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To preserve their traditions, religions must modernise

Rabbi Dr Jonathan Romain of Maidenhead Synagogue wrote in The Times on the need for relgions to modernise.


It is astonishing how often it is wrongly assumed that religion is one of the most conservative elements within society. The thinking goes that authority is invested in an immutable text and is transmitted by a hierarchy wedded to the past.

Yet if Moses were to enter a synagogue or Jewish home today, he would hardly recognise what was going on because so many rites and practices have developed since his time. No doubt the same could be said if Jesus were to visit a church.

Although priests, rabbis and imams often see themselves as the guardians of tradition, in reality they have had an uncanny ability to allow sufficient change to prevent the original structure from ossifying, yet maintain the image of unbroken continuity.

This can be seen not just in modern innovations such as women ministers or gay marriages, but long ago, from praying in the vernacular to developing the concept of worker priests.

Sometimes, however, the change has been prompted as much by those in the pews as by those in the pulpit. This has been particularly noticeable in the remarkable changes to the Jewish calendar, whose new year starts tomorrow. In recent times nearly every festival has been invested with a new meaning.

The historic one remains intact, but a new aspect has been added alongside it that resonates more with the present climate. This has not been the result of any rabbinic enclave, nor a systematic review by the laity, but it has happened spontaneously.

One example is Sukkot/the Feast of Tabernacles, which also occurs in September. It is officially about the Israelites living in temporary accommodation during their 40 years in the wilderness. However important that period may have been, it is the far-off past, with very little connection to the present.

Over the past two decades the festival has been revamped by synagogues throughout the country and turned into an opportunity to think about those who are without a roof over their head today: the homeless and modern wanderers. This in turn has led to food being brought to services, which is then taken to the local food bank, while in many communities it has led them to run weekly lunches for the homeless.

The ancient Israelites have not been forgotten, but remembering them has impelled Jews today to be proactive on behalf of the contemporary equivalents.

Another instance is Hanukkah/the Feast of Dedication in December. It is still about the Maccabees and their struggle to maintain religious freedom, but the festival has been transformed from an internal Jewish celebration to a showpiece to the wider world:

Hanukkah candelabra lighting ceremonies now take place at Downing Street with the prime minister. There is also a public lighting in Trafalgar Square in central London, and similarly in other regional centres.
It has become the festival by which we share Jewish values and how we tell the rest of the world about our carefully honed balancing act: standing up for our identity, yet also being part of wider society.

Tu B’Shvat/the New Year for Trees, crucial in the 5th century, lost much of its relevance for a largely non-agricultural community. However, it has been given a modern update by being turned into the Jewish “green festival”.

Based on the command in the Bible not to cut down fruit-bearing trees, but to protect the land for the generations to come, it preaches environmental awareness and our role as stewards, not owners, of the Earth. It is all very David Attenborough, but rooted in Jewish tradition.

Meanwhile, Rosh Hodesh, which marks the appearance of a new Hebrew month, has been rescued from almost total obscurity. Almost no one kept it, until it was remembered that traditionally women did not work that day.

It has since become a women’s festival, with women-only study groups, where they learn together, share experiences and help to empower female involvement in synagogue life.

These modernisations, inspired by a popular desire for relevance, demonstrate how the festivals can be preserved and rebranded, so as keep an ancient faith as fresh as possible.

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