Building new rituals on the shoulders of tradition

Judaism has survived through the ages because of its Torah. Not just the written scroll, which remains immutable, but Torah in the sense of a living moral and spiritual guide that is constantly being reinterpreted. As the Sages said, turn it and turn it again, for everything is within it.

This week, J. features two examples of how the ever-creative Bay Area Jewish community is creating new Jewish practices that are deeply rooted in our sacred tradition yet speak to contemporary reality.

Our cover story describes how Mussar, the 19th-century practice of improving positive character traits through the study of Jewish texts, is being looked to by liberal Jewish communities as a path to ethical behavior and spiritual nourishment in the 21st century.

Long a part of study in non-Hassidic Orthodox yeshivas, Mussar programs are increasingly cropping up in non-Orthodox Bay Area synagogues, JCCs, Jewish day schools and Hillels. Some adherents are adding new elements to the practice, including meditation and other contemporary mindfulness exercises. But they do so while respecting the tradition.

Elsewhere in our pages, we tell the story of a remarkable ceremony that took place earlier this month at Tehiyah Day School in El Cerrito, where a 13-year-old student came out to his peers and teachers as a transgender boy.

While that could have taken place quietly, in face-to-face conversations behind closed doors, this student and his family worked together with the school and its rabbi, Tsipi Gabai, to create a public Jewish ceremony that would not only announce Tom’s decision, but invest it with the beauty and holiness of Jewish ritual. Because no such ritual exists in Judaism, however, Rabbi Gabai — in a time-honored practice — looked to traditional sources, including ritual blessings, the Talmud and tales of the Baal Shem Tov, and created a new ritual welcoming a transgendered person into the Jewish community.

We applaud the Sosnik family and the entire Tehiyah community for their openness as well as their commitment to Jewish tradition. And we applaud the increasing number of Jewish institutions who are incorporating the study of Mussar into their regimens.

It is initiatives such as these that ensure real Jewish continuity.