Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Is everyone becoming Jewish?

In my job, I get to read A LOT, particularly articles and books concerning Israel, Judaism, politics, education, etc. One of the trends I’ve noticed is the increased practice and celebration of Jewish holidays and rituals by non-Jews.

I first came across this several years ago when I read about non-Jewish children wanting to have 13th year celebrations similar to Bar & Bat Mitzvahs. Many of the non-Jewish children and their families were attending these celebrations and wanted to have a similar ritualized celebration to mark this passage from childhood into another phase of their lives. First I thought having a big party had a lot to do with it but it transcended a mere party, it was the act of having a public reckoning that points to this important transition. In other words…they want a Bnai Mitzvah!

Another trend I read about, first in the New York Times and since then in the Huffington Post and on numerous blogs, is Shabbat. As our society becomes ever more fragmented and electronically connected, people and families are finding that they want or NEED one day a week to just BE, to unplug EVERYTHING electronic, slow down and spend quiet time with their families. Huh, in other words, they want SHABBAT!

Another ritual which has been making waves is circumcision. Abraham was commanded by God to circumcise all males on their 8th day as a sign of our covenant with God. This practice has been controversial – to the point where many Jews feel it’s barbaric and unnecessary. If so, then why is there a push on the continent of Africa to educate males to circumcise? Because the medical evidence is overwhelming that males who are NOT circumcised have a greater chance of spreading HIV than circumcised males. So now the World Health Organization is recommending males be circumcised.

In other words…they now want a Bris!

The marriage canopy. It symbolizes the fragility of our lives and the home we hope to build, being open and welcoming. As intermarriage rates increased, couples would include elements of their Jewish and non-Jewish backgrounds. But then another trend started – couples in which neither partner was Jewish started adding chuppahs to their ceremony, saying it made a fine focal point under which a bride and groom can stand together and which they could personalize through decorations, either with flowers or something which was personally made and meaningful.

In other words… they want a Chuppah!

And finally, death. Jewish practice is that when a person dies s/he should be buried as soon as possible, if possible on the day s/he died, (although in modern times that’s not always possible as sometimes relatives need to come from faraway places). But burial should not be delayed, nor should the body be embalmed. The body is ritually cleansed, wrapped in a white shroud, and in some countries interred that way; in America and other western countries where a casket is required, the coffin should be a plain wooden box, usually pine, with several holes bored into it and no metal nails are permitted in its construction. The basic rule of burial has its origin in Genesis 3:19 “For dust you are and unto dust you shall return.” The idea of boring holes and no metal insures that decomposition should take place quickly.

So a couple of weeks ago I’m reading about “Green burial.” There’s a whole movement (among non-Jews) to do away with embalming, whose fluids are toxic, and to do away with large, varnished or metal coffins with fancy interiors which are bad for the environment. They want to banish the use of vaults. They also say the practice of cremation, while not taking up valuable space in the earth, leaves a greater carbon footprint due to the high heat needed to burn the bodies – that ultimately, putting an unembalmed body into the earth either wrapped in a compostable material or a plain wooden box is the desired method of burial.

In other words…they want a Jewish burial!

So, I got to thinking, why are so many Jews turning away from these practices while the rest of the world is turning toward them? Is it because of the old adage that “we don’t appreciate what we have until it’s gone”? Or is it because we want what others have?

If you think about it, Judaism is the only ancient civilization still in existence today. The ancient Greeks, Romans, Medes, Babylonians, Saracens, etc. all died out. If you look to Judaism’s practices, many Jews are always looking for rational answers as to why we have to do things a certain way – why Jews can’t eat pork and shellfish (no, it isn’t because of health reasons); why we need to keep the Sabbath, why we honor our parents, why we study. Could it be that God knew best and that finally, the rest of the world is coming to see what we’ve known all along?