Why do Jewish?

Can Orthodox Jews learn something fundamental from unaffiliated Jews? That is, can Jews who practice Torah rituals learn something from Jews who practice virtually none? This question was on my mind recently as I attended two events representing the polar opposites of Jewish life.

The first was the annual West Coast convention of the Orthodox Union, where the theme this year was “Keeping Our Values for the Next Generation.” I attended several of the events and moderated a closing panel on “Values for Our Future.” While the overall theme was values, the underlying mission of the convention was how to strengthen the Orthodox movement, and, in particular, how to keep the next generation from straying from the Modern Orthodox derech (path).

In the same way that the broader community constantly talks about “Jewish continuity,” the Orthodox community is also very busy these days with “Orthodox continuity.”

This idea of Jewish continuity played a big part of the second event I attended,  “Funding Your Passions: A Breakfast With Harold Grinspoon.” Grinspoon, a renowned philanthropist, talked about many things, but one subject in particular put a twinkle in his eyes: The PJ Library, a 5-year-old initiative that has already distributed more than 2 million children’s books to thousands of Jewish families across North America. For many of these families, who are unaffiliated, these colorful and engaging bedtime books have become their major connection to the Jewish tradition and their entrance to the Jewish community.

What I found remarkable about the books is that while they are fun to read, they don’t dumb down Judaism. One of my favorites is “The Only One Club,” a charming and intelligent primer on one of the philosophical dilemmas of modern Jewish life — how to balance the particularity of the Jewish tradition with the universality of humanism.

It is books like “The Only One Club” that made me think of how programs for unaffiliated Jews might help programs for Orthodox Jews. The Orthodox community spends a lot of time on the who, what, where, when and how of Jewish rituals, but not as much, it seems to me, on the “why.” We study Torah commandments from all angles, but rarely will we ask: “Why should I do this in the first place?”

“Because God and our Sages said so” and “because our ancestors did so” are easy and powerful answers, but they are not the only ones. For the Orthodox community to thrive, it will need to open up to the kind of “why” questions outreach groups like the PJ Library routinely ask: “Why is Judaism good for me? Why do I need it? Why is it meaningful?”

These are not the kinds of questions my grandparents asked in their cozy Orthodox neighborhoods of Casablanca, but they are questions that are sneaking up on the Orthodox world and in our Modern Orthodox shtetls like Pico-Robertson.

While outreach to the unaffiliated deals more with identity — “Why be Jewish?” —outreach to the Orthodox must deal more with activity — “Why do Jewish?” Both questions are fundamental. They both ’fess up to the reality that in today’s world of nonstop distractions, we can’t assume that Judaism of any denomination will simply sell itself.

The good news is that if we use our imaginations, we can come up with great answers. One answer I give to my kids for “Why do Jewish?” is that a mitzvah is not something that boxes you in, but rather, a gift box from God.

Open the mitzvah box and create your own personal meaning. For example, kissing the mezuzah reminds me to show love to my friends and family. Separating meat from milk reminds me to separate work from play. Making a blessing on food reminds me to show gratitude and help the hungry and less fortunate. Putting on tefillin reminds me that God is a filter between me and negative forces. Lighting Shabbat candles reminds me that I must aspire to be a shining candle in the world.

At Passover time, cleaning out the chametz from my house reminds me not to meddle with my neighbor’s chametz; in other words, not to do lashon harah. The possibilities are endless.

Every mitzvah is a gift box of personal meaning. The real gift we get when we do the mitzvah is that we start to own it. It becomes ours, not only God’s. There’s nothing like a sense of personal ownership to deepen your attachment.

This is what I learned from a program like PJ Library that is geared to non-Orthodox and unaffiliated Jews. It’s always a good idea to start at the beginning and ask, “why?” It’s a question that works for everyone — either as an entry door for the beginner or as a source of personal renewal for the observant. It’s the kind of no-nonsense approach that can only bring out the best in us.

Jewish leaders of all denominations shouldn’t be afraid to “sell” Judaism. Even an Orthodox convention can permit itself to show how Torah rituals can help make Jews better and happier people.

Seriously. If Coke Zero can sell happiness and a bank can sell meaning of life, so can we. 

David Suissa is the founder of OLAM magazine and OLAM.org. You can read his daily blog at suissablog.com and e-mail him at {encode=”suissa@olam.org” title=”suissa@olam.org”}.