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Years ago, a colleague of mine told me that as a rabbi, I should try to make Judaism, “cool,” At the time, I knew I was put off by this comment, but only years later do I fully understand why. What I love about Judaism is that it is generally “uncool.” In fact, it is wonderfully weird. Sometimes it is edgy. Even counter-cultural. I am part of religious life because it is meaningful, not because it’s the hip thing to do on a Friday night.
An article caught my eye recently, entitled, Want millennials back in the pews? Stop trying to make church ‘cool.’ The writer, Rachel Held Evans, criticizes flashy, trend-setting techniques to get millennials into churches. “The trick isn’t to make church cool,” she writes, “it’s to keep worship weird.” She goes on to share what most attracts her and other young bloggers to religious life. “I do not want to be entertained…I want to be asked to participate in the life of an ancient-future community.” She is intrigued by “those strange rituals and traditions” that have been practiced in her tradition for thousands of years.
Sometimes as a Jewish leader, I feel pressure to make Judaism seem cool. But the fact is—I want to keep Judaism wonderfully weird. Take this season of the High Holidays. My favorite parts of the liturgy and practice at this sacred time of year often appear the strangest, and take some time to get used to. One of the rarest is the practice of kneeling and then putting my face to the ground during a certain prayer during Rosh Hashanah; prostrating myself like a child’s pose in yoga, feeling the ground beneath me and my vulnerability as a human being. I relish this because I want, at that moment, to feel a bit small with a sense of the grandeur of the world outside of me. My family loves the ritual of tashlich. We throw breadcrumbs into a creek to symbolize our shortcomings over the past year—with full knowledge that this ritual was borne out of a desire to appease water demons.
When sukkot begins, I shake the lulav: that strange collection of four natural species we bring together inside our little autumn hut (sukkah). Who doesn’t feel a little awkward shaking it in all directions? I love this ancient, agricultural ritual for all of its quirkiness. It connects me to the earth. It reminds me how interdependent we are with the natural world, and I become cognizant that the livelihood of others is tied to the whims of the weather more than mine will ever be.
It is not, actually, the endurance of the rituals alone that propels me to keep practicing them. They are relevant to me because they contain kernels of wisdom, and I bring my contemporary consciousness to them as Jews always have. They are not flashy or slick, hip or even always fun. Some are even difficult. But they are authentic.
The famous Rav Kook wrote that, “The old becomes new, and the new becomes holy.” That is what an “ancient-future” community looks like; always looking back to discover the sources of our wisdom while we discern how that tradition continues to inform us in the present day. That doesn’t mean that we should keep doing exactly what we always did, or in exactly the same way. Our job is to renew and reconstruct where necessary, and make the ancient come alive in a new generation with contemporary relevance.
Whether Jewish practice is new to you or familiar, whether this is your first High Holiday season or your fiftieth, embrace the quirkiness. Try something new. Don’t worry if it’s not all flashy, or if you find that you need to slow down your mind to take it in. Hopefully, the experience will bring introspection, meaning and depth to your life. Above all, find out why we practice the way we do. Ask questions. Most people probably have the same questions you do. Reshape rituals and add your own flavor. As Evans puts it, “[Rituals] don’t need to be repackaged or rebranded; they just need to be practiced, offered and explained in the context of a loving, authentic and inclusive community.”