The Jewish community is obsessed with statistics, and continuously talks of the relationship between numbers and "Jewish continuity." Demographics is our primary source of worry. This is not shocking, nor surprising, given our painful history and our tiny numbers. We have faced genocide and mass exile over and over again throughout our history, which has been plagued with external and internal threats - often so devastating and painful that they are beyond imagination. As a result, we struggle with questions of demographics and of statistics, and worry about the amorphous term, “Jewish continuity”.
Our institutions and donors spend inordinate amounts of money on studies and analyses of rates of intermarriage, affiliation and denominational decline. Rabbis like me are trained nearly from the first day of rabbinical school to worry, to literally stay up late with board members and other leaders, to convene conferences and address the crisis of the numbers in the Jewish community. We define our success on our ability to address the concerns of “Jewish continuity”. The time has come to change this discussion, to stop the path we have taken and to re-imagine what we should be staying up late worrying about. There is a fundamental problem with these questions, these studies, the time and energy we expend as a community and as leaders on these issues. They are simply not the right ones, perhaps they never were. They do not address what the Jewish community and Jewish leadership should be worried about, should be asking ourselves and with which we should be concerned.
The question we should be asking is does the Judaism we teach, that which we share in the boundaries of our institutions, our schools and synagogues and in the boundary-less public discourse, reach out to people and allow them to flourish? Does the Judaism of our hearts and souls reach out to people in times of need to create moments of deep and profound meaning? Maimonides in his Guide to the Perplexed writes, “the law as a whole aims at two things: the welfare of the soul and the welfare of the body” (Guide to the Perplexed 3:27). In simple and clear terms Rambam articulates the primary concern that should keep the Jewish community up at night – are we re-envisioning a Judaism in the 21st century that liberates the essential power of Jewish wisdom? Does our “law”, our Torah, the wisdom we share, care for the welfare of the souls and bodies of our communities? Do our communities, do people around the world - Jewish and non-Jews - know Judaism has the power to help them flourish, to allow them, in the words of CLAL President Rabbi Irwin Kula, “become more deeply human”?
Life today, by all accounts, is a challenge. We face unprecedented struggles in economic disparity, in educational poverty, and people face weighty questions as they watch their marriages disintegrate, their children struggle with addiction and they seek something more, they are looking for meaning. They are looking for something to help them face these challenges and rise to new heights and depths in their relationships, in their growth as human beings. The wisdom of Judaism can guide people on their journeys to answer these life’s fundamental questions. It can offer them tremendous hope for a life that is not only filled with joy but one filled with compassion, love, awareness of a world in need of healing, a life of creativity and growth.
Torah as viewed by Maimonides, and so many others, as fundamentally concerned with the flourishing of the human spirit, mind and heart. If these were our concerns, if we convened studies about the efficacy of sharing Jewish wisdom, we would liberate tremendous power to help people. Judaism could be a “technology” that helps Jewish people to thrive.
Though it might sound fatalistic, if our Jewish leadership and institutions do not stop obsessing over demographics and statistics, we will lose the true fight. Judaism will lose its wisdom, its value and its meaning. We must, as a community, dedicate our resources, time, money, leadership and energy to being the voice for the powerful messages Judaism can bring to the world, and to Jewish community; message of love and responsibility, of hope and possibility, of compassion and commitment.
Judaism can offer people a blueprint, it can be a guide to facing life’s greatest triumphs and challenges, but only if we allow it to. It is our job as leaders to radically take back the conversation, to stop obsessing over affiliation rates and intermarriage statistics and start focusing on what we know best: the nooks and crevices of Jewish wisdom. Let us open the floodgates of Jewish wisdom so it can flourish in the hearts, minds and lives of people all around the world.
Elianna Yolkut is a Conservative Rabbi teaching Torah and celebrating Judaism in New York City. You can reach her at www.rabbielianna.com .
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