Innovation and Tradition – A Perfect Match?

What is Jewish innovation? Do we really need it? Isn’t Judaism really about Tradition, like the song from Fiddler on the Roof?”

Innovation is actually a basic tenet of Jewish thought, especially in the area of Jewish education. Jews around the world read thrice daily the command to be innovative in how they relate to and understand the Torah they are learning, as hinted in the third verse of the “Sh’ma Israel” prayer (Deuteronomy 6) “And these words which I command you today shall be upon your heart.”

The Midrash explains that the extraneous word “today”, teaches that each day we should learn the Torah as if we had just received it just that day. Expanding on this Midrashic idea, the Shulchan Aruch (Orach Chaim 61:2) declares that we are commanded to be innovative “that each day the Torah should be new in your eyes and do not read the Torah like someone who has heard it many times before but as something beloved.” It is telling that both this verse and the commandment behind it were selected to be incorporated into one of the most central parts of our daily prayers.

For no matter how sweet, good or true the Jewish experience, with time any ritual or system can appear monotonous, tedious and eventually outdated. According to this understanding, G-d Himself saw that that there is a constant need to infuse Jewish tradition, learning, practice and thought with new insights and energies.

Yet if innovation is so evidently desirable in Judaism than why are traditionalists perceived to be against it? Traditional methods of Jewish creative thought and practice did not seek a radical alteration of the tenets, practice and content of Judaism but rather realignment in our understanding of how to apply our Jewish values and practices to a new reality. Too often however, what had been touted as refreshing advances in Jewish philosophy and practice, lead to movements of eventual abandonment of essential Jewish values. Thus change and innovation began to be perceived as a threat to Jewish continuity.

Yet when we as a community lack creative responses to contemporary issues, people may believe that Judaism has become stagnant, unable to provide them with solutions to contemporary dilemmas and irrelevant to their modern lives.

The prophet Isaiah considered the lack of innovative thought, practice and sincerity to be one of the terrible sins of the Jewish people. His accusation in Isaiah 29:13 reads, “G-d says, ‘This people has approached me with their mouths and honored me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me. They worship me by rote (Mitzvat Anashim Melumada)’”.

Centuries later, a similar charge was leveled by the founders of the Mussar Movement, when they decried the widespread loss of an emotional connection to Judaism’s inner meaning and ethical core.

When already in his seventies and nearing the end of his life, Rabbi Yisrael Salanter (1810-1883), the father of the Mussar movement, tried to make the Talmud accessible and meaningful to everyone by having it translated into Hebrew, German and French. This was certainly a revolutionary and controversial idea for his time; so much so that despite multiple attempts Rabbi Salanter was unsuccessful in finding sufficient funding and scholars to achieve his vision (a hurdle that resonates with today’s social entrepreneurs). In part, the numerous translations available today which have helped spur a modern renaissance of Talmud study are the fruit of his ventures. This widely influential Jewish innovator said that his movement did not intend to change Judaism, but rather to change how Jews related to it.

Judaism and the Jews have a very difficult balancing act to play. We need to maintain an age-old tradition that is representative of core values while at the same time keeping those values and traditions relevant in an ever-changing context. New Jewish paradigms must be conceived to keep both us and our message relevant.

An excellent modern example of the healthy tension between innovation and tradition can be found in the positive growth of the eco-kosher movement. Kosher dietary laws are based on core Jewish values of concern for one another and for the poor, maintaining holiness and sensitivity while preventing unnecessary cruelty to animals. If we fail to develop a real and resonant understanding of the Jewish dietary laws and their application, our sensitivities may be smothered by rote practices that lead to kosher-style festivals of gluttony.

Combining modern ecological concerns such as animal rights and fair treatment of workers with traditional Kashrut to create a more holistic concept of Kashrut was initially viewed by some as a threat that would lead to an abandonment of core Jewish values of Kashrut. However projects such as The Community Supported Agriculture sites of Hazon’s Tuv Haaretz program, B’Maaglei Tzedek’s “Tav Hachevratie” and the Tav Yosher of Uri Letzeddek have served primarily as catalysts to reinvigorate Jewish social action and lead to greater understanding, excitement – and hopefully practice – of Jewish dietary laws.

The real challenge of Jewish innovation is to find the perfect match. The perfect partnership of creative solutions that sustain our traditions, promote our core values and generate enthusiastic participation. Too often, projects and ideas touted as Jewish innovation are neither tremendously innovative nor closely associated with central Jewish values, but merely Jewish-style copies of existing social trends that mimic external packaging without providing unique Jewish content. The essential balance we need to find is how to incorporate creative thought and practice into our personal and communal Jewish life, making Judaism relevant, while ensuring that these new innovations are still promoting the Jewish values that have sustained us through the centuries.

Rabbi Carmi Wisemon MSW is founding director of Sviva Israel and editor of the journal The Environment in Jewish Thought and Law. Together with Microsoft R&D, Sviva Israel is creating Israel’s first children’s interactive environmental Website, a perfect match for its flagship program, the Eco Connection, which connects communities in Israel and abroad through environmental education and action.