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Judaism has survived throughout history by being flexible and by admitting foreign influences into its practice. Its success in the 21st century depends on its ability to continue doing this in response to the pressures of modernity.
Judaism has endured the challenges imposed upon it, by its ability to preserve deep-rooted traditions of the past. It is through maintaining customs from preceding times that defines the foundations of modern day Jewish practice, be it through observance, prayer or habit. In combination to this, its capacity to be versatile and incorporate outside influence has served to maintain its popularity as a major world faith. In order to continue its future religious success, Judaism must persist upholding the traditions that it stands for. However, in the light of pressures of modernity that arise through social change, including feminism and assimilation it must also incorporate aspects of outside influence to promote its popularity.
Judaism has survived through emerging itself as a faith of tradition, including those developed in both Diasporic times as well as the biblical period. It is through the upholding of various forms of tradition that has united the global Jewish population. This is evident within prayer, observance and custom. As revealed through the practice of the Orthodox Jewish population, tradition plays a major part of defining the faith through the close following of Halakah. This is evident within the environment of Orthodox synagogue services; women are prohibited from wearing pants, those who are married must cover their heads and a mekhitzah segregates the seating between men and women. Despite social change that has provided freedom from such restrictions, Orthodox Judaism has held onto these traditions, which have acted in defining it through continuity. If such aspects were removed from the service, it would alienate the Orthodox Jewish community, as it is through such customs that have been observed throughout generations and therefore characterizes the continuing existence of the religion.
It is not solely the Orthodox community that have relied upon tradition as a means to exist. Within all strands of Judaism, tradition has played a major part in the continued existence of the faith. This is evident in relation towards Jewish practice, such as through customs observed during festivals. This includes the performing of the Passover Seder, the eating of “Latkes” during Chanukah and the maintenance of kashrut. It is through the participation of such traditions that identifies Jewish practice.
Judaism has continued to exist through the desire to maintain tradition through historical descent. As Jacob Neusner states, “the Judaic religious tradition is shaped by the historical life of the Jewish people” therefore indicating how elements of Jewish historical significance have acted in forming and strengthening an attachment to the faith. This is evident when referring to various periods such as the destruction of the second Temple and the Holocaust. The destruction of the Temple led Jews to consolidate their beliefs through the emergence of Rabbinic Judaism and the tragedy of the Holocaust has stood for and continues to stand for an attachment to the faith. “Poll after poll of American Jews in the 1990s found that the Holocaust surpassed Israel, Judaism, or any other factor as the basis of the Jewish Identity.” Such moments of historical significance represent an increased strength of faith in times of adversity.
In combination to the preservation of tradition to explain the survival of the faith, it is also evident that its continuing presence is determined through its ability to subject itself to change through time. This is evident through the emergence of various strands of Judaism that emerged after Jews were emancipated in Europe. As revealed through the surfacing of Reform Judaism with its popularity, in nineteenth century Germany, the religion has survived through its ability to adapt; “they encouraged prayer in the local vernacular rather than in Hebrew, a way of diminishing the difference between them and their non-Jewish neighbours.” This is an indication that as circumstances and living environments change, Judaism has adapted in order to maintain its popularity as a key religion. As Jews after Haskalah were no longer constricted to the bounds of the shtetlack, and began to interact within mainstream society, it reveals how Judaism was able to accommodate this new lifestyle through encompassing foreign influence. Apart from incorporating German (or other native language) into prayer, aspects include the introduction of a sermon, as well as the use of organ music within the service, both of which derive from Protestant worship.
In the environment of the New World, Judaism continued to exist through its ability to incorporate elements of American ideology. With the development of concepts such as the melting pot, putting forward ideas of multiculturalism, America was representing and continues to represent itself as a centre of mixed ethnicity and religion that came to include Judaism; ” the United States isâ€¦a pluralistic society in which Otherness is accepted, if grudgingly at times, and diversity is tolerated and occasionally even celebrated.” This is because with the influx of Immigrants that came to form modern America, Judaism provided Jews with an ethnicity to define themselves against immigrants who associated themselves through being “Chinese”, “Italian” or other nationality. The American environment therefore promoted its popularity and helped to uphold its existence. It is evident that the environment of America has influenced religious practice, as indicated through change in custom as a result of social change in America (and the modern world).
While Orthodox Judaism has maintained tradition, and not welcomed much outside influence, the rise of the popularity of the Conservative and Reform movements indicates that social change in America has had an influence upon upholding the faith. This is evident in respect to custom, such as attitudes towards Halakah within these branches of American Judaism. Conservative Judaism, the most popular American branch of Judaism has sought its popularity through incorporating social values accepted by mainstream American society and transferring them into Jewish practice .Halakhah is presented as a “historical phenomenon, capable of adjusting to meet changing realities imposed by sociology, economics, politics, science and technology. ” This is evident by its growing acceptance of women’s influence within the synagogue service such as through the acceptance of the ordination of women Rabbis as well as the absence of a mekhitzah within prayer.
Similarly, the Reform movement rejects the traditional interpretation of Halakhah and presents it as non-abiding. In practice, this leads traditional aspects of practice non-compulsory such as the abidance of the Jewish dietary laws of kashrut; “they believe that the dietary laws are antiquated and serve no practical function and point out that they are a major factor in separating Jews from the rest of their fellowmen” This indicates how such non-Orthodox movements introduce new thought into the faith, not derived through traditional means.
To an extent, the future of Judaism relies on its ability to remain flexible and accepting of outside influence. This is because, as indicated through the popularity of Conservative and Reform synagogues, Judaism must incorporate customs of modernity to ensure it survival and strength. It is through issues of modernity such as feminism and assimilation that Judaism must respond to and accommodate in order to remain attractive to future generations, whom determine its long term success. As made apparent in Jew Vs Jew, the Conservative movement has permitted women some equality to men, as indicated through the publication of the new Conservative prayer book; “The Siddur Sim Shalomâ€¦now included two versions of the Amidah, without the Matriarchs on page 3a and with them on 3b” . It is through such developments as including recognizing women in liturgy, permitting the ordination of Rabbis and authorizing women to wear tallit and kippot that allows Judaism to reflect modernity and remain popular. However, as indicated within this instance, responding to modernity is a continuing process; Jewish feminists, such as Rachel Adler will continue to press for further reform within the traditional service to make Judaism more reflective of secular civil rights.
Modernity has led Jews to live within the spheres of the secular world, which while has offered increased opportunity, socially, economically and politically, has led to an increased level of assimilation. As highlighted by Stephen Bloom through his own experience as a Jew within secular America; “few of my friends learned Hebrew, few families lit candles at Shabbos dinner and few celebrated the Sabbath, ” assimilation constituted the diluting of Jewish practice.
With the rise of assimilation into mainstream American culture, Judaism must search for new influences and measures in order to secure the future success of the faith. This is because, at present, especially within the environment of Orthodox Judaism, it is increasingly difficult to incorporate Jewish practice within the secular way of living. This is as a result of Halakha which places restrictions over modern life. This includes the prohibition of driving or working during Shabbat, dietary restrictions through the laws of kashrut and attempting to observe Jewish holidays within the calendar of the secular world. At present, such prohibitions prove to be discouraging to Jews who place high value over their secular lives, especially those in the younger generations. As it is these individuals who will determine the future existence and strength of the faith, Judaism must continue being flexible in order to survive. It is through measures as adopted by “The Sinai Temple” of Los Angeles with its “Friday night Live” services, which provide young people with a synagogue service reflective of a rock concert, encouraging wide audiences across the city that lies in future popularity of the faith. This is because it is through such methods that Jews, who would otherwise neglect Jewish practice, continue to uphold the faith.
To maintain the popularity of Judaism, it has to subject itself to change. However, in doing this, it sacrifices much of the traditions, which to many Jews are definitive of the faith. It is therefore arguable that many of the changes that occur through social change and modernity sacrifice the essence of Judaism. It is due to this that explains why the Orthodox and Ultra-Orthodox strands of Judaism maintain concepts and practices that in the era of modern times can appear antiquated and sexist. This is indicated in Postville, to which indicates how Hassidic Jews have protected and continue to protect themselves from influence of secular culture in order to uphold the traditions that Judaism holds; ” to remain pure the Jews would not allow their children to go to Postville public schoolsâ€¦Hasidim were loathe to rely on anyone outside their Mispocheh, extended family. ” As evident through the elite world of Hassidim, it is revealed how Orthodox Judaism has continued and will continue to exist through maintaining a traditional life, according to Halakah and upholding the practice of a tight Jewish community.
It is of importance to uphold the Jewish tradition in order to prevent assimilation through intermarriage. A 1990 National Jewish Population Survey concluded that an intermarriage rate of 52% existed in the United States, signifying a steady downfall of American Jewry. This is because the increase of intermarriage indicates a more remote chance that Judaism will continue to survive through future generations. In order to ensure the future existence of Judaism, the faith must emphasize the spirit of Jewish tradition through maintaining some aspects of continuity, such as the practice of the Friday night Shabbat meal and holiday observance such as the Passover Seder in order to continue to provide a strong Jewish culture that appears attractive to have the desire to maintain.
On one side were Jewsâ€¦for whom being Jewish meant keeping our Jewishness subordinate to our being American. On the other side were Orthodox Jews, who retained their religion and the daily practice of it essential to their existence. Ultra-Orthodox Jews largely disassociated themselves from mainstream American culture, which they viewed as a threat to Jewish identity.
Judaism has continued and will continue to exist while there is a choice of denominations which will accommodate various needs and lifestyles. It is through the combination of maintaining elements of traditional continuity while incorporating aspects of modernity which leads to a popular faith. Although this suggests that Conservative Judaism stands as future of Jewish existence, it is because there are multiple movements within the faith that permits Judaism to continue to survive. With the differing variations of the Jewish faith, it provides and will continue to provide a choice to the modern Jew that reflects the lifestyle that he or she chooses to adopt.
Scheindlin, Ray A Short History of the Jewish People Oxford University Press (1998)
Robinson, George Essential Judaism Pocket Books (2000)
Freedman, Samuel Jew vs. Jew Simon and Schuster (2001)
Bloom, Stephen G. Postville: A Clash of Cultures in Heartland America Harcourt (2000)
Harris, Lis Holy Days, The World of a Hassidic Family Simon and Schuster (1995)
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