Maya Angelou speaks during a ceremony to honor South African Archbishop Emeritus Desmond Tutu in Was
Maya Angelou speaks during a ceremony to honor South African Archbishop Emeritus Desmond Tutu in Washington, November 21, 2008. Photo by Reuters
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“People will forget what you said.

People will forget what you did.

But people will never forget how you made them feel.” – Maya Angelou (1928 – 2014)

To me, this beautiful quote from the now late, great Maya Angelou, encapsulates so much of the tension in Orthodox Judaism today. Generally, people in my community are either baffled by any dissatisfaction with Orthodox Judaism or they are convinced they have an intellectual response that can fix the problem. There is a tendency to believe that if we say the right thing or if we do the right thing everyone will be content. Or that even if individuals are unhappy or uncomfortable, it doesn’t matter - if we did the right thing and they are still disgruntled – it’s their problem. It’s a philosophy that assumes that there are objective responses to subjective circumstances and that we can preselect the experience of community members by providing a particular group of words or ideas.

But that isn’t true. Two people can have the same experience but feel completely different. There is no objective version of Orthodox Judaism. Despite our best intentions and our greatest efforts, the correct answers or even our sincerity don’t really determine the fate of everyone’s commitment to Orthodox Judaism. The thing that makes or breaks Orthodox Jewish continuity, in my opinion, is “how we made them feel.”

This is what Maya Angelou taught us in the quote above. Our memories are selective and some things stick for longer and dig deeper than others. Words and actions can make an impression on us, but they are not the thing that make the strongest impression on us. The way we feel matters most. If some of us do not feel safe, comfortable, and joyful within the context of Orthodox Judaism, those feelings matter more than any intellectual or ritual attachment we have to our traditions. It’s that simple.

The most important thing we can do for the future of Orthodox Judaism is not to be able to untangle the Gordian knots of Talmudic reasoning or be incredibly diligent about halachic observance. Let’s assume that’s being done already. But that’s simply – as the poem says – what we say and what we do. Certainly, that’s extremely important: saying the wrong thing or doing the wrong thing is harmful.

But the thing that matters more is the way the things we say or do make others feel. If their feelings are negative and fearful, then that is what they will remember. Our words and actions will drown in the sea of negative emotions. The most important thing we can do is make sure that when people remember “how we made them feel” they are remembering the positive feeling they had.

Therefore, our concern should be to create positive Jewish experiences and also acknowledge and relieve the pain of negative experiences. How we feel matters even if everything was done “right.” Being right does not determine how another person will feel. We need to be conscious of those feelings irrespective of saying or doing what is right. Conversely, we can manufacture good experiences and emphasize the importance of positive feelings towards our Jewish experience. That is the thing that people remember. Let’s make sure our community remembers that Orthodox Judaism should feel good and let’s make an effort to cultivate those positive experiences so that our community remembers the feelings. And they will remember what Maya Angelou teaches us what lasts the longest – how we made them feel.