The Age-Old New-Age Approach to Judaism
by Kelley Kidd
This morning, I woke up feeling extremely grumpy. Too little sleep the night before combined with looming stress put me in a supremely bad mood from the moment I heard the first screech of my alarm. Somehow, in the midst of my fog of negativity, I realized I didn’t want to feel miserable all day, and there was only so much that coffee could do to help my endorphins—I was going to have to help out a little if I wanted to survive the day. So I grabbed my iPhone and Googled “Jewish morning prayers.” I found a website (ironically, a resource for Christians) that provided me with the Hebrew, transliteration and translation for Modeh Ani, the prayer of thanks said upon waking up, and the Birchot HaShachar, the traditional morning blessings. With some assistance from the wonders of modern technology, Jewish prayers enhanced my life in a real, immediate way—something that people often forget religion has the power to do.
Perhaps this is why many are drawn to Do-It-Yourself Judaism. DIY Judaism, also referred to by Jay Michaelson as “empowered” Judaism, entails “creating and adapting Jewish rituals to fit [our] own needs.” Rather than trying to force a constrained version of faith to be meaningful, this approach promotes the idea of being an active participant, “a co-creator” of one’s own faith, tradition and Jewish life. Judaism becomes interactive, rather than strictly instructive, and thus takes on more meaning and substance for each individual.
This idea has gained substantial ground recently, as demonstrated by the East Side Jews, who search for a sense of Jewish identity and community outside the traditional “walls” of synagogues or temples. They aim to provide a resource for Jews who have separated themselves from Jewish life and don’t feel at home in traditional Judaism through programming that feels “ spiritual instead of religious, cultural instead of traditional.” For instance, each year at the High Holidays, the East Side Jews gather for “Down by the River,” a “mod, urban, earnest version of tashlich” that has in the past included Buddhist style meditations, theatrical interpretations of Torah stories through “Storahtelling,” and “flash-mob” rabbis: people chosen to create and share stories, poetry and personalized versions of prayers with the assemblage. Though it is an unusual approach, it has the potential to appeal to people who never considered their Judaism more than a chore, and bring them to a space where they engage in a community of people with similar interests, helping people become engaged with Judaism.
Though this sounds “new-agey,” the method of the East Side Jews is far from new to Judaism. The Hasidic movement, founded in the 1700s by Rabbi Yisrael Baal Shem Tov, was dedicated to “injecting vital energy into Jewish life,” and the Chabad movement places that responsibility upon individuals by putting Judaism and its teachings into each person’s hands, so that each can invest it with his or her own personal vitality. One famous story relates that a student of Rabbi Schneur Zalman came to his teacher complaining that, despite his austere focus, he could not muster the same passion for prayer that his friend seemed to have. He tried to block out anything but the rebbe’s teachings, and was unable to attain any sense of inspiration. This demonstrates that it is the man who brings his passion for life, his joie de vivre, his experiences and reality to prayer whose praise for God is truly inspired, while prayer that arises from obligation alone may lack the same enthusiasm.
My morning prayers today were admittedly unconventional, but they infused my day with meaning and gratitude. Similarly, the prayers and practices of the Do-It-Yourself Jews may veer from tradition—they may lack a rabbi by choice, or due to limited resources. Either way, today, anyone with a computer or smart phone can Google their way to Scripture, Torah, prayer, and information that holds the most meaning for them, allowing Judaism to adjust and thrive in a modern, technological world. This adjustability and personal appeal is what has always allowed Judaism to survive, and what can keep it alive and thriving in a world that is ever-changing.