Monday, February 1, 2010

Two Lifetimes

This coming Shabbat, Yitro, will mark the thirty-sixth anniversary of my Bar Mitzvah.

Thirty-six is a very important number in the Jewish world. An old legend teaches that thirty-six (lamed-vav) righteous people, unbeknownst even to themselves, secretly sustain the world. This is probably related to the fact that thirty six is two times eighteen--and eighteen is the numerical value of chai, or life. In other words, thirty six is the Jewish equivalent, in a sense, of two lifetimes.

And that's pretty much how it feels on this anniversary. February 9, 1974 seems like lifetimes ago. The country was enmeshed in the Watergate scandal; just a few months later, Richard Nixon would become the only president to resign the office. This was certainly very much in the air in our suburban DC synagogue, comprised primary of government workers. It was also on the pop radio stations; I remember singing along with the hit song of the season, Lynyrd Skynyrd's Sweet Home Alabama, with the line: "Now Watergate does not bother me. Does your conscience bother you? Tell the truth." And in those days, before we learned the truth of global warming, the blizzard that swept the east coast on my Bar Mitzvah weekend was just another bit of typical winter weather, and no problem at all for my well-acclimatized extended family from Buffalo, New York.

So much has changed over four decades, including in the Jewish world. Israel has gone from being a beloved underdog to the world's punching bag. Intermarriage, still fairly rare and the subject of scandal in my boyhood, has become the norm outside the Orthodox world. Spirituality has replaced ethnicity and a sense of Jewish obligation (and its partner, guilt) has ceased to function as a motivating factor for Jews under fifty or sixty. Feminism has revolutionized many areas of Jewish life. In 1974 there were two female rabbis; today they constitute the majority of most rabbinical classes in the liberal movements. And gay and lesbian Jews have moved from the margins into the mainstream.

Of course Jews of all political and religious stripes and approaches debate the significance of these changes. We can--and do--tend to express our opinions about what we like and what we don't. But we should not lose sight of the fact that whether we like them or not, these changes are real and enduring.

And not surprisingly, the Jewish world has lagged behind on its responses to these changes. We stubbornly hold on to obsolete approaches to membership, schooling and community. We act, in many ways, as if it were still 1974. We are selling albums in an age of i-pods.

Needless to say, there is also much that remains the same. For my portion, I read the Ten Commandments. And I think it is safe to say that we still disparage stealing, murder, adultery, and coveting (though now, as then, our disparagement has not stopped us from committing plenty of those sins.) I'm not sure about bearing false witness; just five minutes of listening to folks like Rush Limbaugh and Glenn Beck on the conservative talk radio circuit make it clear that this seems to have become the acceptable norm, at least among a certain political subset. Keeping Shabbat as a sacred day, set apart, was difficult then and remains difficult--and worthwhile--now.

But the world is changing, as it always has.

If we do not change and grow with it, we condemn ourselves to fossilization.

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