Jews, like all people, are searching for meaning, substance and connection. The more we are inundated with e-mails, status updates and tweets, the more we want to go deeper. Our souls are calling out for engagement; our hearts are crying out to be opened.
Judaism, at its core, is a response to that yearning, an answer to that call. What are we “continuing” with our calls for “continuity”? Why does Judaism need a future? Because Judaism offers a system, a covenantal language, a heritage and tradition that responds to the human need for meaning, substance and connection. It is our system, our language, our heritage; it is relevant, and that is the reason that we need a Jewish future.
We Jews have a word for the pathway to meaning, substance and connection. It is called Torah. I don’t just mean the Torah scroll that sits alone in the ark, or even just the words of the five books of Moses. I mean the sum total of Jewish sources and texts — the wisdom stored up in our textual heritage.
Truth be told, not the biggest hiddush (original insight) but seriously brave considering the original audience. The Federation pretty much wrote the book of Jewish continuity for continuity’s sake. I was, however, especially happy to read this article after an experience this last Friday night which speaks loudly toward what Kaunfer is getting at.
I am the rabbi of a very small synagogue in a small town in a place where most people believe Jews have never stepped foot (fact is, though, we’ve been here since the 1840s). I would estimate that the average age of my congregation is over 65. One of the programs I’m working on is a drive to get people hosting shabbos dinners and learning how to make the appropriate blessings and whatnot. So, to kick off this program, we started it with a shabbos dinner at shul. a substantial percentage of my active members came. after dinner, I was sitting with an older couple, twenty years over the average, and it came time to bensch (say the blessing after meals). I asked a member of the community to lead the blessings, I mumbled brakhah aharona to myself and then said amen to the necessary blessings the community was reciting. After we finished, this couple leaned over and were very concerned as to why I wasn’t bensching. I explained that since I am allergic to gluten I, for better or worse, never get to say ha’motzi (the blessings before eating bread) and therefore I do not say birkat ha’mazon, rather I say different blessings before and after depending on the foods. They looked at me like I was crazy. I elaborated a little more the halakhic principles behind the reasoning and the husband of the couple looked at me and said, “They didn’t teach us that at camp.” His wife repeated, “no, they did not teach us that at camp.” Now, were it not for these two people experiencing camp, they would never have been married and never have brought beautiful children into the world who themselves brought beautiful children into the world — all Jewish by blood — and they may not be at shul every Monday and Saturday morning without fail. And that’s all grand.
But here’s the thing, and the example of bensching is just that, an example. It is indicative of one of the great failures of “cultural Judaism.” Three, maybe four generations of American Jews have been seriously deprived of real substantial Jewish learning. Jewish experiences like camp or birthright are great, but as Kaunfer points out:
So often we sideline Torah in the culture of the organized Jewish community. It takes the form of a pithy quote at the top of a website; an icon on our iPad; a glazed d’var Torah at the beginning of a board meeting. It’s what we pay lip service to before we really get down to business. But real Torah is so much deeper.
Torah has the power to draw us into the conversation, and to push us to think more deeply about ourselves and our struggles. Torah gives us a language for clarifying our own life’s mission, and an entryway to express our deepest values.
It seems to me that depending on the affiliation and different factors in community, class, geography, etc., there have been two main focuses in mainstream Jewish institutional efforts — increased continuity and/or increased observance. It hasn’t worked — unless the goal was to disenfranchise most Jews…
I think that Kaunfer is one example of many leaders in the Jewish community today who have recognized that neither continuity nor observance is going to bring unaffiliated Jews “in the door”, and the only thing that will is relevance.