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Contemporary Judaism has become a pick-and-mix buffet

Danny Schiff
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Published: 21 February 2023

Last updated: 5 March 2024

In an excerpt from his new book, RABBI DANNY SCHIFF argues modern Judaism has been rendered obsolete by an age hyper-individualism.

Modernity is over. Its questions, its societal structures, and its struggles are passé. So is its Judaism. Sooner or later, Reform and Conservative Judaism will become entries in the history books, alongside modernity itself. Pockets of strength will likely continue for decades, but the waning years have arrived.

This assertion is not intended as a mark of disrespect for the movements of modernity. Quite the opposite. No movement lasts a thousand years—nor should it. Movements belong to a specific time that calls forth a particular response. They belong to a certain thought milieu.

For any movement to retain relevance and galvanize hundreds of thou­sands of adherents well into a second century of existence is no small feat. It is an accomplishment worthy of admiration. From the mid-nineteenth to the late twentieth century, Conservative and Reform Judaism helped millions fuse their Jewishness with modernity in ways that allowed their followers—not all, but many—to live as both engaged Jews and citizens of the modern world.

That reality is no more. No longer does the conversation presume the existence of a Jewish community that lives on the margins of society, seek­ing to fit in. No longer is there a prominent debate over how the findings of science and history can mesh with Torah. No longer is there a robust discussion about how much autonomy Judaism might afford individuals. Outside Orthodoxy, no longer is there an appeal to knowledgeable author­ity figures to provide instruction on how to live an authentic Jewish life.

Twenty-first-century concerns diverge from those of modernity on vital issues that go far beyond technology. The multiple transformations of the digital era have resulted in what the journalist and foreign policy expert Moses Naim calls a “Mentality revolution.” This Mentality revolution “reflects the major changes in mindsets, expectations, and aspirations” that stem from all that has happened since 1990: “Globalization, urbanization, changes in family structure, the rise of new industries and opportunities, the spread of English as a global lingua franca…”  Naim points to the “ever-increasing salience of aspiration” as a motivator for human thinking and behavior.

The rabbi provided the imprimatur of the official acceptance of the marriage in the eyes of God, or society...Nowadays, that form of authority is of little interest.

This should not be understood solely in materialistic terms. Rather, aspiration, in this context, is expressed by a desire to maximize individual con­trol and curation of our life experiences with the greatest degree of personalization possible. Given the breathtaking scope of choice that is now available to those with an Internet connection, it is usually possible to find precisely what we want in the midst of many alternatives, and we can often have whatever it is that we seek fashioned to our personal specifica­tions. This possibility to fulfill our individual desires with tailor-made solu­tions contributes to the altered mentality.

This is not just autonomy on steroids. The notion of individual autonomy was an outgrowth of the widespread access to knowledge that the printing press unleashed. Autonomy allowed people to make a range of choices in their lives that had previously been limited by regal fiat or religious dictate. But, as we have seen, the autonomy of modernity was lim­ited by one’s location and the resources, attitudes, cultural norms, and identity patterns of that place.

Now the Internet has opened possibilities that stretch far beyond the autonomy model of modernity.

The locus of power has shifted from what were once authority figures to the individual. It is the individual who now tells the corporation how its product ought to be produced, rather than the business bosses offering what­ever suits them. Or, put differently, “the twentieth century was all about getting you to love the things we make. And the twenty-first is all about how to make the things you love.” This represents the core of the “mentality of aspiration.”

This mentality is also a central feature of what we might call “hyper-individualism.” Given that the fulfillment of personal aspirations has become central, it follows that the product, service, experience, or pro­gram that any individual receives will frequently be unique to that person. As businesses and organizations look to cater to individual expectations, so the end product becomes ever more distinctive. When combined with the focus on Big Me, the prevailing sense of being in a “tribe of one,” and the time spent alone with our personal devices, hyper-individualism has become a reality that cannot be ignored.

The implications for Judaism are sizeable. Both the Reform and Conservative movements regarded it as axiomatic that even in the non-Orthodox context rabbis had some measure of authority. That is why rabbinic decisions, like those surrounding marriage officiation, carried weight.

But in the Internet era, even that measure of authority is dissipating. Jewish weddings provide an example of how the ground has already shifted. The typical twentieth-century Jewish wedding usually took place in the home community of the bride or groom. The venue might have been a synagogue or one of several function halls frequented by that community. The officiant was almost always one of the local rabbis. There may have been some variations in the language of the ceremony, but the liturgy was largely predictable. There were some autonomous choices to be made, but, for the most part, the template was familiar.

Twenty-first-century Jewish weddings are noticeably different. “Destination weddings” in locations far from the homes of all the participants are on the rise. Why be limited to a community of origin, when the entire guest list can fly to the destination of one’s choice? Why be restricted by a small range of venues or a limited list of caterers when one can select whatever view or gourmet delights one craves?

Moreover, the growing trend to ask a friend or a family member to act as the officiant demonstrates that many couples see no reason to limit the choice of who leads the ceremony to members of the clergy, especially if the local rabbi hardly knows the participants. While most jurisdictions still require a justice of the peace or ordained minister to officiate, this restriction is easily circumvented by obtaining online ordination. The newly minted clergy-person will, naturally, produce whatever liturgy the couple instructs, since the novice officiant is unlikely to be devoted to any particular rite.

Even overlooking what instant ordination says about perceptions of clergy status, it is worth considering what it implies about the nature of authority generally.

 As late as the 1990s, having an authority figure officiate at a wedding was key. The rabbi or judge provided the imprimatur of the official acceptance of the marriage in the eyes of God, or society, that imbued the couple’s relationship with publicly sanctioned standing. Nowadays, that form of authority is of little interest.

Today, the officiant is usually tasked with beautifying and uplifting the moment according to the couple’s wishes; nothing more. One of the most popular wedding planning websites even proposes the option of “no officiant,” meaning, in practice, self-officiation. A bride who chose this course explained her thinking succinctly when she stated, “We didn’t do anything that we had to, only exactly what we wanted to.” Hyper-individualism.

The questions that agitated a series of twentieth-century debates as to which wedding ceremonies merited rabbinic officiation are yesterday’s problems. There is no longer any need to bother with an officiant who is uneasy about the nature of the match or who will not conform to the couple’s wishes. Couples can choose the officiant who mirrors their desires precisely.

Whether one regards this as a positive or negative development is not the issue. What is important is that this reframing represents a noticeable step beyond autonomy. The customers are telling the authorities what “product” they want the authorities to produce. The authorities are no longer in charge of determining the parameters of the available choices, as they once were in modernity.

One Conservative rabbi encapsulated her role this way: “My success as a rabbi will be measured to the extent that I can help people access their own authentic understanding of themselves as Jews.”

This article is an edited extract from Judaism in a Digital Age, An Ancient Tradition Confronts a Transformative Era by Danny Schiff, just published by Palgrave Macmillan. 

About the author

Danny Schiff

Rabbi Dr Danny Schiff grew up in Melbourne, and now serves as the Foundation Scholar at the Jewish Federation of Greater Pittsburgh. He is the author of “Abortion in Judaism” and splits his teaching year between Jerusalem and Pittsburgh.

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