Thursday, June 10, 2010

What Does It Mean to be a Jew Today?

What does it mean to be a Jew today? What do Jews bring to the world? These are the questions asked of rabbis in the May/June issue of Moment Magazine. As I read the responses I found myself getting more and more frustrated. Something was bothering me about what the Independent, Humanist, Renewal, Reconstructionist and Reform rabbis had to say. Even the Conservative Rabbi, my parents’ rabbi, Amy Katz, whose essay spoke to me powerfully, left me wanting something. But what?

I realized what was missing when I read the comments of the Modern Orthodox, Sephardi, and Chabad rabbis—God. None of the other rabbis even mentioned God. Or, as in the case of the Reconstructionist rabbi who spoke of Jews as Yisrael, God-Wrestlers, God was reduced to nothing more than “today’s weightiest issues.” That’s what we Jews are about: wrestling with today’s weightiest issues. Its also what the Daily Show is about, and the Daily Show is more fun.

The problem with the liberals is that they offered us no mission, no meaning. The Humanist rabbi said that “being Jewish was about choice and personal discovery.” So is psychotherapy. The Renewal rabbi said, “being Jewish means being ourselves.” That is simply a nonsequitor. The Reform rabbi said, “to be Jewish is about understanding one’s place in the world.” Not even “the Jew’s place,” but simply “one’s place,” my place. Do I need religion for that? The Reconstructionist rabbi said, “we Jews, collectively, share a few things,” but so what? The guys at my gym share a few things too. At least Rabbi Amy wrote about our unique pedagogy rooted in argument and doubt, and embracing inconsistancy and paradox. But this is a means. What is the end? What is the point of being Jewish?

There was nothing in the remarks of the liberal rabbis that would make me want to be a Jew or even remain a Jew. Whereas the Sephardi rabbi spoke compellingly of “proclaiming a message of monotheism, rationality, justice and compassion to the entire world," or, as the Chabad rabbi put it, “A Jew is here for one reason alone: To change the world.”

Talk about tag lines! “Be a Jew. Change the world.” You want to get young Jews engaged in Judaism? You want to attract new people to the tribe? Let that be the mission of American Judaism!

Of course when I think of changing the world I think in terms of liberal democratic changes rooted in universalism, humanism, iconoclasm, feminism, global literacy, and social and ecological justice. But these values are not antithetical to Judaism. Indeed, it would be easy to articulate a Judaism and a body of Jewish practices rooted in these values that would indeed change the world.

Tag lines aside, however, I am too liberal to return to Orthodoxy. But if anyone wants to know why liberal Judaism is fading while Orthodoxy is thriving, just read this month’s Moment.


Michael said...

As a newly ordained Reconstructionist rabbi, I agree with Rami's tone but not his characterization. Unlike me, some of my classmates aren't comfortable talking about God directly. But all of them are clearly and directly able to speak about how Judaism today is about perfecting the world through acts of prayer, study of ancient texts, and social action.
We will do this work with all that are willing tio share the load.

rbarenblat said...

The Renewal rabbi said, “being Jewish means being ourselves.” That is simply a nonsequitor.

It surprises me that the Renewal rabbi didn't say anything about God, since so much of what I love about Jewish Renewal is the emphasis on, or opportunity to have, direct experience of God.

Rabbi Rami said...

I am less a fan of denominations than I am of creativity, and Reconstructionist Judaism used to be so fraking creative. Is it still? I admit to being out of touch. And I am a fan of Rabbi Kaplan's and wonder if the movement he founded would be a movement he would stick with today. It seems so tame. Where is the 21st century version of Kaplan's The Meaning of God book? I really am asking. Michael, fill us in.

Raksha said...

“A Jew is here for one reason alone: To change the world.”

To change the world = to repair the world (tikkun olam). That's the perennial classic, and it's still a good one.

But my current favorite is "The Jews are the conscience of the world." (Hannah Arendt). Except that nobody told me what a PITA it was going to be when I signed up.


Ima said...

I, too, was frustrated by the spiritual vacuum in the article. You have identified the challenge and the paradox, Rami. We have disdain for the coercive practices of Orthodox Judaism, yet when we read an article like this, it's apparent that Orthodox Judaism has the enthusiasm for covenantal relationship with God that we all seem too "cool" to acknowledge or to crave.
Shabbat Shalom and thanks for your provocative insights...Gila

Michael said...

Rami's question about a 21st century theology from the Recon world is pertinent. i have 2 thoughts:

a. I would say that Art Green's theological discourses (Seek My Face & Radical Judaism) are an answer for the mystical-minded recons. (Jay Michaelson's new work, "Everything is God" should also be noted.)

R. Ira Stone's work in Mussar and Levinas seem to fit the bill best for the rationalists. (This group is also represented by the recent works on Buber and Rosensweig.)

In short, recons have split into 2 or more branches of theological discourse.