I think it’s been happening ever since Babylon. And once we got to America, it’s been really happening. Each of us has decided that Judaism is something we can make up as we go along.
Not completely, mind you. But we do have that certain itch for making Judaism, well, “relevant.” And we do feel that we have a certain right to decide on our own just how relevant to make it.
We have our rabbis and teachers and traditions and books, but for many of us the God thing seems a little too far, shall we say, out. Even some who grew up observant may ultimately decide — after we leave home or don’t go to shul as often — that we have the right, if not the commandment, to be Jewish in our own particular, not necessarily kosher, way.
I for one, despite being the son of a rabbi and rebbetzin, grew up into what I’ve come to understand as a Paradox Jew. For a long while — even though I davened, laid tefillin, and prayed with all my heart and soul and might — I ultimately grew less and less certain to whom I was praying, and why and what for.
I became a vegetarian and decided that was kosher enough. I made up my own prayers and decided that was religious enough. My home was my shul, my wife, my hazzan. We lit candles. But our Sabbath became, more and more a day of communion with the spirit that had grown between us. Not God’s. But ours. The divine We.
One day I was talking to someone, an old business connection, and I mentioned Shabbos to her, and she said, “Jewish? You’re Jewish? I never would have guessed.”
And on that day, or maybe a little later, I decided that I needed to reclaim my Jew. That maybe my homegrown Judaism had gotten a little overgrown, and I once again needed to reinvent my religion.
So I started with the things that meant the most to me — Jewish-like things: traditions, customs that connected me back to the wise and weary soul of my people.
One of those things: brachot (blessings). You know, after years of saying a blessing every time you take a bite of something, or see a rainbow or come out of the bathroom, sometimes you lapse. You miss it, this thanking thing, this quiet pause, this moment of appreciation for the gift of life itself.
But it’s hard to make a blessing when you’re not sure the word “God” means anything real enough for you to actually thank.
Though we’re vegetarians, mostly, every now and then we eat a piece of fish — because it jails our free radicals or something. And there it is on our plates, this piece of a beautiful, powerful animal. And we have to say something. So we started saying “Thank you, Fish.” And that was pretty much as far as we got.
Most recently, though, I’ve been thinking of saying “planet” or “earth.” I’m going to try it out on easy things. Like when someone sneezes, maybe I’ll say, “Earth bless you.” Or when something happens to me that didn’t kill me, maybe I’ll try saying, “Thank you, Planet.” Maybe that’ll get me closer. Because it’s part of me, this gratitude impulse that I inherited, that I value, and, as a Jew, as a me, I don’t want to let go.
I’ve been trying it out, thanking the planet for my food and stuff — though my wife still wants to thank the fish personally. I’ve been not so much trying it out as thinking about trying it out, especially about the planet-God connection. I don’t know how kosher it is to thank the planet. It’s not exactly idolatry. But it’s hard thinking about the planet as one single thing, something I could personally thank for anything. Now that I’ve seen pictures of it from space, I can imagine it as just one thing, small and huggable even, compared with some of its neighbors. I can even think of it as a living being. But to think of it as listening to me, as appreciating my gratitude, as something like God, as even wanting my gratitude … I might as well thank a dead fish.
No, it doesn’t seem to work for me, thanking the planet, or praying to it. I can love it, though. I can’t hold it in my imagined embrace, but I can appreciate its beauty, its complexity, its life-givingness.
As a Jewish Planetarian, it would be my biggest mitzvah to love the world completely, with all my heart and mind and soul. And to fulfill that mitzvah, I’d need to begin with the things and beings I already love so I can learn love from them.
I learn about life from living. I learn from the seasons to celebrate the seasons, from the phases of the moon to celebrate the year. I learn from the sunrise and sunset, the minor miracles of a cool breeze on a clear day, the rain and the end of the rain, the change, the variety, the glorious, incomprehensible all of it all.
I learn about love from loving. Forty-nine years with my wife, my primary teacher, and I’m still learning love. Learning to love the children our love brought to us, and the children their love brought to them. Learning that it is impossible to love her so completely without loving everyone that loves her, everyone she loves, who brings her life, that sustains her, inspires her, appreciates her, helps her find meaning, heals her, makes her whole.
No one ever said the life of a homegrown Jew would be easy or even better, but it’s good to know we can do such things, even though we’re not doing what the rabbis might want from us. We can take the sensibilities that we’ve inherited, we can honor our parents and theirs, we can be our own best kind of Jew.
Bernard De Koven is an author, mystic and champion of fun. He lives in Indianapolis.