Beyond Survival: Jewish Meaning, Mission & Belonging

Judaism Prayer Book Star of David Synagogue

By Dave Matkowsky

In “Towards a Taxonomy of Jewish Communal & Philanthropic Priorities” I expanded on my argument that the dominant latter 20th century communal rallying cries and funding paradigms of Continuity, Identity, and even Peoplehood were cast in the post-Holocaust mold of the imperative to survive as Jews lest we finish the job Hitler could not. They were aimed at avoiding Jewish disappearance due to accelerating assimilation into open societies. But external physical threats are qualitatively different from internal spiritual and cultural ones, and the strategies used to combat each must differ accordingly. I suggested separating out the imperative of Survival and using it to describe only those causes and institutions that deal directly with Jewish physical survival, and with the challenges to our rights as Jews that are historical harbingers of physical threats to come. The rest of Jewish life ought not be defined by “how can we survive?” (or continue, or maintain our identity individually and collectively), but rather by a framework or taxonomy of positive categories of Jewish experience that more specifically describe distinct priority areas, and can thus serve as a mechanism for making better informed decisions about resource allocation and investment.

The three positive categories or pillars of Jewish life that I propose are Jewish Meaning, Jewish Mission, and Jewish Belonging. This article will describe the significance of each of the three categories in organizing Jewish life, thereby serving as a basis for reevaluating priorities and strategies for broadening Jewish engagement and deepening Jewish commitment. Future articles will explore the interplay between and among the three positive pillars, alongside the core imperative of Jewish Survival.

Jewish Meaning comprises the ways in which participation in Jewish life and learning enriches our lives. It is the wisdom of the Torah and the prophets, the rabbis and sages, philosophers, poets, musicians, artists and academics. It is both formal and informal education. It is ritual experience and cultural expression; it is a framework for the instinct towards prayerfulness. What can Judaism tell me about the world and human experience? How do Jewish texts and traditions deepen our experience of each breath, each bite of food, each day, each calendar year, each lifecycle event? How do Jewish religion and culture offer their practitioners and followers a glimpse of transcendence? An address for wonder and gratitude, or for existential crises and tears?

These are questions of Jewish Meaning, and they play out in Jewish schools and synagogues, summer camps, youth groups, JCCs, Israel programs, Hillels, Judaic Studies programs, Adult education classes, lectures, tours of Jewish historic sights, Jewish literature, theater, film, art exhibits, concerts and singalongs. Notably, Jewish Meaning also places significant focus on the Jewish home, including Shabbat dinners, Passover seders, lighting Chanukah candles and decorating the Sukkah; but also Jewish books, art, music, food, and topics of conversation. At base, Jewish Meaning addresses the fundamental quest for life to matter deeply, and in providing a framework for that quest, it answers the basic human demand, “What’s in it for me?”

Jewish Mission is what Judaism asks of us in return, both individually and collectively. To the initiated, it is not a request, but a command. Do justice to the widow and the orphan. Care for the sick and the hungry. Revere the elderly. Be a Light unto the Nations. Seek peace. Love your fellow as yourself. Love the stranger. Recognize the “Image of God” and invaluable humanity of all people. Be merciful. Create a just society with rule of law and an impartial judiciary. Model honest business practices. Respect others’ property. Share what you have been given with those less fortunate. Contribute to the public good. Be good caretakers of the environment. Facilitate the study of Torah and proliferation of Jewish meaning for others. Save lives. Enhance the dignity of humanity. Build community. Be pleasant to others and do not inflict upon them that which you would hate to have directed at you. Take active responsibility for the welfare of others. Uphold truth. Stand against oppression, even (especially) if you must stand alone.

Many elements of Jewish Meaning, too, are expressed in the form of a command: Study Torah; Gather in a quorum to reaffirm core communal values through prayer; Mark time according to Jewish tradition, history and destiny – to name a few. Nevertheless, Jewish Meaning is primarily inwardly directed – what we receive from our encounter with and embrace of Judaism in making sense of our lives, whereas Jewish Mission is outwardly directed – what we must contribute of ourselves to the world, to others, to life itself. Interpretations of how each Jewish Mission-based imperative applies to specific actions and causes can vary, and informed, well-intentioned people may disagree strongly on “what Judaism says” about a particular contemporary issue or value. Indeed, the commitment and discipline to disagree with respect and amity is itself an aspect of Jewish Mission, as modeled in the pages of the Talmud and the rabbinic dictum praising an “argument for the sake of heaven”. So too is the humility to recognize that one’s own understanding of truth may not be definitive or exclusive. “There are 70 faces to the Torah” and “These and these are (both) the words of the Living God.”

The significance of Jewish Mission in this schema is not in adopting a particular interpretive approach to Jewish source texts on ethical-social imperatives, nor in their application to specific social or political issues. Rather, it is the acceptance of the foundational obligations of Jewish conscience and values, engagement in the omni-generational conversation about their interpretation, and striving to enact their imperatives in the world, that matter most. Which policy or candidate we believe will advance our understanding of Jewish social values, or which causes we prioritize over others, are tactical considerations within the larger strategic application of Jewish values in seeking to better the world.

Jewish Belonging refers to the interwoven networks of collective identity in which Jewish Meaning and Mission are experienced. It includes family and local community, denominational affiliation and non-religious organizational membership, schools, summer camps and youth groups attended, ethnic group and country/city of origin, country of residence, and ideally, the Jewish people as a whole. Increasingly it entails political affiliation, albeit sadly in setting boundaries on belonging, excluding from one’s sense of Jewish community those whose policy preferences or party support – in other words, their interpretation of Jewish Mission – deviate from one’s own. For others, divergence in core elements of Jewish Meaning are considered cause for delimiting the scope of Jewish Belonging, whether de jure or “merely” de facto.

Leaving aside the lack of full consensus among all who claim Jewish identity, Jewish Belonging can be generally conceived as a series of concentric circles that incrementally fill the space between the individual and the universal. The smaller the circle, the greater the degree of belonging and mutual responsibility. To whom do you owe special allegiance? Who can you count on, and who can count on you? Whose pain do you experience as your own, and who feels your pain as theirs? Whose accomplishments do you regard with pride, and vice versa? Jewish Belonging also includes the ways in which Jews fit into their broader surroundings, whether as individuals, local communities, or as the sovereign Jewish state among the nations of the world. Likewise, the relationship between Jewish majorities and the non-Jews in their midst, helps define the parameters of a Jewish framework of belonging. This is especially pronounced in the State of Israel, but is also relevant in local communities with interfaith families, and in communal responses to non-Jews of Jewish descent. To whom do I/we belong, and who belongs to me/us?

These, then, are the three positive pillars of Jewish life: Meaning, Mission and Belonging. Together with the sine qua non of Survival, they define the range of causes to which Jewish professional, lay and philanthropic leaders dedicate time and treasure to preserve and enhance Jewish life, and, as Jews, to impact the world. In my next article, I will discuss how this taxonomy can serves as a strategic tool in communal decision-making. This will be followed by examples of existing and potential initiatives, and an exploration of how the model might inform and enhance their design and impact, and the resulting return on philanthropic investment.

Dave Matkowsky is a Jewish communal professional and consultant who brings a strategic, analytical and creative approach to every organization and project. Previous roles have included UJA-Federation of New York, 92nd Street Y, The Shmitah Fund and JCC Chicago.