by Daniel S. Horwitz
For the early classical Reform Jews who settled in this country, the broad assimilation (71% intermarriage rate amongst non-Orthodox Jews) reflected in the recently released Pew survey data would be seen as amazing. “You mean the non-Jews are marrying us willingly, and people are referring to Judeo-Christian values? What a success! We’ve finally made it!”
The Pew data is truly fascinating. While it should come as no surprise that due to historically high rates of intermarriage there are now more individuals who identify as Jewish in some way (think about it – there are now that many more households containing a Jewish person), the more telling data makes it clear that “identity” doesn’t inherently link to practice or active involvement as part of the Jewish community (the fact that over 30% of those surveyed indicated they felt that being Jewish and believing in Jesus are not mutually exclusive in their minds is particularly indicative of this point).
The big issue in my mind is that outside of a construct of commandedness (an area where the overwhelming majority of American Jews reside), we in the liberal Jewish community have failed to meaningfully express an appropriate answer to that most fundamental of questions: “Why be Jewish?”
When we say that we want people to be Jewish, what do we really mean?
Why is it so important to us to continue existing as a nation / faith / culture?
In liberal Judaism today, one of the favorite answers is “Tikkun Olam” – “repairing the world.” But the answer can’t simply be Tikkun Olam. Many faiths hold “repairing the world” – often viewed through a social justice and charitable lens – as a value. Frankly, many Americans who do not identify with a faith group share this value and view it as a secular humanistic one.
So how do we respond to the question “Why be Jewish?”
“Because it’s tradition” as an answer will fail.
“Because of the Holocaust” as an answer will fail.
“Because we have a Jewish State” as an answer will fail.
“Because who are you to break the chain” and other guilt-ridden answers will fail.
Not only do we often struggle to find the right words to answer what theoretically should be a very simple question, but what the Pew survey (and many of the already drafted responses from interested parties) also makes clear is that ultimately, we have a complete inability in the liberal Jewish world to define what “success” looks like.
Here is where our Orthodox brethren arguably have it easier. Living within the context of commandedness implies that producing offspring who lead mitzvah-observant lives is the ultimate measure of a parent’s success in transmitting Jewish identity, literacy and practice to their children. In the liberal Jewish community, each person often measures success differently, as we (arguably, overly) value the experience of the individual, and encourage people to learn, explore, and take on practices that are meaningful to them. Thus, as a “community” (and whether or not there really exists, or can exist, a centralized, idealized, “Jewish community” is another question in and of itself), it’s near impossible to determine whether or not our collective efforts have been successful, due to a lack of definition as to what success itself looks like.
What constitutes “success”?
Let’s look at a hypothetical that helps elucidate this issue.
There is an independent Jewish prayer community that exists in Manhattan, made up largely of young Jewish adults in their 20s. Its members are both well educated and very insular. They celebrate Shabbat and holidays together, in many ways function as a chavurah, give charitably (but only to the minyan itself), and have a general disdain for the Federation system, Synagogues, Day Schools, Jewish Summer Camps and any other mainstream Jewish institution (despite often being products of some or all of these institutions themselves), due to rejecting what they perceive as “pay to pray” and “pay to play” models.
Is the prayer community itself, and the members who comprise it, a Jewish communal success? Why or why not?
What if it existed in a small mid-western town as opposed to a major city? What if its members’ average age was 65? Would such factors make a difference in determining whether or not it was deemed a “success”?
Would the “organized” Jewish community even know that they exist?
It’s time to stop worrying and start rejoicing.
Rabbi Brad Artson is quoted in the Forward (10/1/13) as saying that for the Conservative movement, while affiliation numbers may be down, his focus is on enhancing quality. His message should be universally accepted amongst liberal Jews of all (or no) denominations.
Being Jewish can add meaning to life. Being Jewish can add joy to life. Being Jewish can provide you with the chance to be part of a community of shared purpose, support, and annual rhythm. And, there are other faith (and secular) groups that can do that too. Truly. Being Jewish isn’t for everyone – even if you were born Jewish. If Judaism doesn’t add meaning to your life, and the Jewish community is one that you aren’t particularly keen on being a part of, guess what? It’s okay.
We should strive to make the liberal Jewish community one that is full of substance, meaning, learning, warmth and above all, joy. Rather than trying to retain Jews using our strong history of tradition and (unfortunately) guilt, we should strive to live our lives as individuals and as communities in such a way that exemplifies how being Jewish is something so wonderful and joyous that if you were raised in a Jewish home that was actively part of a Jewish community, you couldn’t imagine raising your children any other way; and if you were raised in a Jewish home that was not actively part of a Jewish community, that you wish you had been, and seek to create one for your own family.
There is no universal definition of success. There is no one-size-fits-all answer to “Why be Jewish?” – the answer will be different, and intensely personal, for each individual. All we can do is live our lives authentically, with purpose and with joy, and make sure that the word is out – and that our actions reflect our deeply held value – that all are welcome to join us.
Daniel S. Horwitz is the Rabbi and Director of Immersive Learning at Moishe House.