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Why Not?

April 4, 2011

Why Not?

Last week I participated in the Rabbinical Assembly Convention, an annual conference for rabbis in the Conservative Movement. Contrary to what one might expect, the gathering was held in Las Vegas. While some clergy expressed opposition to this seemingly paradoxical meeting place, others argued that there is a thriving Jewish community in Las Vegas, one that is growing by leaps and bounds. Furthermore, the title of this year’s convention was “Conservative Judaism Out of the Box.” This theme pervaded our days together, and the topic was piloted by its very location.

Why would a convention be devoted to such a theme, particularly by a faith movement whose commitment is to be loyal to its tradition, even as it attempts to continuously reinterpret that tradition for the changes that occur in each generation? The answer is that no matter how committed we may be to any tradition, its teachings or customs – and this could be a faith tradition, a tradition in a profession, or even the patterns we tend toward in relationships – we may become so wedded to the system or tradition that we forget to renew, and what results is something that is old and tired. Because we find comfort in the familiar, we may loose our commitment to regenerate or reinterpret.

But behaviors that we have declared new in a given profession or system, set even as recently as within our generation, may no longer be current for contemporary life. Think of how quickly medical advancements are made. Think of the rapid developments in cell phone and computer technology. Systems in these areas need to be “upgraded” constantly to reflect the constant growth in these disciplines. The same is true for our approach to spirituality.

At the convention we explored and discussed. We challenged our choices and stretched ourselves to consider diverse innovative options. Fresh ways of exploring prayer, teaching new melodies, redefining the meaning of the synagogue and how we reach out and touch people – all of these were open for deliberation. We delved into some of today’s most critical issues in social justice as well as the critical need for us to use social media. Conversations questioned where we have been and where we are going. Session after session included some component of being outside the box, challenging us to look anew and to decide afresh.

One particular colleague espoused the approach to new programs and traditions with the question, “Why not?” When congregants said, “Because we’ve never done it that way before,” his response was, continuously, “Why not?” Why not try something different? Why not create new traditions, new programs, new ways of outreach, new ways of creating meaning? Simply, why not?

It is a question that is valid not only for Conservative Judaism, or for other faith communities. It is a question not just for medicine and cell phone technology. It extends to our lives as professional and to our approaches to relationships. It is a question that can be asked in any aspect of our lives: our volunteer contribution, the trip we’ve never taken, they way we approach diet and exercise – or not. We get stuck in ruts. Yes, ritual is valuable, and even helps us to make it through the day. We need a certain amount of grounding and stability that the daily and weekly rituals of our lives provide. However, when our rituals define us, when we become glued to doing things the way we have always done them, we sacrifice a certain power of choice and the excitement that goes along with the recognition that we can renew ourselves at any day, at any time.

Remember when penicillin was considered the cure all antibiotic? Remember rotary phones? If we had been satisfied with these innovations – and each of them was precisely that in its time – we would not have the wide range of cures and treatments available for diseases today. We would not be able to call our wives, husbands or kids on the way home and let them know we are stuck in traffic.

We need the stability of the constant, and yet, just as much, we need the willingness to look and see where our lives can bear improvement. We must combine this with the wherewithal to take the actions necessary to grow and renew.

Is there an innovation you see to make? It may be in the personal or professional arena. Is there an aspect of your life that needs to break out of the box? Is there a contribution you want to make? I encourage you to be bold and ask this question in any area of your life. And if you come up with a resounding, “Yes!” your next question is, quite simply, “Why not?”

Robin Damsky

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2 Comments leave one →
  1. Lisa Jane permalink
    April 5, 2011 6:39 am

    Two comments come to mind:

    1. If you keep doing the same things you’ve always done, the same way you’ve always done them, you’ll keep getting the same results.

    2. Doing the same thing over and over and expecting a diffrent result is a pretty good working definition of insanity.

    I once attended a worship serve of the Old Believers (see: https://secure.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/en/wiki/Old_Believers) in Oregon. The services generally last 6 to 8 hours; we left after 2 hours. One of the rituals they observe–as part of the liturgy–is to lower the oil-lamps (suspended on ropes) to refill them with oil. Historically, this was done because at one time oil lamps were the sole source of illumination; during the long services, they needed to be refilled. Rather than interrupt the worship for such a mindane task, the refilling was incorporated into the liturgy.

    Now, in the modern era, where there is no longer a need for oil lamps, it is such an integral part of the worship itself that it continues–an example of meaningless ritual having become part of religious worship.

    One can’t help but wonder how many religious observances of whatever faith contain such meaningless ritual.

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