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Rabbi Urges That Judaism Be Viewed As An Evolving Civilization, Not A “Preservation Society”

Allan C. Brownfeld, Editor
Special Interest Report
November-December 2003

Discussing the recent National Jewish Population Survey which shows the American Jewish population to be aging and shrinking, Rabbi Dennis C. Sasso, who serves Congregation Beth-El Zedeck in Indianapolis together with his wife Rabbi Sandy Eisenberg, is critical of those who see a “crisis” of “disappearing” American Jews.  

Writing in National Jewish Post and Opinion (Oct. 29, 2003), he declares: “The truth is that Jews are not disappearing ... What we need to do is expand our imagination and broaden our horizons. Judaism will not be saved by demographics but by visionaries, not by scare tactics but by encouragement, not by bemoaning the quantity but by enhancing the quality of Jewish life.”  

Today’s American Jewish community differs, he points out, from that of the past: “Having grown up American, today’s Jews are sensitive to the lessons of the Holocaust, but they do not mistrust gentiles in the way their European born parents or grandparents did. ... These third and fourth generation American bred Jews, while united in a commitment to Israel as a Jewish, democratic, and secure state, are not willing to excuse every Israeli policy simply because of ‘what Jews went through’ or to justify every measure because of ‘security threats.’ There is a more universalist outlook that combines pride in Jewish identity with a broader human agenda that transcends the ‘ethnic’ or ‘survivalist’ concerns of past generations. ... It behooves us to create a new hospitality that will welcome Jews and would-be Jews to the synagogue.”  

Rabbi Sasso notes that, “Jewish identity has always been fluid and dynamic. In the Bible, identity was transmitted patrilinealy, but in the post-biblical period, Jewish identity became matrilinealy determined. In the Greco-Roman period and during the Middle Ages, even at the height of Jewish persecution, entire groups were converted and absorbed into Judaism. There has always been an inner tension between closing boundaries (the Books of Ezra and Nehemiah) and keeping them permeable (the Book of Ruth), between raising fences and building bridges. Our beginnings attest to the pluralism and diversity inherent in our identity. It was not a closed creed that forged us; it was an experience that birthed us. It was a ‘mixed multitude’ that joined together to attain freedom from bondage and covenant through Torah. We were never a homogeneous community ...”  

The question at the present time, he writes, is how “do we respond to the new population survey? We respond, I believe, by not allowing our health to be defined exclusively by percentages. We need to liberate ourselves from metric Judaism. Our synagogues and institutions will reach Jews when we address issues that affect us not only in our particularity as ‘Jews’ but in our totality as ‘Jewish human beings’ - our existential concerns, our aesthetic appeals, our intellectual pursuits, our spiritual yearnings, our social needs. ... Let’s think of Judaism as honorous rather than onerous; as an asset rather than a liability; as an evolving civilization rather than as a preservation society.”  

He argues that, “If Judaism is reduced to a series of perfunctory rituals that ignore or run counter to the psychosocial needs of Jews, Jews will ignore or abandon Judaism. But if Judaism offers a warm and secure context in which to live out our deepest yearnings and aspirations, in which to find intellectual motivation, spiritual renewal, and social integration, then Judaism will become a vessel for our total selves. A Judaism that focuses every ten years on the demographics of imminent demise presents itself as confused and frightened and becomes less compelling to those looking for a meaningful connection to something grand and ennobling.”  

In Rabbi Sasso’s view, “Judaism has reinvented itself in each of its most creative periods. The question is, do we want to be part of new possibilities, or do we want to be among those who lament an idealized past that never existed. ... Two thousand years ago, the early rabbis envisioned a new Jewish agenda - they transformed Judaism from a Temple-based religion to a synagogue-centered community; from sacrificial offerings at the altar to meals shared around the simple home table ... from a vicarious priesthood to a teaching mentorship model; from a land-centered religion to a portable faith. ... It was the Jewish imagination and ability to think outside the box, to have the chutzpah to reinvent Judaism, that saved Jewish civilization, the Jewish faith, and the Jewish people. We are now living in a time of challenge and of possibility. May we have the same imagination and the same chutzpah...”

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