A Return to Tradition

A new interest in old ways takes root in Catholicism and many other faiths

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Celebrating the Latin mass at St. Mary, Mother of God in Washington.

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So in Weiss's synagogue, you will see things that push the limits of orthodoxy to encourage a more open and accepting community. There is the traditional divide (mehitza) between women's and men's sections, for example, but it is a low one that runs down the middle of the central worship space, rather than a high mehitza that sequesters women in the back or on the sides. Opposing many less flexible Orthodox scholars, Weiss argues that it is correct within Jewish law for all congregants to touch the Torah and for women to lead their own prayer groups—practices that he allows. Most important, while he wants congregants to follow as much of the Halakha as they can, he opens the door to all Jews and indeed all people who want to explore the path of Orthodox Judaism.

The success of his approach, including his encouragement of participatory leadership, can be seen not just in Riverdale but in the synagogues led by his associates and former students. When Rabbi Shmuel Herzfeld, once an assistant rabbi at Riverdale, took over Ohev Sholom almost four years ago, the northwest Washington, D.C., synagogue had dwindled to about 15 families. Today, with some 300 families (and bearing the additional name "the National Synagogue"), it buzzes with energy and enthusiastic congregants. "Most come from nonspecific affiliations," says Herzfeld. "They find authentic spiritual life and tradition. Some make the full, radical transformation into the Orthodox life. Some even sell their homes and move so they can walk to shul on the Sabbath." Jill Sacks and her husband, Tom, formerly members of a Conservative synagogue who lived in Bethesda, Md., for 26 years, are one couple who moved to be closer to Ohev Sholom. They were drawn by Herzfeld's self-deflecting but charismatic leadership, the traditionalism, the vibrant community, and the commitment to social outreach. Sacks's former synagogue was a very egalitarian one, she says, and she read the Torah and the haftarah there. "I had that option," Sacks says, "but I am very happy with this synagogue."

The appeal of traditionalism across all Jewish formations—including the some 80 independent minyanim that researchers have identified in the United States and Canada—has some scholars wondering whether the biggest middle-ground formation, Conservatism, may not soon be absorbed by a Reform denomination that is more orthodox and an Orthodox denomination that is more accommodating. A new regard for tradition may be rearranging Judaism's organizational landscape.

In all corners of Judaism, as in all parts of Christianity, traditions are being adapted in strangely innovative ways. Ari Y. Kelman, a professor of American studies at the University of California-Davis, describes what he finds at the Mission Minyan in San Francisco, a group of about 100 mostly youngish Jewish adults who convene for davening (praying) at the Women's Building in the artsy Mission District. "The service is traditional," he says, "from the right end of Conservatism and the left end of Orthodox. It's all in Hebrew, with no instruments or instructions on when to sit or stand. Most of it's mixed seating, but there's also a separate men's section and a separate women's section—a sort of tri-hitza. Women lead the first part of the service, which is not officially prayer, and men lead the second part."

Limits and openness: Welcome to the new, and sometimes bewildering, world of religious traditionalism.