In the sports world yesterday, the Golden State Warriors set a record by winning their 73rd basketball game of the season. Previously, no team had won more than 72 games in a season. Thus, the Warriors – and their fans – could make the claim that they are the best NBA team of all time.
Needless to say, such a claim will bring about intense debates and arguments among basketball fans. Traditionalists will talk about how the game has changed and that the Warriors did not face sufficiently stiff competition. So, 69 wins in 1972 or 72 wins in 1996 represent a higher level of achievement than 73 wins in 2016. Lovers of the Warriors will point out that 73 wins are more than 72 or 69 every day of the week. Of course, there is no way to win such an argument. Then, of course, there are the people who wonder why anyone wants to discuss this in the first place.
I find it fascinating because this kind of debate about sports and basketball could easily take place regarding religion and Judaism. Instead of talking about points per game and victory totals, though, we would discuss membership units and intermarriage rates. How does the American Jewish community of 2016 compare to that of 1996? Or 1972?
Is it really possible to make such comparisons or has our society changed so much that comparing those kinds of statistics becomes meaningless?
Just as sports fans like to argue over which team would win in a match-up that can never happen, observers of the American Jewish scene like to make comparisons between current times and the “good ol’ days” (whenever those may have been). While we certainly want to learn from past successes and failures – I am a big fan of history! – we can’t assess the American Jewish community of 2016 by comparing our numbers to 1996 or 1956. Too many variables have changed.
For example, in 1956, there was still discrimination against Jews in higher education and in employment. So, of course, the intermarriage rate was lower. Jews and non-Jews simply didn’t mingle socially as much as today.
So, it’s not that Jewish people are less interested in perpetuating Judaism than they were 50-60 years ago. Rather Jews have opportunities to fall in love with people outside the Jewish community in a way they did not.
In 1996, we barely knew what the Internet was. People did not seek out information and community via their electronic devices in the manner that people do today. Physically joining a community was still necessary in a way that it may not be today.
Despite the drastic changes in American society, people are still looking for community, spirituality and opportunities to give of themselves. A synagogue is the perfect place to look for those things regardless of the year. We just have to work harder to make people aware that there’s something here you can’t find on the Internet.
We can see a similar phenomenon in our approach to the Torah. People often want to overlook this week’s Torah portion because it discusses leprosy and other health-related issues. We think that, as modern readers, we do not need the Torah’s help with medicine. However, this Torah portion is not about cures. It is about healing. Cures change as we learn more about the human body and diseases. Healing stays the same no matter the age in which we live. It’s timeless.
Judaism is the same. In some ways, it’s easier to be Jewish today than ever before. In some ways, it’s harder. In some ways Judaism is the same as it’s always been and in some ways it has changed drastically. It doesn’t matter. We don’t get to pick a different era in which to be Jewish. We can only play the other team standing on the court and try our best to get the ball in the hoop.