New Things

There is a controversy that has been raging in Jewish thought, in our civil affairs, and even in everyone’s personal lives for millennia.

People are simply reluctant to accept new things. So often a new thing has to wait for just the right moment in history until it finally gains acceptance. Still today, some people still refuse on principle to get connected to the Internet and use e-mail. For these folks, the Covid-19 outbreak has been particularly challenging and isolating.

History shows us how new ideas often fight a long and difficult battle until they receive a community-wide acceptance. For example, when Ben Franklin discovered that lightning was a form of electricity, he sent a paper to be read for him by a friend before the Royal Society in London. This friend reported that it was “laughed at by the connoisseurs.” In 1837, Rowland Hill proposed a postage stamp for Great Britain instead of paying cash on delivery. The postmaster general declared the idea “entirely repugnant to reason.”

When it comes to Jewish religious practice it can be especially difficult to introduce innovation. Anything new is usually suspect. In fact, a 19th century rabbi coined the phrase hadash asur min ha-Torah, anything new is forbidden by the Torah. Even the great Jewish thinker Maimonides had his books labeled as heretical, and they were banned during his lifetime.

Yet there have been particularly devastating events in our history when Jewish life could not continue in the same way it always had, and change was forced upon us. When the Temple was destroyed by the Romans in Jerusalem, Judaism embarked on one of its most creative periods, and Rabbinic Judaism was born. The Siddur and its prayers replaced the sacrificial system, and Jewish Law or halacha continued to evolve.

The yashan, the old, and the hadash, the new; tradition and change are compatible with one another and have always gone hand in hand — though it is usually a slower process of evolutionary change as opposed to revolutionary change.

Covid-19 has imposed profound changes on all of us. But with our innate ability to respond to any challenge and adapt, I am confident that we will persevere and we will thrive. We will continue to re-imagine our synagogue and find new and meaningful ways to function as a congregation. And G-d-willing, life will return to a semblance of normalcy very soon.

Meanwhile, let us cherish our loved ones, embrace our community, and hold fast to Judaism and its eternal values.

Rabbi Scolnic