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The Latest Paradigm Shift in Judaism towards Secularism?

18 1 12

For the past three weeks, I have been attending an online class, Paradigm Shifts in Judaism, hosted by Temple Beth Hillel and Beth El in Wynnewood, Pennsylvania, a mainline suburb of Philadelphia. [1] Their congregation’s new rabbi, Rabbi Ethan Witkovsky, is teaching the four-part course; he is the former Assistant Rabbi at Park Avenue Synagogue in New York. Rabbi Witkovsky’s lively and engaging lectures spotlight the major turning points in the observance of Judaism. [2] A Paradigm Shift is “a fundamental change in approach or underlying assumptions.” The Miriam-Webster Dictionary defines it as “an important change that happens when a new and different way replaces the usual way of thinking about or doing something.” [3] On the advertisement for the class, the question is “whether or not we are living through a paradigm shift today?”

Rabbi Witkovsky explains three significant shifts in Judaism in the class. The first shift was the start of monotheism and Hashem’s covenant with Abraham in the Book of Genesis. The second shift was the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem by the Romans in 70 A.D. and the creation of Rabbinic Judaism. The creation allowed Judaism to adapt from a temple-centered religion based on prayer, laws, Shabbat, and religious holidays. The third class examined how the Enlightenment movement, Haskalah altered Judaism and gave rise to denominations and modern branches of Judaism. Among the movements in the eighteenth century, how Emancipation gave rise to the Reform movement in Western Europe, which led to liberal Jewish movements, and on the opposite end, the rise of the Hasidic movement, which gave rise to modern ultra-Orthodox movements.

The class would be much more relevant in the university setting, where Jewish youth feel less connected to the religion and even have a Jewish identity. They would be able to see through history the quandaries Jews had with adapting Judaism and religious observance to a changing world, for over 3,000 Jews since Abraham have been grappling with the same struggles and questions. Appropriately, an overnight radio show on Canada’s iHeart Radio, The Late Showgram with David Cooper, veered off topic in his segment “Therapy Thursday on a Wednesday” with social worker Gary Direnfeld to discuss Jewish identity. Both are Jewish; Cooper is an older millennial doing the show from New York, and Direnfeld in Toronto, Canada, is a younger Baby Boomer, an age group usually more engaged with Judaism. The two discussed the conundrum of Jewish identity. Both affirmed they define themselves as culturally Jewish, but not religiously, with Cooper going as far as calling himself agnostic. Is it the shift young Jews are pushing modern Judaism to the precipice of a new era of Judaism?

The class looks at the shifts from a religious perspective instead of a historical one. As a historian, I tend to view everything from the prism of a historical perspective. Our last class is supposed to look beyond the modern development of the liberalization of Judaism and denominations, the Reform movement, and its backlash with the rise of Modern Orthodoxy and the Conservative movement. Two major historical shifts changed twentieth-century Jewry; in the 1940s, the Holocaust destructed six million Jews and shifted world Jewry’s center to the United States, and then the modern state of Israel was founded in 1948. The question is whether we are now part of the fourth paradigm shift in Judaism, moving from a religious identification to a cultural one that started with Israel’s modern political founding. In my research, I have written about the theory of civil religion in Judaism, or as the late sociologist Jonathan Woocher coined it, “Civil Judaism.” [4]

In the past thirty years, modern Jewish population surveys have shown that American Jewish youth were moving away from religious Judaism through intermarriage rates and then religious identification. In 1990, American Jewry received their first shock with the 1990 National Jewish Population Survey, which showed the rising intermarriage rates. [5] In 1990, the community overdrive in trying to determine a solution. Jewish continuity became the buzzword, along with Jewish education, one of the best solutions. Fast-forward twenty-three years to 2013, the Pew Research Center released a “Portrait of American Jews.” [6] The Pew report was a devastating view of non-Orthodox American Jewry, with an intermarriage rate overall above 50 percent, with the risk of losing Millennial Jews high, as they looked to intermarriage, was the most detached from the religion and Israel.

Before the crisis, American Jewry celebrated secular elements of the religion in a unique Civil Judaism that bonded the nation through community ties and common support for Jewish causes, including Zionism and support for Israel. Civil religion allows citizens to all celebrate their nation’s traditions. In Israel, civil religion takes on a religious flavor as the nation’s traditions and holidays adhere closely to Judaism, and even the most secular Israelis participate in Judaism’s traditions, if not at a religious level at a patriotic level. Sociologist Robert Bellah’s 1967 essay “Civil Religion in America” introduced the modern concept of civil religion. [7] Bellah looked particularly at the American civil religion and the patriotic traditions that bond the nation across the religious divide.

Civil religion was a theory created by French philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau in his 1762 book “The Social Contract” chapter 8, book 4. According to the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy:

“The tenets........

© The Times of Israel (Blogs)

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