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From ‘How’ to ‘Why Bother?’: a Jewish guide for the 21st Century

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Published: 4 April 2023

Last updated: 5 March 2024

MICHAEL STRASSFIELD’S Jewish Catalogues defined do-it-yourself Judaism of the late 20th Century. His new book is written for a different world.

(JTA) — “What the son wishes to forget the grandson wishes to remember.” That’s known as Hansen’s Law, named for the historian Marcus Lee Hansen, who observed that while the children of immigrants tend to run away from their ethnicity in order to join the mainstream, the third generation often wants to learn the “old ways” of their grandparents.

In 1973, “The Jewish Catalog” turned Hansen’s Law into a “do-it-yourself kit” for young Jews who wanted to practice the traditions of their grandparents but weren’t exactly sure how. Imagine “The Joy of Cooking,” but instead of recipes the guide to Jewish living had friendly instructions for hosting Shabbat, building a sukkah and taking part in Jewish rituals from birth to death. Co-edited by Michael Strassfeld, Sharon Strassfeld and the late Richard Siegel, it went on to sell 300,000 copies and remains in print today.

Fifty years later, Rabbi Michael Strassfeld has written a new book that he calls a “bookend” to “The Jewish Catalog. ”If the first book is a Jewish “how to,” the latest is, he says, a “why bother?”

“Judaism Disrupted: A Spiritual Manifesto for the 21st Century” asserts that an open society and egalitarian ethics leave most Jews skeptical of the rituals and beliefs of Jewish tradition. In the face of this resistance, he argues that the purpose of Judaism is not obedience to Torah and its rituals for their own sake or mere “continuity,” but to “encourage and remind us to strive to live a life of compassion, loving relationships, and devotion to our ideals.” 

Strassfeld, 73, grew up in an Orthodox home in Boston and got his master’s degree in Jewish studies at Brandeis University. Coming to doubt the “faith claims” of Orthodoxy, he became a regular at nearby Havurat Shalom, an “intentional community” that pioneered the havurah movement’s liberal, hands-on approach to traditional practice. He earned rabbinical ordination from the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College when he was 41 and went on to serve as the rabbi of Congregation Ansche Chesed on the Upper West Side and later the Society for the  Advancement of Judaism, the Manhattan flagship of Reconstructionist Judaism. 

“To be disrupted is to experience a break with the past and simultaneously reconnect in a new way to that past,” writes Strassfeld, who retired from the pulpit in 2015. This week, we spoke about why people might find Jewish ritual empty, how he thinks Jewish practices can enrich their lives and how Passover — which begins Wednesday night — could be the key to unlocking the central idea of Judaism.

JTA: What connects the new book with the work you did back then on the Catalog, which was a do-it-yourself guide for Jews who were trying to reclaim the stuff they either did or didn’t learn in Hebrew school?

Michael Strassfeld: I see them as bookends. Basically, I keep on writing the same book over and over again. [Laughs] Except no, I’m different and the world is different. I’m always trying to make Judaism accessible to people. In the “Catalog” I was providing the resources on how to live a Jewish life when the resources weren’t easily accessible. 

The new book is less about “how to” than “why bother?” That’s the challenge. I think a lot of people take pride in being Jewish, but it’s a small part of their identity because it doesn’t feel relevant. I want to say to people like that that Judaism is about living a life with meaning and purpose. It’s not about doing what I call the “Jewishly Jewish” things, like keeping kosher and going to synagogue. Judaism is wisdom and practices to live life with meaning and purpose. The purpose of Judaism isn’t to be a good Jew, despite all the surveys that give you 10 points for, you know, lighting Shabbat candles. It’s about being a good person. 

So that brings up your relationship to the commandments. If someone doesn’t feel bound by these obligations, why do them at all?

The Jewish Independent

Rituals are tools, but tools in the best sense of the word. They help us pay attention to things in our lives and things in the world that need repair. And people use them not to get ahead in the world, but because they want to be a somewhat better person. I talk a lot these days about having a brief morning practice, and in the book I write about the mezuzah. For most Jews it’s become wallpaper, but what if you take the moment that you leave in the morning, and there’s a transition from home to the outside and to work perhaps, and take a moment at the doorpost to spiritually frame your day? What are the major principles that you want to keep in your mind when you know you’re gonna be stuck in traffic or a difficult meeting? And a lot of traditional rituals are instrumental. Saying a blessing before you eat is a gratitude practice.   

 So much in Jewish tradition says boundaries are good but you argue strongly in an early chapter that that kind of binary thinking is not Judaism as you see it. 

Underlying the book is the notion that Rabbinic Judaism carried the Jewish people for 2,000 years or so. But we’re living in a very different context, and the binaries, the dualities — too often they lead to hierarchy, so that, for example, men matter more than women in Jewish life. And we’ve tried to change that. We are living in an open society where we want to be more inclusive, not less inclusive. We don’t want to live in ghettos. Now, the ultra-Orthodox say, “No, we realize the danger of trying to live like that. We don’t think there’s anything of value in that modern world. And it’s all to be rejected.” And it would be foolish not to admit that in this very open world the Jews, as a minority, could kind of disappear. But I think that Judaism has so much value and wisdom and practices to offer to people that Judaism will continue to be part of the fabric of this world — the way, for example, we have given Shabbat as a concept to the world.  .

What is disruptive about the Judaism that you’re proposing?

I meant it in two ways. First, Judaism is being disrupted by this very different world we’re living in. The contents of the ocean we swim in is very different than in the Middle Ages. But I’m also using it to say that Judaism is meant to disrupt our lives in a positive way, which is to say, “Wake up, pay attention.” You are here to live a life of meaning and purpose, and to continue as co-creators with God of the universe. You’re here to make the world better, to be kind and compassionate to people, to work on yourself. In my mind it is a shofar, “Wake up, sleepers, from your sleep!” “Judaism Disrupted” says you have to pay attention to issues like food, and justice, and teshuva [repentance].

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