Celebrating Jewish Literature: A Judaism for our time

By Rabbi Rachel Esserman

When reviewing books by Orthodox and Conservative rabbis, I frequently comment that, while I may disagree with the author’s theology, his/her practical suggestions have a great deal to offer readers. What a pleasure, then, to feel differently about “Judaism Disrupted: A Spiritual Manifesto for the 21st Century” by Rabbi Michael Strassfeld (Ben Yehuda Press), who is best known as the editor of “The Jewish Catalogue” and author of the excellent reference work “The Jewish Holidays.” Not only did I appreciate his practical suggestions, but his theology resonated with me, something that makes sense since we are part of the same Jewish movement, Reconstructing Judaism. However, we’ve never met: he graduated from my rabbinical school a year before I started.

Strassfeld comes from an Orthodox background and, while he no longer accepts Orthodox theology or law, his work is steeped in Jewish practice and understanding. He believes that Judaism still has much to offer, even to those who think the religion is outdated and has nothing to offer. He provides two answers to counter those claims: 1) “Judaism is actually about how to live a life of freedom. It asks us to take the most precious gift we have – life – and live it to the fullest.” and 2) “Judaism shows us how to live with purpose. Its wisdom helps me face the challenges of life. Wisdom, not answers – not answers about whether to stay in this job or relationship or why my friend died young. In fact, Judaism is more questions than answers – especially questioning why the world is not a more just and compassionate place. It encourages awareness – awareness of the moment. It encourages gratefulness for the blessings in my life even as it helps me acknowledge the disappointments and losses that will inevitably be a part of my experience. It enables me to embrace the universal aspects of existence but to do so grounded in a particular tradition – Judaism.”

Seeking a Judaism of meaning and purpose leads Strassfeld to reject the parts of rabbinic Judaism he feels do not speak to modern times, for example, the divisions found in traditional Judaism between Jew and non-Jew, men and women, and the forbidden and permitted. He acknowledges that the future of liberal Judaism is not guaranteed, but that’s the reason behind his book: just as the ancient rabbis reconstructed Judaism after the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem in order for the religion to continue, Strassfeld sees the need to do something similar in contemporary times. 

In his quest to show how Judaism can be a religion of freedom, Strassfeld offers 11 core principles and dedicates a chapter of his work to discuss each in detail. They include the idea that we are all created in the image of God; that our universe is a moral one; that we must live with an awareness of “the true nature of existence”; that we must not only focus on our own freedom, but that of others; that we must find holiness in everyday interactions, in addition to creating special times; that it’s essential to take care of our planet; that God can be understood as something larger than humans; that we must also work on becoming better people and reaching our potential; that we must realize that making mistakes is part of being human; that we are required to study Torah our whole lives so we can grow and change; and that we must use these 10 principles to articulate his 11th principle: the need “to create a Judaism without borders leading to the freedom to be connected to others.” 

Strassfeld sees Judaism not as a way to return to a perfect past, but as a journey forward to a better life and a better world. He notes that, “The purpose of Torah is to encourage us and remind us to strive to live a life of compassion, loving relationships, and devotion to our ideals. The Jewish tradition does that by suggesting ways to focus on important themes in life – such as openheartedness, gratitude, and awareness.” Chapters speak about specific holidays in terms of his principles, for example, Shavuot and Simchat Torah’s relationship to being a lifelong learner and Sukkot as a way to learn to live with nature and care for our planet. In addition, Passover serves as a reminder to engage in social justice. 

As a Reconstructionist rabbi, Strassfeld writes of how Jewish ideas about God have changed over the centuries. He notes that he can’t write much about God because he subscribes to the Maimonidean idea that God is unknowable. For him, the descriptions of God found in the past – for example, God as a king or an old man with a beard – don’t resonate with many people in contemporary times. Yet, Strassfeld notes that he has mixed feelings about the idea of God: rationally, he finds it difficult to believe in God, yet he notes that “when I sit with my heart, I have faith that we live in a universe of meaning.” This changed his approach to prayer: for him, true prayer is “seeking an experience of connection, not an answer to request.”

While the theology offered in “Judaism Disrupted” won’t speak to all readers, Strassfeld’s practical suggestions should, even to those who practice Conservative or Orthodox versions of Judaism. For anyone who feels connected to Judaism, but has difficulty finding meaning in many of its contemporary forms, this work could offer the spiritual experience they are looking for.