The Jewish Obligation to Pivot and Innovate

The Second Jewish Temple. Model in the Israel Museum. Image: Ariely via WikiMedia Commons

By Jennifer Kaplan

Jewish history is no stranger to disruption and change. What can we learn from our history during these uncertain times of disruption, anxiety and change?

We are living through an unprecedented period in our history. Never before have the vast majority of us lived through a global health emergency like the one COVID-19 has presented, with no sign of letting up (at least in the United States). While parents anxiously attempt to make decisions regarding the health and safety of their families, schools grapple with how best to protect their students, Synagogues ring their hands over how to handle High Holiday services, everyone seems to have different opinions about the way forward. We are human, inherently change-averse and desperate for normality.

Let’s turn back to the foundational seismic event in Jewish history to learn how pivoting and innovation is an inherently Jewish value.

Today we celebrate the holiday of Tisha B’Av, the day of mourning on the Jewish calendar. On this day, we commemorate the destruction of BOTH Temples in Jerusalem. War, violence, death and destruction were certainly traumatic. And I am sure that many Jews threw up their hands at this and gave up on religion. There were others (still to this day) that insisted the way forward was rebuilding what had been lost – a Third Temple – the human desire for consistency and familiarity. The wisdom of the Rabbis can be seen in their guidance and complete rebrand of Judaism, after the Babylonian Exile. How do we save our institutions, our (Jewish) culture, our way of life without a Temple (i.e. in the face of remote learning, shuttered synagogues and the inability to gather together). Of course they lamented the travesty that occurred. But, they recognized that the way forward was through innovation and imagination. No longer was the Temple the center of Jewish life, and a rich religion full of new traditions was born, precisely to embrace this new reality of distance. And it was the Rabbi’s foresight that allowed post-Temple Judaism to thrive and expand into the pluralistic and diverse religion we have today.

Yes, physical learning and gathering together were the norm 6 months ago. We’ve been faced with a traumatic event that makes these things no longer possible. Will we spend our time longing for consistency and familiarity, shutting down ideas of innovation and reimagination? Will we be able to adapt and pivot to new traditions and ideas, and create a richer, more robust and thriving Jewish culture? I urge us as a community not to be so close-minded that we see the only way forward as the ways of the past. Change is scary, but where would we be if our rabbis had spent their lives lamenting what was lost instead of focusing on moving forward in new and visionary ways?

Jennifer Kaplan is the Lead Coordinator for Advancement at Gross Schechter Day School in Cleveland, Ohio.