Historians have long divided the history of Judaism and of the Jewish people into a number of somewhat overlapping eras, sometimes using titles like Biblical, Talmudic, and Prophetic to refer to these periods. Most historians have put us, for hundreds if not thousands of years, in the Rabbinic period of Judaism. And it seems to me that the Rabbinic period is drawing to a conclusion.
From what I can tell, the Rabbinic period has been characterized by the development and strengthening of halacha as a means of defining Jewish religious life in an unnatural situation of a nation that has been scattered worldwide. This nation, the people Israel, no longer has a centralized, hierarchical structure to guide it. Regimentation of Jewish practice and of communal structures replace an Israelite monarchy, priesthood, sacrificial system, legislative process and judicial system.
The rabbinic period has also been characterized by tremendous output of both printed word and of oral traditions. Legal and Agaddic works have been produced, as well as liturgy and a good deal of secular Jewish literature. The enlightenment even led to the creation of alternative approaches (which later become, in American Jewish parlance, Reform and Conservative Judaism). And, while they were conceived of as either alternative ways of viewing halacha, or even as non-Halachic, they still referred back to the the traditional rabbinic views and practices as a point of reference.
At the recent conference of the Jewish Outreach Institute a rabbi gave an excellent session on what we used to call the “who is a Jew” debate. She outlined the historical development of the issue and discussed its implications. In the middle of the discussion it struck me: There are few people in the room for whom a rabbinic determination as to Jewish identity is the final word, and probably few for whom it’s even a major consideration.
In short, we are entering post-rabbinic Judaism. The title “rabbi” will still be there. But s/he is increasingly a resource person rather than the primary leader. Nobody has taken his/her place; leadership has just spread out. It’s hard to identify the cause, or to separate cause from process. But it’s been gradual: the Havurah movement of the 60’s, the Jewish Catalogs as a step toward grassroots Jewish empowerment, Israel and Holocaust remembrance taking center stage, growing role of foundations and donors.
The denominations that seemed to be powerhouses in the 20th centuries are a shell of their former selves. Within each movement, the range of practice has become so varied that each has had to create a series of official documents that attempt to identify exactly what it is the movement stands for. And there is demographic data that shows that people, especially younger people, are not drawn to a particular congregation because of the “movement” it pays dues to, but by whether it meets specific needs at a time or place on their individual journeys. The movements reflect where synagogues pay dues. But the roles of national synagogue and religious movements have declined.
Increasingly, Jews find value where they can. Orthodox day schools sing songs that came out of National Federation of Temple Youth, United Synagogue Youth sing Hasidic melodies. Rabbis, cantors and Jewish educators routinely cross denominational lines as their personal expertise is valued above their denominational roots. But the movements, which drew separation between Jewish communities, are struggling to identify their roles today.
Modernity, too, has proven to have a limited Jewish shelf life. The modernity that chose the documentary hypothesis as a lens through which to view Torah has been largely rejected by community members who don’t care who wrote the Torah, but want to know what the Torah has to say to us in our lives. Similarly, the “superstitions” of the old countries – amulets, red or blue strings, hamsas and the like – proved to be attractive not only to old school Orthodox, but to spiritual seekers and contemporary Jewish artists. And within a generation of Mordecai Kaplan founding Reconstructionism and writing books like “Judaism Without Supernaturalism”, a Jewish spiritual scholar, Arthur Green, no less, was at the helm of Reconstructionist Rabbinical College, with Zalman Schachter-Shalomi, a leading mystical scholar, teaching there. In short, our Jewish contemporaries reclaimed much of what the modernizers tried to dismiss.
With Post-Rabbinic goes Post-Halachic. As an example, Shabbat Manifesto is a movement that suggests that one shut off technology for Shabbat, and take other steps to distinguish Shabbat from other days. But it is adamant about not promoting a halachic observance of Shabbat. What it aims to do is take some of the concepts that halachic observance suggests and transplant it to contemporary life, but without the focus on details and restrictions. Mikvah use, similarly, has been adopted by many, but without the details of Halacha. The list can go on.
The New Age: The Egalitarian Age of Judaism
If the era of Rabbinic Judaism is at an end, what is the era we have entered? Using “Post-…” to describe it is simply describing a negative; something has ended. But it seems that something has taken the place of all that is now “post”. I propose that we have entered the Egalitarian era. I refer not to the question of equal roles for gender, which is how the word “egalitarian” has often been used. Instead, my suggestion is that the current age of Judaism is one in which each Jew feels the right to create his/her own personal Judaism. No Jew, even the rabbi, stands above anyone else. Each Jew creates his/her own relationship to the divine and to the Jewish people.
Looking at issues from women’s role in religious life to gay marriage, it appears to me that people at the grassroots level have led the way in experimenting and pioneering. Often they have been the ones to pressure the established leadership to move the community ahead. In the Egalitarian Age of Judaism, this will continue to be a core component that defines Jewish life.
What do you think?