Jewish continuity reimagined

Jewish continuity reimagined

If an original Steinway grand piano is completely rebuilt, is it still an original Steinway?

Rabbi Angela Buchdahl, senior rabbi of New York City’s Central Synagogue, posed this question during a recent meditation session. She had been telling the story of a Steinway grand piano that her husband Jacob’s grandfather had owned. Though the family heirloom had been sold long ago, Jacob, a pianist, had dreamed of owning an original Steinway.

Finally, many years later, a dealer tracked one down for him, and the Buchdahls bought it. Though it was an original Steinway, it desperately needed repair. A restorer gutted the insides and inserted a new soundboard, new keys, new pins, and new hammers. He even stripped the shell’s veneer and replaced it with new wood. Rabbi Buchdahl wondered, “Could I call it an original Steinway anymore?”

Why this story?

Rabbi Buchdahl noted that like the piano, Central Synagogue no longer has any of its original components. None of the original clergy remain. The community membership has changed since the synagogue’s formation. The liturgical melodies the congregation chants are different. “Is it enough that we are housed in the same sanctuary?” she asked. And “What can we change and what must remain the same for an identity to have some type of continuity over time?”

Rabbi Buchdahl proposed that continuity is “the continued ‘doing’ of Judaism, even though it will look different, sound different, and feel different.” She explained that just as Jacob connects to his grandfather and his family’s past when he plays his restored Steinway, so, too, can the “doing” of Judaism create Jewish continuity.

I have thought often about what constitutes Jewish continuity. To what extent can I transform Jewish ritual and tradition and still claim I am preserving Judaism?

I tell myself that if I grasp and retain the essence of Jewish spirituality, I am practicing Judaism. For example, I usher in Shabbat by lighting Shabbat candles. Once I say the blessing over the candles, I thank God for specific blessings in my life, and sometimes I request healing for those I love who are suffering. (Occasionally, I also request something for myself.) But I can’t say that I follow through with the rest of the Shabbat mandates, whether engaging in prayer or studying Torah.

I know that many people will say emphatically that just lighting Shabbat candles is a ridiculously truncated version of Judaism. But for me, this one tradition keeps alive two of Judaism’s core tenets: pausing to appreciate my portion in life (samayach b’chelki) and maintaining a direct relationship with God by initiating a conversation each week.

In “How to Talk to God,” Rabbi David Jaffee explains the chasidic prayer practice of hitbodedut. Literally, he says, the word means “seclusion,” but it refers also to meditation, based on chasidic master Rabbi Nachman of Breslov’s practice of urging his followers “to set aside time every day to talk openly with God in one’s native language.”

Rabbi Jaffe says we can speak with God even if we are “completely removed from any relationship with God.” He adds, “Nothing is too big or too small for hitbodedut.”

Just as I regularly light the Shabbat candles and speak briefly with God, my husband Stephen is “religious” about saying the kiddush over a glass of wine. Why? “It helps me to separate from the rest of the week and to enter a sacred space,” he says. Typically, he achieves this separation from his busy law practice by riding his bike outdoors, where nature becomes his synagogue.

Is this Jewish continuity? I think so, but here’s a stronger example:

I recently attended the bat mitzvah of a terrific young woman named Adrienne Numbers. Adrienne focused her sermon on the eternal light that God commanded the Jewish people to place above the Torah scrolls in the synagogue, as a reminder of God’s eternal presence. As Adrienne explained, light is a significant theme in Judaism. For example, God tells the Jewish people to be a light unto the nations. “We are called to be a light in the world,” she said, because God’s light is within us. “We can set an example for others to follow and help repair our world.”

Adrienne emphasized that the light over our Torah is always there to remind us that “all our ethics and behavior, every day, should reflect the light within us.”

As Adrienne’s words uplifted me, an optimism surged through me, for I sensed that she had captured Judaism’s spiritual essence. I realized that if that essence continues to be valued from generation to generation, we won’t have to worry about Jewish continuity. Even if future generations sustain Judaism in a way unfamiliar to us, Jewish values will endure and nurture our world.

Lonye Debra Rasch of Short Hills is a past president of the Northern New Jersey region of Hadassah and a member of Hadassah’s national assembly and the Hadassah Writers Circle. Married to an international attorney and the mother of two daughters and grandmother of three small children, she is a big advocate of yoga, book clubs, and time with family and friends.

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