Religion & Beliefs

Tradition, Tradition! (And a Little Jazzy Interlude Never Hurt Anyone, Either).

By now we've all heard about the Kutz Camp kids who walked out on a Jazz-inspired evening service this summer because "the prayers were very nontraditional." While at first it seemed like a singular event, it soon became evident that … Read More

By / September 6, 2007

By now we've all heard about the Kutz Camp kids who walked out on a Jazz-inspired evening service this summer because "the prayers were very nontraditional." While at first it seemed like a singular event, it soon became evident that this particular children's crusade was actually representative of growing tension within the Reform movement.

While the tensions raised by this developing issue may have been more visible at Kutz than in other Reform-affiliated institutions, it is not the only place the interest in traditional observance is being seen. Many young Reform rabbis are reversing choices made by their older colleagues, some of whom proudly eat shrimp and bacon. David Singer, 24, is part of this new wave. Entering his fourth year of rabbinical school at HUC-JIR in the Village, he always wears a kipa and tzitzit, keeps kosher and doesn’t ride or use money on Shabbat. But he does it all from a purely Reform perspective, which emphasizes personal autonomy in religious practice, a principle he regards as among the highest of values.

It's a major shift for a movement that has not been anchored in halacha, and that has generally been open to creative experimentation in its worship. Back in 2006, Rabbi Naomi Levy wrote an article in The Jewish Journal that discussed her sense of loss when she learned that Judaism was "losing" Jews to Agape.

I stumbled on this question accidentally. Five years ago, a colleague of mine, a rabbi in New York, called me to see if I could check out an organization his 25-year-old brother had become involved in. The following Sunday morning I found myself at Agape, a nondenominational church in Culver City led by the charismatic Rev. Michael Beckwith. There were 2,000 people there on their feet pouring out their hearts to God. I was overwhelmed by a sense of loss as I took in this powerful experience. Why can't Judaism move thousands like this? Then I read the names of the Agape prayer leaders and was shaken to see so many Jewish names. Agape is attracting Jews who believe deeply in God, who want to pray, but who cannot find God in a synagogue.

The experience led her to found her incredibly well-loved and successful outreach organization, Nashuva, as a viable option for unaffiliated Jewish seekers who look to churches and Zen centers and yoga for what they seemingly can't find in a synagogue.

Nashuva has experienced great success with 20-somethings, but are its offerings a far cry from what a new generation–the Kutz kind–of Reform Jews seems to be seeking? Can more emphasis on lively prayer and text study coexist, and potentially even blend, with drum circles at the beach? Should they?

In a wonderfully smart and snarky response to the Kutz kids walkout, Vanessa L. Ochs offers a whirlwind history of Jewish "traditions" that were once met with shock and awe, but which today are taken for granted.

The rabbis of the Talmud knew that resisting change is a natural response. Nonetheless, they encouraged people to keep their prayer practices fresh and meaningful through innovation. Practices that don’t catch on will fade away. The “keepers,” Rabbi Steven Greenberg once told me, “become communal and in time, the ones that stick, like always and forever, become part of the inherited tradition.”

Evolution and experimentation are essential to survival and growth. The rabbis of the Talmud knew it, and with time, the Kutz kids might, too.