services of healing so that those who feel alone in illness can feel that they are part of a caring community and that the energy found in their house of worship can be harnessed to aid them in their recovery process. We need to have synagogue-based bereavement groups, support groups for gays and lesbians and their families, for the intermarried, for single parents, etc.

Mordecai Kaplan envisioned the synagogue as a community center and in his day that meant installing a pool and basketball hoops. What I am suggesting is merely a variation on Kaplan’s theme. In the 1990’s being a community center means that the synagogue must be a place where people can be real, where they can share their pain and their anguish as well as their joy and achievement.

The fourth thing we need to do is to assess the state of Jewish theology. Is it relevant to the lives of modern Jews? We cannot afford to merely rehash what theologians have said in the past. WE need to continue Arthur Waskow’s work of developing a Jewish environmental ethic, a Jewish sexual ethic, a Jewish work ethic, etc. As he teaches us, our theology cannot afford to be merely intellectual exercise or historical analysis, but living, breathing proof that Judaism can offer guidelines for real life problems and concerns. We will need to reconfigure Jewish theology as we acknowledge its, heretofore, deep, patriarchal roots. Such a theological project is a vast undertaking, but it is also exciting and undoubtedly life-giving to us as a people, as we explore new territory together.

Those who see the National Jewish population survey as a message of potential doom for the Jewish people fail to recognize the historical continuity of the very issue of Jewish continuity. Throughout our history, Jewish survival has been threatened, often enough by external forces of annihilation, but at other times by our own reluctance to change and grow. In the past, the Jewish community and its leaders have consistently found ways to rise to the challenges presented and to respond meaningfully to the demands of the new era they were facing. It may turn out in the end that this survey, if truly taken seriously as an opportunity for communal self-reflection and, then, rectifying action, may actually be a harbinger not of our demise, but of a blossoming of our community which will enable us to enter the twenty-first century stronger and wiser than ever before.


Rabbi Donna Berman is rabbi emerita at Port Washington Jewish Center in Port Washington, NY, and is a doctoral student in theology at Drew University.