Power to the PeopleImages

Something is going on. All over the place there seems to be minyanim sprouting out from the ground. The People of the Book are taking the book into their own hands. And they're not waiting to be told which page they're on. All over the Jewish world, from Tel Aviv to New York and Los Angeles, Jews are refashioning their Judaism, reimagining the content of their spiritual lives and re-articulating what it means to engage with God. What's going on? Why are so many people creating indie minyanim when there are perfectly good shuls out there, with yards and yards of empty pews?

In the opening of his book, God in Search of Man, Abraham Joshua Heschel examines the decline of religion in our time. Surprisingly, he says religion's decline is not due to materialism, science or the secularising forces of modernity. Instead, he blames religion itself for its woes. He writes, “Religion declined, not because it was refuted, but because it became irrelevant, dull, oppressive, insipid.” From that starting point, Heschel builds a whole new world of exegesis and spirituality, rooted in joy, spontaneity and radical reinterpretation.

There is an historical precedent for this. In the year 70 CE, the Roman Emperor Titus destroyed the Holy Temple in Jerusalem. A small group of Rabbis decamped to the small coastal village of Yavneh, where they decided to reinvent Judaism. In their foundational creed, they state the following: "Al shlosha devarim ha-olam omed: al ha-Torah, ve-al ha-avodah ve-al gemilut hasadim - On three things the world stands: On learning, spirituality and acts of loving-kindness" (Pirkei Avot 1:2).

The first thing the Rabbis say is this: The world is still standing. Our Temple is destroyed, our people dispersed, God has been exiled from the world, yet the world still stands. The sun still rises. The earth still awakes each morning with fresh dew on the grass. Hummingbirds hum. Butterflies butter. Monkeys monkey around. Mothers give birth to beautiful children and Judaism will survive. But it will survive in a new form. The old foundation has crumbled. Nonetheless, says the rabbis, a new foundation can be built, and it will have three central components.

The first is Torah, which means learning. Not just the holy text itself, but learning in all its forms. A community that wants to survive in the new, decentralised world in which the Temple is no more, will have to make learning its chief concern. Thus Jewish literacy, text study, passionate debate, radical reinterpretation become central to the project of community building. This brings us the Talmud, the Batei Midrash, and the great aggadic and halachic traditions. Central to all of these is their open-endedness. Learning is a journey, a discovery and celebration of new possibilities, a readiness to change and grow.

The second component is avodah, which means spiritual service. Until the year 70 CE, the term avodah meant Temple worship. In the absence of the Temple, this term takes on new meaning. Rather than discarding it, the Rabbis make it the foundational aspect of their new religious expression. They say: We need to find new ways of creatively expressing our spirituality. And so they invent the Jewish institutions that today we take for granted, such as the synagogue and the siddur. In the time of the Temple, there was no need for a prayer book, because all interaction with the divine was outsourced to the priests. Now each person can stand in the presence of God.

The final component is gemilut hasadim, which means acts of loving-kindness. That is to say, a community needs to have an outwards-reaching ethical dimension. Learning needs to be linked to doing. And a Jewish community is defined by how able it is to give of itself. When Rabbi Joshua lamented the destruction of the Temple and the loss of animal sacrifices, Rabban Yochanan ben Zakkai comforted him with these words: "My son, be not grieved; we have another way of atonement as effective as that. And what is it? It is acts of loving-kindness, as it is said (Hoshea 6:6), 'For I desire loving-kindness and not sacrifice'." (Avot de-Rabbi Natan 4:5).

So these are the central components of the indie minyan of Yavne in the year 70 CE. Over time, the creative forces of the Rabbis of Yavneh understandably diminished. After twenty centuries, they lost their fieriness as they ossified into staid and dusty tradition. In some parts, that tradition has indeed become insipid and dull. Yet, as the recent weed-like growth of indie minyanim shows, their original ideas are as radical and as relevant today as they were then.