My grandson, Caleb, is facing a new world. For his first 2 1/2 years, he’s pretty much lived an ideal Garden of Eden existence. As an only child, he got all the attention and the presents and the lunch and the love. Everything was fresh and immediate with minimally delayed gratification. But now, there is a new baby on board. Of course, he still gets lots of love and attention. But sometimes he has to wait. Sometimes her needs come before his. Caleb doesn’t like it.
I don’t blame him for his anger and a short fuse. As a fellow first born, we share a common experience of displacement. Just when we were enjoying our most favored child status, someone came along and broke our bubble. And it’s worth stating the obvious here: the change is permanent.
It used to be that one of the chief roles of religion was to offer a sense of unchanging permanence. No matter how much the world warped and woofed, the church, or the synagogue, or the mosque would provide a kind of immutable home base. This is religion’s conservatizing power: to stay the course.
Of course, there is a problem with the of immutability of religion. Technology pushes the envelope on where we can go and what we can say and hear. New ideas emerge as contact with other cultures increases. Artists begin to experiment with new forms and possibilities. Science questions long-held assumptions about the Universe and its origins. And suddenly religion becomes the ally of those who would like to freeze time in all regards. “Give me that old time religion!” becomes the rallying cry of those who feel assailed by the changing world. “This isn’t the way we used to do it!” becomes a warning to the curious and adventurous.
Reform Jews hold onto certain key Jewish teachings. We believe in social justice. We believe in living an open and ethical life. We believe that we are in the world to serve God by caring for others and ourselves. We tell our unique Jewish stories about servitude and liberation and redemption. While we don’t believe that we are chosen as in superior to others, we do believe that as Jews we have a unique role to play in the world. We believe in learning. We believe that human knowledge evolves and that we evolve. So we utterly reject the hurtful words in Torah about homosexuality among other topics.
There is much in traditional Judaism that we postmodern Reform Jews reject. We do not feel tied to the past but rather liberated from it and its darkest misconceptions about God and humanity, about the roles of women and nonJews, about the vastness of human knowledge. We feel ennobled by ancient teachings that provide us with a sense of self and with a sense of community that create a context for who we are and what we do.
Maybe this is why Torah always sets up the older sibling to lose out to the younger one (Cain and Abel, Ishmael and Isaac, Esau and Jacob, Aaron and Moses and on and on..). Maybe the first born represents a more fragile person, less able to change and cope with the vicissitudes of living. As a first born, I don’t subscribe to the notion that we are slow to change. At least, not always…
Everything must change. Reform Jews understand that to be a fundamental truth even when it means doing things differently: Hebrew, women rabbis, interfaith involvement, contemporary music, gender-free language, concepts of God, and so much more. Our core values are the rudder that helps us to stay upright even as we plow ahead.
My grandson is having a tough time of it right now. Large-Scale change is hard. But as his life evolves he will find sources of strength and sustenance to bolster his own evolving circumstances. I hope one source will be the life-affirming resilience of Judaism. It’s been good for me… and I hope for you, too.