Despite a dismal Yankee season marked by fading hopes of making the playoffs, I still like to watch the team play. I was watching the Yanks play the Orioles the other night when, absent anything to cheer about coming from my team, I began making a mental list of baseball trivia questions. Why is the third game of a series in which each team has won one game called a “rubber match?” Why do baseball uniforms have numbers? Why is second base sometimes called the “keystone sack?” And…why do baseball managers wear uniforms when coaches of other professional sports teams (hockey, football, basketball) do not? After all, baseball uniforms are pretty tight fitting and a lot of the managers are middle aged and overweight, so it’s not a very complimentary look. The answer to that last question is that a baseball manager was, at one time in the history of the game, one of the players and had to wear a uniform. Even though managers are no longer active players, they still wear a uniform. You might say it’s a tradition that won’t give way to modern circumstances or realities.
Hmmm…tradition vs. modernity and innovation. Sound familiar? That’s one of the core tensions underlying religion, and Judaism deals with it constantly. For as long as there have been Jews in the world, we have struggled with finding the right balance between tradition and innovation. It’s not a simple choice. Traditions are comforting and reassuring. They connect us to our past, reminding us that we have our place in time and history. We want to know that we come from somewhere, that who we are carries a mark of authenticity that is seasoned and has stood the test of time. I imagine that none of us would wantonly jettison our religious traditions, whether or not we observe them in a committed way. In my work as a Mohel, I make this argument to parents who are ambivalent about holding their son’s bris on the eighth day of life. This is our oldest continuously practiced tradition, I tell them. Do you want to be the first generation to abandon it? Do you want to be part of the reason that it fades away? We could make the same argument about any of our traditions—the second day of the festival as observed in the Diaspora, reading Torah from a handwritten scroll, getting married under a chupah. Our traditions connect us to a vibrant and meaningful past.
Next to that compelling argument in favor of tradition is the equally compelling argument in favor of innovation. We cannot live in the past. We must embrace the times in which we live fully and with creativity and imagination. We must continuously reinvent our way of life or it will become stale and lifeless. That has been our way for centuries. Traditions evolve by necessity; they even fade away, in favor of new practices that speak to us more powerfully and with greater relevance. We have seen the Passover Seder and Haggadah evolve gracefully over time, with new practices and ideas added that give it greater meaning and impact for our lives.
The persistent tension between tradition and change also lies at the core of the ideology of Conservative Judaism. Our denomination was founded on the idea that one could, indeed must, forge a delicate balance between honoring tradition and seeking innovation in Jewish life. It is an honorable and important challenge that we have always faced, and will continue to face. And if Conservative Judaism is to move into the future in a strong position to retain and attract members, it must embrace the challenge to balance tradition with innovation with even greater commitment. We must look carefully at our traditions and talk about their meaning and purpose in our lives. And as we do, we must honor the ideas that change must be slow, not sudden, and must represent a reasonable consensus of concerned members.
I hope and expect that we will embrace this time honored challenge in the year that lies ahead.
P.S. The third game of a series in which each team has won one game called a “rubber match” because the series victory can “bounce” either way. Baseball uniforms have numbers because they were once used to establish the batting order. And second base sometimes called the “keystone sack” because it resembles the keystone that holds an arch together.