Thursday, May 12, 2011

"Tattoos, Cremation, Personal Spirituality: The Jewish World in Transformation"

From an interview with Rabbi Dr, Dana Evan Kaplan which was given that title:

What are some of the biggest misconceptions about your topic? 

Some people believe that there is only one way to look at Judaism. My book is an attempt to show how American Jews have taken some of the same religious concepts and practices and done very different things with them depending on their perspective.

I am not writing this book from a theological perspective so I am not necessarily arguing that this is religiously authentic behavior, but the fact that I describe it in loving detail implicitly suggests that I approve of the mushrooming of creative pluralistic religious responses to contemporary life. One neo-conservative reviewer savaged me for what he saw as my support for attitudes that he believes are nonsensical and destructive. But because the review was so ideological, I was actually quite amused and had it distributed in advance of my speaking at Baylor University in October so that the primarily evangelical Christian students there could get a sense of the other side of the argument.

I think some outsiders still think American Judaism is divided into Reform, Conservative, Orthodox. In recent decades, it has become much more pluralistic, with several additional groups that could be seen as fledgling denominations and many others that are floating somewhere between institutional categories. On the other hand, some insiders believe that the American Jewish religious denominational structure has collapsed. While there is no question that it has weakened, there will still be separate religious movements for the foreseeable future. I hope I did not contribute to this misperception by entitling one of my chapters “The Rise and Fall of American Jewish Denominationalism.”

The sages of the classical rabbinic tradition reinterpreted biblical commandments in order to reinvent contemporary Judaism for their times. I implicitly argue that we need to do the same thing now. The denominational structure which may have served us well in the late 19th and throughout the 20th century is clearly no longer enough. I am planning to argue that we should create new divisions based on clear theological differences rather than preserving denominational organizations which represent divisions that are no longer meaningful. But I haven’t published this argument yet so I shouldn’t say too much about this....

..Are you hoping to just inform readers? Give them pleasure? Piss them  off?I am trying to write a reasonably comprehensive current history of contemporary Judaism. But there are so many things happening so it is clearly impossible to cover everything. I am also making a series of arguments, particularly relating to the impact that the concept of personal spirituality has had on organized American Judaism. Americans today feel much freer to explore ceremonial and ritual practices that intrigue them regardless of what their community thinks of those particular ideas. This has allowed Jews to move in a number of different directions, including seemingly contradictory ones.

I found some of these contradictory impulses fascinating. For example, there have been a lot more young Jewish people getting tattoos, including many who choose Jewish symbols or Hebrew letters. Now of course the halacha prohibits getting a tattoo, and in earlier generations, a Jew who got a tattoo was in open rebellion against the tradition. That is not so obviously the case anymore.

Another such example that I write about in my book was of a woman in northern California who asks to be cremated after her body is ritually purified and most of the traditional Hebrew prayers have been recited. Again, this is behavior that would have been inexplicable to a traditional Jew from a previous generation. I am hoping that my readers will find these internal contradictions as fascinating as I did and want to explore the changing contours of American Judaism through my book. I do like to be controversial, as long as my criticisms are based on a solid footing.

I did irritate some of the subjects talked about in the book.  
               - full interview 

No comments:

Post a Comment

Hey, thanks for engaging the conversation!