Words matter. For the People of the Book, there is almost no greater truism; we are a people inspired by a covenant and guided by the words of five books. We are a people that have revived a dead language and created words to express modern experiences, and we have no lack of artists that illuminate those words into a beautiful tapestry of Jewish memory and storytelling. But we are also a people that struggle with the meaning of certain terms and how we define them. We guard words so that they singularly reflect certain Jewish experiences (Holocaust) and we empower words so that the serve as a reminder of our collective Jewish future (Peoplehood). But even though we are a people that love language, we still struggle and debate the meaning of certain words and how we define them for use in our Jewish communities.
This struggle became clear to me as I recently sat in a conference room with Jewish community leaders from around the world and from a range of Jewish experiences. There was no doubt that each person in the room loved the people, the faith, and the state of the Jewish People; however even in a short conversation it was clear that we were all struggling with how we define our mission and vision in the next Jewish century. On one hand there was talk of the mission and vision for the Jewish People, and on the other hand there were questions about how we express Jewish values when engaging people in the pursuit of realizing that vision. Of course some would say all of that is semantic, but the more thoughtful would realize that like the other words of the Jewish People, mission, vision, and values need to have meaning and need to be used in their proper context and with serious emphasis on the possibilities they encompass.
Some notable scholars in the Jewish community such as Dr. Jonathan Sarna have called for a new mission for the Jewish people. While I disagree that we need a new mission, I do believe we need to frame the mission of our People clearly in the context of the faith that guides our People. Our mission is our essential purpose statement and our reason for being, and it is found in our texts and in our belief system. The mission of the Jewish People is unwavering and unrelenting, and as a light in this world it must be unflickering. A vision however, can and does evolve over time because the times in which we pursue our mission change. The vision is what the future looks like, what will be tomorrow if we advance our mission today. It is what we strive for and rely upon to give us the endurance to move forward into the bold future of our imagination. Lastly, there are our values. They are the bedrock of our actions and they are the guideposts of our journeys. The Jewish People have a value system that is incredibly strong but often under-defined. For example, while we understand and respect the value of kavod for example, we often don’t always invest the energy in extrapolating how that value must be expressed in our Jewish endeavors.
As many of our contemporary Jewish leaders have begun to openly discuss, we need to be more open, expressive and thoughtful in the way we craft the vision of the Jewish people for the 21st Century and beyond. We need to boldly imagine what the future could look like and the ways in which our mission and values intersect with that vision. We need to unharness ourselves from the language of hesitation and gird ourselves with the language of optimism. But we also need to make sure we are mindful of defining the values that will help us advance towards the future we envision and the ways in which those values strengthen our ability to make that vision a reality. And most of all we need to make sure that while we may all speak in different tongues, we nevertheless use the same concepts to guide our future endeavors.
We stand on the edge of a bridge of Jewish tomorrows that is unfolding in front of us, from one beach of history to the other beach of the future. The bridge crosses a sea of opportunity and challenge, and it is slippery and sometimes hard to see. But if we use the mission, vision and values of the Jewish people to serve as our guide rail, we will surely get to the other side.
Seth A. Cohen, Esq. is an Atlanta-based attorney, activist and author on topics of Jewish communal life and innovation. Seth is currently in Jerusalem participating in the Global Leaders Forum of the Jewish Agency for Israel.