There is an ever-present tension between modernity and tradition, especially for Orthodox Jews in America. American culture places significance on tradition, yet manages to remain optimistic about new ideas.
It’s easy to be a fundamentalist. It’s easy to say everything new is wrong, or everything old is antiquated and bad. But I don’t believe that we should be looking for what’s easier. We should welcome the challenges of reconciling tradition and modernity. There is great beauty in using the new to improve the old, and the old to guide the new, without relying on extremes.
Yesterday’s elections reminded me that the American system of government was revolutionary in the 18th century, our Constitution a groundbreaking document that charted a new course for politics around the world. We revere the Constitution, and every law passed since its adoption must conform to a valid interpretation. That sounds a lot like Orthodox Judaism.
The Torah was revolutionary around 2500 BCE. It remains a groundbreaking document that charted a new course for religion and theology around the world. We revere the Torah, and all of Jewish law must be based on valid interpretations. To an Orthodox Jew, some of the political tension between old and new feels familiar.
Thinking about this tension raises an interesting thought experiment. If we were starting a new country today, would we write the exact same constitution? Would Newmerica be the same country as Oldmerica?
We’ve frozen time in 1789 and only allowed 27 changes in 225 years. I can’t help but think about how many other things have been completely discarded since 1789. What is the worldview that grants specialness to political theory from 1789? The “new” argument asks why we even bother holding onto a 225 year old vision.
On the other hand, we can’t rewrite fundamental laws every day or even every year. One aspect of the argument in favor of traditionalism is how impracticable it would be to discard the old laws regularly, but this only works to a point. How long is long enough? Another “old” argument is that the laws seem to be working. Further, it could be argued that the Founding Fathers were especially smart and saw things in a unique way that renders their opinions superior to ours. But both of these arguments are incomplete and don’t fully respond to the issues raised by the “new” argument. Orthodox Judaism shares this tension with the United States.
Sometimes, this kind of tension leads to revolution. A revolution exclaims “the old is terrible and the new is good,” but an extreme reaction to extreme traditionalism is unlikely to yield balanced results. Presently, this tension is handled by Constitutional amendments and Supreme Court reinterpretation, which are ad hoc solutions. The real question is whether the Constitution reflects the best possible formulation of laws for our country today. Answering that would require a comparison between the Constitution and a comprehensive new effort; I’m not aware of any such effort. I imagine that some might even consider this heretical sounding notion a form of treason.
The current system of law in the United States is a masterful attempt to balance the need to change things with the need for continuity. It works pretty well, and the most important element to the success of a balanced approach that reveres the tradition and embraces modernity is an internal system checks and balances. Power cannot be reserved for the traditionalists, and it cannot be seized by revolutionaries. Both must coexist for optimal success.
This is part of our problem in Judaism today. We’ve all retreated to our own corners. In the past, we’ve had orthodoxies and reformers in Judaism, but we were operating within one system. Judaism evolved, but not too hastily. We melded our healthy skepticism of change with our yearning for relevance and flexibility. Then, about 150 years ago, the modernists and traditionalists stopped talking to each other and they stopped working within the same ecosystem. Orthodox Judaism and Reform Judaism were born. People who leaned toward tradition chose Orthodoxy, while people who leaned toward modernity chose Reform. The internal conversation ended. Orthodox Judaism lost significant progressive voices and seems like it was frozen in the 19th century. Reform Judaism felt little allegiance to the ways of old, and seems like it has no definitive doctrine and structure. We all lost.
Ironically, the future of modern Judaism requires that the “new” and the “old” go back to the traditional conversation of the past. In truth, tradition and modernity are symbiotic. We need to hear the best arguments from both sides in order to move ahead with a commitment to truth and Torah as we navigate the challenges of modernity. We need to go back to a large community that lives in the tension between the past and the future. That was our secret for centuries, and now it’s time to bring it back.
Judaism Needs to Bring Back the Tension Between Old and New Ideas http://t.co/N3bP8j1Tl4
— Eliyahu Fink (@efink) November 5, 2014