What’s the point of observing Judaism?
We must demonstrate that Jewish practice is a means for becoming a better person, living a more meaningful life, and flourishing as a human being; it’s not just as a way of becoming a ‘better Jew’.
It is no secret that we are living in a new age: an age of openness to new ideas, fluidity of borders, unparalleled access to information, multicultural communities, and easy, speedy connectivity. Rabbi Irwin Kula, co-president of a Jewish think-tank called CLAL, with whom I spent several days learning last week, suggests this milieu provides an unprecedented new context for Judaism. He argues that our religion will only survive if it is demonstrated as a means for becoming a better person, living a more meaningful life, and flourishing as a human being.
This concept is shocking to many rabbis, educators, professionals, and philanthropists, who have consistently couched Jewish behavior as a way of “being more Jewish”. In this commonly held view, the purpose of celebrating holidays, eating kosher food, traveling to and supporting Israel, or having a Bar Mitzvah is to feel more Jewish.
However, the trouble is that Jews have already told us they do not need any of those things in order to feel more Jewish. Ninety percent of Jews, across denominational lines and regardless of affiliation-level, say they are proud to be Jewish, despite the fact that the vast majority of those same Jews are not affiliated with any Jewish organization (religious or otherwise). Even more report that they engage in few – if any – behaviors that are recognizably Jewish, aside from a small handful of ritual practices. Jews feel Jewish enough doing whatever it is they are (or are not) doing.
The argument that Jewish practice serves Jewish identity is thus irrelevant for most Jews. After all, why should one give up seafood when he feels perfectly Jewish even at Red Lobster? Not surprisingly, despite the adamant calls for more Jewish behavior as a means of achieving a stronger Jewish identity, levels of Jewish practice have continued to erode even while affirmations of Jewish identity remain consistent.
This bad medicine has had another nasty side effect: it has led people to perceive Jewish practices as being fundamentally meaningless and trivial. If Jewish practice only exists to make one a “better Jew,” and it is not even essential for that, of what value is it?
Fortunately, Rabbi Kula contends, Jewish wisdom and practice was never intended to be a path to becoming “more Jewish”, though, given the right circumstances, it might also achieve that aim. Rather, it was devised to be a path to living more meaningfully and flourishing as a human being. Maimonides made this claim in his Guide of the Perplexed, saying that the whole of the Torah “aims at two things: the welfare of the soul and the welfare of the body” (3:28), and the Torah itself says that its purpose is to help people live in a way that is “wise and discerning” (Deuteronomy 4:6). Jewish wisdom and practice has always promised to make one better, wiser, and more aware. If our goal is to connect people to the Jewish tradition, we must reclaim its true purpose.
The test, though, is not whether one can formulate clever explanations of the merits of Jewish practices and then “sell” them to people. The test is whether one can sell only what truly works. Throughout history many have crafted creative apologetics for the most obtuse of Jewish practices. This might be enough to convince people to try a practice, but unless it truly works in the way advertised, the “customer” will not only abandon that “product”, he will never buy anything from that “brand” again.
Rabbis, educators, and Jewish leaders must resist the temptation to hide broken merchandise in attractive packages, simply because they want to sell the product.
This was the challenge Rabbi Mark Borovitz gave me when I worked at Beit T’Shuvah, a Jewish rehab facility in Los Angeles that he founded. As a “spiritual counselor,” Rabbi Mark pushed me to teach Jewish wisdom and practices as life saving. At the same time, he demanded I do not fake it. Either the Torah I was teaching would help an addict recover, or it was meaningless and obsolete.
Rabbi Mark has dedicated his life to the conviction that Torah can save and change lives; that it can bring people back from the depths of self-destruction and help them discover their purpose. Our time calls for Jewish communal leaders everywhere to take hold of and communicate this conviction, too. But we must not fake it.
In our time, when it is easier to be alive and yet, simultaneously, more confounding to know how to live well, people - Jews and non-Jews – are thirsty for guidance, for wisdom and practices that make their lives better. The Jewish tradition was designed to serve that profound need. Can we deliver?
Michael Knopf is the Assistant Rabbi of Har Zion Temple in Penn Valley, Pennsylvania, and a recent graduate of the Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies in Los Angeles.