Q. Why don’t we modernise Judaism?
A. Large sections of the Jewish public constantly insist that orthodoxy must bend with the wind, accommodate itself to today and be accepting of everything: nothing must be treif any longer, and all must be made kosher. In short, religion must move with the times; the times must be the criterion.
It is not a new argument, and the decisive answer came from Samson Raphael Hirsch in 19th century Germany. Instead of making Judaism conform with the times, he said, why not make the times conform with Judaism?
When the tail wags the dog and religion is told, “Don’t give us a lead unless it takes us where we want to go”, then truth is replaced by falsehood, respect by repression, justice by victimisation, and individual dignity by fads and addictions. When the times become the standard and eternal verities can no longer be proclaimed, religion might as well close down.
“But that’s not what we are taking about,” say some people. So what are you talking about? “Well,” we hear, “Why is it so hard to keep kosher?” Answer: any commitment costs effort, and through kashrut you commit yourself to self-control and inner discipline – old principles, but probably as important as truth, respect, justice and dignity.
Or how about, “Why can’t we do this or that on Shabbat?” Answer: if you want everything to be be easy and comfortable, that’s nice and pleasant – but you don’t have much backbone, and backbone (another word for moral courage) is another old principle that is as important as truth, respect, justice and dignity.
Another possible question: “Why don’t they modernise the prayer-book, shorten the service, have less Hebrew to say?” Answer: fine, let’s argue that out – but don’t forget that to unite with past, present and the future also ranks with truth and the other principles.
Why do the times commend themselves to us? Because we think modernity is attractive. Apart from the fact that it is also notoriously fickle, it scares us with its selfishness, callousness, lack of respect for life, dignity, conscience or property, twisting of truth, and selective concepts of freedom and peace.
Rabbi Hirsch was right: the timeless is better than the times. Throw tried and tested principles on the scrap heap and (in the words of the Psalmist) buy yourself another god, and all you have done is to become an idolater, who creates something out of wood or stone, says, “You are my god!”, fools him- or herself and jeopardises the future of civilisation.