Tradition! Tradition?

by Rabbi Jeff Goldwasser

At a recent meeting to discuss worship services at Temple Beit HaYam, several congregants requested a “traditional” service on some Friday nights. When I said that I was not sure what they meant and asked for a definition of “traditional,” some people seemed surprised. The expression on their faces made me think that they questioned the sincerity of my question. How could a rabbi not know what “traditional” means?

I can’t blame people for assuming that I knew what they meant. Jews use the word “traditional” all the time as a way to differentiate all that newfangled, modern stuff from the way that Judaism was meant to be. “Traditional” is an icon in Judaism. In an age of rapid change, we often yearn for the Judaism we experienced in days gone by.

The problem, of course, is that we have not all experienced the same bygone days. It turns out that many people in our congregation use the word “traditional” to mean services that are mostly in English, accompanied by art music written from the late 19th to mid-20th centuries. A traditional service, by this definition, is also one that is centered around a sermon that reflects on recent events in the world, especially as they effect Israel and the Jewish people.

Ironically, that is similar to the style of worship I grew up with as a young child at Temple Emanu-El in New York City. It is a style that some people call “Classical Reform” (although, I find that term misleading). Yet, it is not the style that I think about when I think of “traditional” Judaism.

What does the word “traditional” mean to you when it comes to Jewish worship?

For me, and for many others, the word conjures a very different image. I think about the worship services I imagine that my great-gradfather attended: conducted entirely in Hebrew and Aramaic, chanted according to eastern European nusach, with only a brief teaching on the weekly Torah portion, if any sermon at all.

That is the style of worship that, I think, many Jews think of as “traditional,” even if it does not represent the kind of Judaism they would like to practice in their daily life. It is the Judaism people associate with Tevye the milkman as he sings “Tradition!” in Fiddler on the Roof. It is the Judaism that many Jews find romantically appealing in Chabad, even if they have no intention of being traditionally observant themselves. Isn’t that odd?

Is my idea of “traditional” correct, and the “traditional” imagined by others wrong? Not at all. We all come from different traditions. Jews whose families originated in Morocco, Italy or Yemen would not be likely to find either the services of Chabad or Reform to fit their ideas about their tradition. And, if I were to wander into their shuls, or the shuls of their youth, I might feel just as disoriented as they would feel in mine.

Even within Reform Judaism there are many different ways to be traditional. As a child in New York City, I was used to services led by a rabbi and cantor dressed in robes, with ornate music performed on an organ, and filled with a sense of majesty magnified by the prose of the liturgy and the grandeur of the architecture. My wife, who grew up in a Reform congregation of the same era, but in central New England, had a very different experience. She attended services filled with contemporary music, mystical sermons and homey potluck dinners. Tradition is where you are from—spiritually, chronologically, geographically and temperamentally.

Is it proper for a congregation to try to meet the needs of people with different traditions, tastes and worship preferences? Of course it is. Our congregation will be offering services once a month that are designed to appeal to people who prefer less Hebrew, more reflection on contemporary issues and events, and a sense of relaxation and peace at the end of a busy week. (I have no idea what to call such a service. Any ideas?) We will continue to offer services at other times that are energetically joyful, contemporary and spiritual.

The only danger I see in doing this is that we might turn our one congregation into several separate congregations. If we end up with groups of people who attend services of one style, but who never show up to service of any other style, we will know that the experiment has failed. The point at which “my tradition” becomes the only thing that interests me is the point at which I have stopped caring about the community as a whole, and at which I have stopped growing as a Jew.

My hope is that we will expose more people to different ways of encountering God, finding meaning, and connecting with other Jews. By offering services of different traditions, we can become a congregation that discovers more deeply how to bring joy into Judaism.

Rabbi Jeff Goldwasser is the rabbi of Temple Beit HaYam in in Stuart, FL.