Evolution as Tradition – the continuity of change

A lot of the people I’ve been speaking with lately are wrestling with what seems to them like a paradox: if we keep our relationship to religion so alive that it seems to be reborn for every generation, then what happens to continuity? Or they’re afraid that if Judaism becomes primarily concerned with social justice, it will lose its particular roots, and get lost in ethics.

I tried to address these concerns in a discussion on Howard Rheingold’s Brainstorms bbs, and someone there told me to repost my response, here. So here it is:

“Everything is sacred, but nothing is sacrosanct.” I love that one.  

I’m not reducing Judaism to ethics. I’m measuring its success by its ability to make the world a better place. There’s a difference.  

I do think many religions do strive to make the world a better place. Before Judaism (and, perhaps, Hinduism) the notion of human beings having the ability to make the world a better place was heresy. We were to depend on the gods, alone, for any improvement. So, as I see it, Judaism’s big initial contribution was to make human beings the adults on the planet, responsible for their actions, and capable of manifesting the divine through action.  

This required Jews go from following commandments to ‘hearing’ commandments to interpreting commandments to actually generating commandments. Open source Judaism means getting down into the code of the commandments, realizing they were developed by human beings (working divinely) and bringing ourselves to the place where we can engineer them to the next level. (Not just to our ‘liking’ or to make them ‘easier’ but to continue the Jewish project – the painstaking effort to move into conscious, responsible, adulthood.)  

It seems to me that Judaism was a response to dead religions. The torah is the story of the replacement of the first civilization, Egypt (symbolized by all those first sons who get shafted) by the second civilization (symbolized by Jacob, who had the gumption to wrestle with God). It would be almost akin to the replacement of Microsoft by Linux.  

Just to be clear, I’m not saying these events really happened. I see them as an allegory for a group of people who thought that they, and the world at large, stood to gain by desecrating the existing gods and getting the notion of deity a lot more universal and abstract. (“I am what I am becoming,” God names himself for Moses. How much more evolutionary can you get?)  

Of course there is plenty of stuff in Torah and Judaism that runs counter to this thread. But I feel that Judaism’s development over time supports my contention that it was intended to increase our collective responsibility and autonomy.  

Judaism has plenty of mechanisms for negotiating our reality, together. Prayer, good works, discussion, hypertext/commentary. But so many of us – for the reasons I try to explain the book – think that Judaism is some sort of obligation to those who have died, to a racial heritage, to keeping our numbers high, to keeping the Jews in control of Israel. And this doesn’t feel like an invitation to a spiritual path.  

And those of us who have friends who have responded to certain forms of Jewish outreach, well, it feels to many of us like we’ve lost these people to an odd form of ethnocentrism. It’s not just the joy of having found a particular path (I’m all for that – without a particular path, you have less to bring to the universal table); it’s a strange kind of superiority. That they’ve found “it” and know what “it” is. And that there’s no room for discussion.  

So I’m trying to show how much great, evolutionary, non-exclusive, pluralistic, and radically collaborative traditions there are in this Jewish process.

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