January 19, 2020

Why Be Jewish?

What is the nature of the struggle for Jewish continuity? What is it that the Jewish community is trying to sustain, and why should we bother?

Part of the difficulty, part of what I think has gotten us to this place, is the radical transformation of who is part of the Jewish community and what causes people to join with us, linking themselves as Jews. The old model, by which communities of Jews organized a century ago, was an ethnic model; people who came from other countries; people who grew up with Judaism in their kishkes; people whose childhood was often very traditional, and who happily left that tradition when they came to the new place in which, ambivalently, they wanted to establish (and flee from) a Jewish identity. On the one hand, there were the secular defense agencies (the committees, congresses and leagues), and federation agencies claiming to speak for the Jewish world. These agencies had a coherent vision of what Jewish involvement meant.

Then there was a distinct cluster of Jewish organizations devoted to the miraculous rebirth of the Jewish people in our homeland, in the State of Israel. And so there were people for whom their primary connection to Jewish identity and Jewishness was the effort to reestablish a Jewish nation in a particular place. And that Zionist enterprise also enjoyed a panoply of organizations (Hadassah, ORT and the World Zionist Organization, to name a few), and had its own calendar of events (such as Tu B’Shevat, Yom HaShoah and Yom HaAtzmaut) culminating in supreme effort of helping someone else’s child to make aliyah.

Finally, there were the holdovers: those of us who were connected to Jewishness primarily through the synagogues and denominations. The foundation of this Jewish life was the study of Torah and holy books, doing mitzvot, observing the holy days, Sabbaths and festivals.

Those three groups operated among the same people with varying degrees of cooperation, overlap and some competition (for financial support, energy, and definitions of what constitutes Jewish success). These three primary views of Jewish life, three streams of organizations, reflected some degree of tension about what it meant to be a Jewish community, who gets to speak on behalf of the Jewish community, and who gets to decide what the priorities of the Jewish community ought to be.

There is actually considerable yichus to this model of Jewish life. Back in the old, old days (by which I mean the days of the Talmud, some 1,500 years ago) there were two primary perspectives competing for Jewish hearts and minds in Babylonia. The first was the office of the reish galuta, the political head of the Jewish community. The non-Jewish government appointed the reish galuta, and he was authorized to raise taxes, which corresponds today to the work of federations. Outside of this structure were the great talmudic academies of Sura and Pumbeditha, responsible for rabbinic learning and ordination. In late antiquity, these two worlds were generally distinct (and happy to remain separate) but for one powerful complication: the reish galuta got to pick which rabbis got hired, which meant the rabbis were somewhat dependent on the reish galuta, and the rabbis got to vote on who got to be the reish galuta. Sounds a lot like the contemporary community, doesn’t it? We have actually recreated this wonderful and hallowed model in which our leaders live together, even when they don’t really want to live together. But, that model isn’t working as well as it might, for a few reasons.

The simplest reason is the changing nature of Jewish memory. Your children and grandchildren probably haven’t grown up with the smell of bubbie’s challah permeating the house every Friday afternoon. They don’t have the Jewish neighborhood store that they walked past each day. When I was a congregational rabbi, the children with whom I taught and learned were much more at home in American civilization than they were in Jewish civilization. They knew American literature, not Jewish literature; they lived American holidays and studied the Jewish ones, which they did not particularly observe.

The challenge facing us is that this old model was based on ethnic Jews who were steeped in traditions they then left, attempting to establish life in a culture that was alien and often hostile to them. That reality no longer describes us. We are the people who know the second stanza to "God Bless America," or "My Country ‘Tis of Thee." The old bifurcation doesn’t address this new reality.

A second difference between the worlds of the secular/Zionist/religious divides and our own, is that the people who are rising in the Jewish community today don’t remember the Holocaust or the establishment of the State of Israel. They don’t have personal memories of the decimation of the largest Jewish communities of the world, the oldest centers, the place where we looked for leadership, all of a sudden gone. The old model doesn’t address this new political reality.

Finally, the hard work of the earlier generations have put today’s Jewish community in the luxurious position of being able to attend to needs of the heart and the spirit. Our bellies are fed, by and large. Our institutions are built, and our security isn’t a matter of daily need. What does God want of me? How can I maintain the link for the next generation?

For these new/old questions we need a new model for continuity. What’s the purpose of investing this huge effort, other than getting to hang out with wonderful people? Why should we make this stupendous effort? The way the organized Jewish world pitches renaissance and renewal is that we need to have continuity. But nobody ever tells us what continuity means. The real question is — continuity for what? What does Judaism offer that merits renewal?

There is a hiyuv (obligation) to Jewish life, but it can only be perceived after a Jew has already become adept at walking the walk. Jewish obligation and responsibility are the harvest of Jewish involvement and belonging, but they are not attractions for the uninitiated or the ambivalent. There are three basic human needs all people share, and Judaism can meet those needs for today’s questioning souls.

The first fundamental human need is the need for connection. All of us recognize ourselves as somehow finite, as struggling against an isolation that life imposes upon us as an intrinsic part of the human condition. Even in a roomful of people, the thoughts inside your head are known ultimately only to you. Interestingly, there is a blessing recited traditionally upon seeing a crowd of a large number of Jews. "Praised are you, Lord our God, Majesty of space/time, the Knower of secrets." Each individual constitutes a hidden universe. Because we are each an unfathomable cosmos, we are always seeking ways to transcend our own limitations.

In college, I went to a traditional minyan for the first time, and discovered people donning tefillin, (the leather prayer boxes containing the words of the "Shema"). Returning home, I shared this experience with my grandmother, who went to her closet and emerged with her father’s set of tefillin. Two months ago, I kashered those tefillin, and now feel a connection to those generations of observant Jews in my family spanning the millennia. For someone seeking a connection that links one generation to another, one needs look no farther than Judaism.

The second fundamental human need is for context, a need for meaning, a larger narrative in which our own personal story makes sense. As a congregational rabbi, I used to meet with bar and bat mitzvah children to discuss the meaning of their Haftorah readings. The message was often the same: Jerusalem is going up in smoke, they (pick the "they" of your choice: the Assyrians, the Babylonians, the Neo-Chaldeans, somebody) have just destroyed Jerusalem, are incinerating the Temple, the Jews are exiled, and as we’re being marched out into exile, the home of our God destroyed, the Eternal City gone, the Davidic monarch, who was to rule forever, no longer on the throne … some nudnik stands by the side of the road saying, "So long as you stay connected to Judaism, there will always be Jews. Someday there will not be an Assyrian, Neo-Chaldean or Babylonian empire; but there will be a Jewish people." Ridiculous! And yet, here’s the miracle: 2,000-3,000 years later, in places that had no Jews, in places that Jews didn’t even know existed, those ancient words speak directly to 12- and 13-year-olds.

If I were to announce that we have discovered a group of ancient Canaanites — a pocket of Girgashites, a few Hivites, some Hittites and a couple of Jebusites, just to make it interesting — and every week they gather and they read the ancient Canaanite literature, using the ancient Canaanite language, celebrating their ancient Canaanite holidays and talking to their old Canaanite deities, you know that CNN and The New York Times and every major network would be flying in to see this incredible thing. The kicker is that there is a little old Canaanite nation that still reads the ancient scrolls in the old language and continues to converse with the old God. We are that ancient, persistent people, and that’s a context in which to live a full, rich life.

Finally, the third fundamental human need is the need for compassion, the need to give and to receive love. Recently, I read of a scientific study that I find both fascinating and shameful. They have found that if you bring puppies and kittens into old-age homes, the residents of those homes will live longer and better. That’s fascinating for what it says about the need to be loved and to love (it’s shameful because we shouldn’t be schlepping in dogs and cats to take care of the people that took care of us). For these researchers, this may be a new discovery, but I have a Jewish confirmation for this assertion: we are told in the Torah that God made the world as an act of love. God didn’t need us; God doesn’t need anything. This is a God who has everything. And this God made the world simply as a way to be able to give love to someone else. And we — we are made in God’s image. That’s why humans shrivel up in their souls if they can’t take care of someone else, if they can’t show affection to someone else. The divine image within is one that compels us to share and receive love. All people have that need. Rising for the elderly; honoring parents; feeding the hungry; housing the homeless … the list of the mitzvot that embody love are legion.

Our seeking people need what Judaism possesses. What continuity is really about, is an invitation to people to return to their truest selves and their highest nature, to allow them to come home to who they are meant to be. In that coming home, we discover that there are soulmates, both in the same place and time in which we live, and throughout the ages. The great wonder of being Jewish is that none of us are alone.