Indeed, this is the theme of Passover: Trapped in patterns we do not like (or can no longer abide), we have the power to affect change.
And so, I wonder, in what ways are our leading communal institutions locked into all-too familiar patterns? How, in spite of ourselves, are we thwarted from meeting the rapidly changing expectations of our own people? Or if you will, what communal constraints (mitzrayim) might we dream of escaping?
There ought be a lot that comes to mind. After all, as Professor Steven Windmueller of Hebrew Union College notes, during most periods of Jewish history, change was at best slow and uneven. And inherited “traditions” are slow to change. But today the Jewish community is changing constantly, and more rapidly than ever before. And today, for many, the old order no longer holds.
Once-sharp distinctions between religious movements have blurred. American Jews in the 21st century are constructing identity and defining community in altogether new ways.
In the past, Windmueller continues, Jews were defined as “members of religious institutions” or as “participants within an ethnic community.” But one of the new frames by which we will know the members of our community will be as “consumers and purchasers of services.”
Sociologist Robert Wuthnow defines this pattern in theological terms. In a nutshell, those “members” who identify with an entity in a given place and at prescribed times (i.e. congregations) are, if you will, “habitation” Jews, while those who seek sacred moments here and there and when they want them (i.e. consumers/purchasers, read: seekers) are “journey” Jews.
On Passover, as we recall our people’s journey from slavery to freedom we are instructed to imagine it as though we ourselves were redeemed from Egyptian bondage. After all, if Passover comes to teach nothing else, it is this: trapped in patterns that no longer serve, we have the power to affect change.
And so, in the spirit of our holiday, this year we ought ask: How might we (read: our communal institutions) be trapped in “old familiar ways” of thinking when everything indicates that “experimentation, innovation and collaboration” are the new normal when it comes to community organizing?
Moving beyond the constraints, which keep us in place, is our community’s most pressing challenge. And the willingness and energy we bring to this task will determine how soon we can begin moving toward our own Promised Land.
A Happy Passover to all.
(This column is a service of the Greater Pittsburgh Rabbinic Association.)