New Jews… Old Idea

The “New Jews” article is making its way across cyberspace. Check out for this story, about the new, innovative, radical ways that Jewish Gen X’ers and Millenials are connecting to Judaism – through tattoos, hip-hop, meaningful Jewish learning, and technology. I have one word in response….DUH.

First, let me say that I think there’s something to this. Jewish identity in the past century was based heavily on the Eastern European ethnicity, on the Holocaust, on defense of Israel. Today, the world has changed, and young Jews are looking for newer, better, and more positive points of connection than bagels, lox, and guilt. As a Gen X/Y’er (by birthdate, I don’t belong squarely to either one), I definitely think that we relate differently to Judaism.

But I don’t think that the concept is actually all that new. In fact, part of Judaism’s strength is that it has always been able to adapt to changing needs. Judaism is innovative by its very nature. Here are a few examples:

  • 2000 years ago, when the Temple in Jerusalem became inaccessible (physically and/or spiritually) to Jews around the Roman empire, they created a radical new institution – a place where they could gather to pray, study, and meet others…without animal sacrifice. It came to be known as Beit Knesset or synagogue. (When the Temple was destroyed, synagogues went mainstream out of necessity.)
  • 517 years ago, when Jews were kicked out of Spain, they responded – out of grief, shock, and spiritual need – with a drastically new, outside-the-box kind of mysticism. Kabbalah was turning heads in the Jewish world centuries before Madonna ever put a red string around her wrist.
  • 150 years ago, in the wake of the Enlightenment and the Emancipation, a group of rabbis in Germany (and later America) began to push a radical new agenda – claiming, among other things, that keeping kosher was optional, that people wrote the Torah, and that it was OK to dress like everyone else. Today, few of us would consider Reform Judaism (or its offspring, Conservative and Reconstructionist Judaism) revolutionary, except in the sense that liberal Judaism is still constantly evolving.

Judaism is meant to be new in every generation. It is meant to be innovative, radical, edgy, and new. As it says in the Mishnah: “Hafoch bah v’hafoch bah d’chula bah – Turn the Torah around and around, for everything is in it.” This stuff is built in to who we are. In fact, one of our oldest legends says that on top of Mt. Sinai, God whispered to Moses all of the texts, discussions, and ideas that would ever be generated around the Torah. That means that the opening line of the CNN article, “When Moses came down from Mount Sinai about 3,300 years ago, he couldn’t have seen these Jews coming,” is dead wrong. Moses saw this coming. Judaism saw this coming. This is what it’s all about.

So by all means, let’s pursue new, exciting, different ways to connect to Judaism. I’ll be the first one to push Shabbat dawn hiking. I like Jewish punk music. I once put on my t’fillin in the Himalayas and chanted Elohai Neshama (“O God, the soul you have given me is pure”) in the style of an Eastern chant while breathing deeply and looking at the sun. And I liked it! But let’s just do this in the context of tradition. Let’s remember that Judaism calls for innovation, and what we’re doing today is part of an ancient chain of tradition that has kept our way of life fresh and exciting for millenia.

Did I miss the point?
What’s fresh about your Judaism?


2 thoughts on “New Jews… Old Idea

  1. I had a reaction similar to Rabbi Streiffer’s and I thank him for articulating it clearly. In short, he seems to say, “No news here,” and he’s right.

  2. I think you’re right that Judaism is and always has been (and will always) be changing. And, there is a need for more outlets to express our Judaism outside of the traditional Eastern European ancestry or support for Israel. But I’m hesitant to embrace aspects of this new culture that gets tattoes, or pours beer on themselves while singing songs about God and Torah. The sentiment to some extent is there, but to me, there is a line when something no longer has kedushah, holiness.

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