Tee time for Judaism 1

golf1_distanceGolf, the venerable sport of country clubs, the Masters green jacket, sand pits, birdies, bogeys, Tiger Woods and tradition, is in trouble.

Yes, golf. According to a recent New York Times article, the game has lost 5 million players in the past decade, a number roughly four times the size of the 2012 census for my hometown, Dallas.

That’s a lot of missing players.

Golf’s dwindling popularity isn’t dire — it is still ranked among the United State’s top 10 recreational sports. However, it seems to lack appeal among that large cohort of people we have come to know as millennials. The spawn of the previous largest generation, the boomers, they outnumber their parents. They include a vast and diverse demographic of everyone born from 1980 to 2000 and seem to preoccupy us all.

Millennials steer clear of golf because it is fussy, has a lot of rules, is difficult to master and takes a lot of time. To appeal to this large cohort of non-golfers, several involved in the game have suggested changes to it. These include such things as: increasing the diameter of the hole to 15 inches; revamping the game as a soccer-like sport in which a ball is kicked from place to place before being sunk into a hole; allowing for the ball to be tossed once or twice a game from a sand pit; and thinking of the game in rounds of six or nine holes, rather than the traditional 18.

Those who are urging change say they want to grow the number of players and see the path to doing so as one that involves liberalizing the rules. Opponents see them as playing fast and loose with tradition, creating something that no longer looks like golf, and maybe no longer is.

The Times quotes Thomas J. O’Toole Jr., the president of the United States Golf Association as saying: “We think the charm of the game is a single set of rules.”

If memory serves me correctly, the last time I picked up a golf club was at a bar mitzvah party. I’m pretty sure the golf ball glowed electric pink in the dark and that I held a beer in one hand while trying to negotiate hitting the ball through a tunnel while a windmill’s blades whipped by, periodically obscuring the entrance. So a serious, traditionalist golfer I am not.

Nonetheless, this article fascinated me because if you went through it and substituted the words “Judaism” and “Jew” for “golf” and “golfer,” respectively, the article still made a frightening amount of sense. The chatter sounded like every conversation ongoing in the Jewish communal world right now.

“We’ve got to stop scaring people away from golf by telling them that there is only one way to play the game and it includes specific guidelines,” the Times quotes Ted Bishop, president of the P.G.A. of America as saying.

Tell the truth. I’ll bet someone at your synagogue’s strategic planning meeting said something that sounded awfully similar. “We’ve got to stop scaring people away from Judaism by telling them that there is only one way to be Jewish and that it’s all about rules.”

Sound familiar?

Sports have always made a good metaphor for religious life. It involves teamwork, strong leaders and understanding how those two things work hand in hand with the rules of the game. Judaism needs all those things: leaders, adherents and face it, if you want to stand for something, even if we’re not to fond of them, a set of rules or, if you prefer, values to guide you.

In the post-Pew world, every Jewish communal organization is grappling with the same key questions: How do you balance your tradition against appealing to the modern sensibilities of those who find less and less relevance in it? At what point do you end up with something totally different, and if you do, is it still Judaism?

I’m involved in both my synagogue and my JCC and even when we are not talking about this topic directly, it is one that hovers, gauzy and ghost-like, over every other one taking place in the room. How Jewish should we be? How do we welcome interfaith families since there are more of them than there are not? At what point are we no longer a Jewish institution and does that matter?

At my synagogue this means grappling with what it means to be a Conservative Jew in a world where most who affiliate with the movement no longer adhere to the practice it espouses. Conservative Judaism, once the largest movement in America, appealed to a first generation born here. It hewed in word to tradition and maintained a sense of ritual practice and halacha, without being too mindful about how anyone was actually observing. The discrepancy between those core values and core practice, however, is so wide now, that the appeal it once had is quickly diminishing.

The JCC is less rigidly Jewish, focused not on practice, but on cultural and educational offerings and incorporating Jewish values into a variety of programs from early childhood to fitness and beyond. Some people would like to see less “J” in the J while others belong to it because it is Jewish.

At the JCC Association’s Biennial, the organization released its new brand, hoping that JCCs across America will adopt it as it rolls out in the coming months. The logo is a simple J, fitting neatly into the letter-identification of our iWorld, eUniverse. What that J means, however, is left undefined.

It is up to you, or maybe that’s U, to define it. What the organization did find in developing the brand, consistent with Pew, is that you don’t have to hide that J and in fact, you can market it, to both Jews and non-Jews alike as standing for quality and excellence.

But in the ongoing daily worry about what it means to be Jewish in the 21st century, I hear fear that the J will become so dilute that you won’t be able to tell it from an “i” or an “l”. That it might one day, sooner than later, maybe even for our grandchildren, be something altogether unrecognizable, like a letter in Sanskrit.

How we continue to shape and define Judaism is really what’s at issue here. Like golf, we act as if the Judaism we have today is the same one that’s always been, with no room for change. But golf, which can trace itself back to the Middle Ages, wasn’t always played with hard white balls and fancy titanium clubs on pristine rolling greens of suburban escapism.

During the time when the Temple stood in Jerusalem, the holiday of Pesach was one of pilgrimage. We trekked, with a young lamb for sacrifice to that holy city, where the priest sacrificed the lamb and sprayed the blood on the altar. We then roasted the remains for a festive meal.

After the destruction of the Temple in 70 CE, there was no way to continue this practice. For a while, some Jews continued sacrificing at home. Many rabbis were opposed to this, and eventually threatened excommunication to those who continued to do it. Within a few generations, something that had been a defining act of the Jewish people had dissolved into history, part of the arcana discussed in a contemporary haggadah.

As this Pesach comes to an end, consider the ways your own Judaism has changed and evolved. I grew up in the Reform movement and had a bat mitzvah where I read from the Torah on a Saturday morning. Many of the women I know today who grew up in the Conservative movement did not do the same, and if they had a bat mitzvah at all, it looked very different than mine. These took   place on Friday night and involved reading a haftarah, something that is otherwise never done at this time in the course of a regular evening service. And today? Even many Orthodox girls have some sort of  coming-of-age ceremony that involves Torah learning. So change happens, and maybe not all that slowly.

Right now we are caught in a time of rapid technological innovation that has bred vast social change  working its way through a distracted, uncommitted generation. Judaism is going to have to work its way through what it means to play golf, so to speak. Is it a game of rules, unbending? Or is it adaptive, maybe not looking very much like the Temple Mount sacrifices, but aware that they once took place?

What you don’t want to be is how Bishop, the P.G.A. of American president described things: “I went to a golf club’s 125th anniversary dinner not long ago, and the overwhelming majority of the people in the room were over 55. We should be asking, ‘On that club’s 150th anniversary, who’s going to attend.”

Chag sameach. Enjoy the rest of Passover.

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One thought on “Tee time for Judaism

  • Debbie

    Thank you for raising awareness. What a great analogy.We have survived as a people by not compromising the “rules” and by understanding how, through belief and practice, they and our lives intertwine. It has always been my thought that changing or “dumbing down” Judaism to fit whatever mold someone thinks will appeal to a generation is not the answer. My thought is to work on how to teach the relevance of Judaism (golf) to each generation. How do we help them relate their lives to their religion and vice versa? As you so aptly pointed out, changing the rules so much that the game is no longer the same, has not seemed to save the game.

    It is interesting to note that Orthodoxy is growing – and continues to follow the “rules”.

    Thank you for sharing your thoughts through articles that are thoughtful and well-written. It is always a pleasure to read your writing.