In my Internet meanderings, watching old film clips from the greatest movies ever produced, I stumbled across a famous scene from Inherit the Wind, a film loosely based on the Scopes story. The Scopes Trial, also known as the “Monkey Trial,” was a legal case in 1925 in which a high school biology teacher, John Scopes, was charged with violating Tennessee state law by teaching evolution in his classroom. The case became a national sensation and attracted widespread media attention.
I‘m almost certain that I saw it for the first time in 1961 from the back seat of my family car at the Portland Drive-in. And while I remember the giant tub of popcorn more than the plot of the movie or the stellar performances of Spencer Tracy, Gene Kelly, and Fredric March, a specific scene always stuck in my mind, one that popped up on YouTube the other day.
A huge crowd of citizens is gathered for a rally in the fictional town of Hillsboro, TN. They hold signs, some warning America to disavow science and embrace Jesus, and other placards that scoff at the very idea that humans are the descendants of apes. The crowd feels self-righteous and resolute as they begin to march, singing, Gimme That Old-time Religion. The scene shook me up, as it still does over 50 years later.
Why a young child would recall that scene is a mystery. Why it does now is evident to me. The nostalgic yearning for the old days, for something supposedly simpler and, thus, better, is a fearsome thing. The idealization of the past is a means to stall progress. It belies the notion that we can learn from the past or use history as the foundation upon which we build a better world without it limiting our reach.
This issue related to nostalgia and a yearning to restore the world as it was, is a constant theme in Jewish life. There is a continuous undercurrent in Judaism that accentuates our earliest ancestors, how they revered God, and how we must follow in their footsteps. Traditional Judaism is built on the notion that certain verities must be upheld and laws obeyed because that’s what God wanted then and wants now. To paraphrase the song, give me that old-time religion.
Reform Judaism was birthed a few hundred years ago in the aftermath of the Enlightenment and the rise of the secular state. Our Reform ancestors did not seek to annihilate Jewish tradition. They did seek to recast our spiritual yearnings as the same as those of our ancestors of the Middle Ages. They said it was time to acknowledge the rise of the rational and the ascent of reason. They suggested that our ideas of God, Torah, and Israel evolved. Practicing certain rituals like keeping kosher or separating linen and wool because it was always done that way did not compute; it did not match the growing expansion of the world of intellectual inquiry.
How do we navigate this parlous path between innovation and old-time religion? How do we preserve what we love about our Judaism without certain trappings driving us away because they are irrelevant and insignificant? How do we invoke the new without losing the thread to our shared past?
This dilemma is not new, but it continues to be urgent. Understanding how to find our way forward is all about shaping Judaism for the next 25 years. How do we make coming to Shabbat services a nourishing and spiritually fulfilling experience? More Hebrew or less Hebrew? Traditional prayers or contemporary poetry? Reading from the Torah and haftarah or…? What if it’s a major Jewish holiday like the beginning of Sukkot or Shavuot, and nobody shows? Do we cancel the holiday and close the temple?
The questions about old-time religion are real ones. They challenge us to evaluate what endures and what is transient. Jews are storytellers with endlessly good material. Legends of the past will continue to inspire us even as we dare to create tales woven from the future.