Jewish Life is Overrated

overratedBy Robert Lichtman

David Eagleman wrote a terrific little book, Sum: Forty Tales from the Afterlives, which considers scenarios for what happens after this life. His very first conception is that we re-live every moment of our lives, the difference being that all the experiences are grouped together by likeness: 200 days in the shower; 5 months on the toilet; 6 weeks waiting for the light to change; 51 days making wardrobe decisions. So how much time might be spent re-living our “Jewish” lives?

It seems that “Jewish” is just another one of those categories, a siloed, isolated slice of life. Not life itself.

So often we use the catch-all expression “Jewish life” when we might mean “communal life,” or “synagogue life,” or “federation life.” Surely these are all aspects of Jewish life, but so is showering, toileting, waiting for green lights and dressing. And love. And work. And money. And politics. And friendships.

There is no such thing as Jewish life.

God encourages us to “choose life,” not Jewish life. The Torah is a “Tree of Life,” not a Tree of Jewish Life. Jewish learning enriches the total human experience, not just those that are ostensibly Jewish.

When The Partnership for Jewish Learning and Life was created by the Greater MetroWest Federation in 2006, we deliberately de-coupled Jewish and Life. We put Jewish Learning first, because the foundation upon which we build is expressed in the first of our Principles of Practice, “Jewish learning is the oxygen of life.”

Sadly, since then, we have witnessed instances that illustrate how far we still have to go to change not only our vocabulary, but our worldview. Here are a couple of them.

Just a few years ago we brought a program to Greater MetroWest that creates connections between 20 local teens and 20 Israeli teens as one of its features. A highlight of the program is that the teens visit each other. Here is what one Israeli teen said during his stay in Greater MetroWest: “They (NJ teens) actually have here a ‘J’ Life, not as I imagined, but separated. They have their outside community and their J Life, and they jump between them.” This is precisely NOT a lesson we hoped to impart. But it’s apparently true. Most of us really do compartmentalize the J stuff; we are conditioned to do that when we hear and talk about “Jewish life” as distinct from “Life.”

This dichotomy is further demonstrated by another Jewish teen describing her opposition to a proposed rule that leaders of her Jewish youth organization date only Jews: “It disappointed me a lot that I had to give up that (leadership) opportunity because of my secular life. Obviously people who are active in (our organization) are people who are passionate about their Judaism. I believe that as a progressive youth movement, if we choose in our secular life to date someone who is not of the Jewish religion, I don’t see why there should be limitations within (our organization).”

In an op-ed appearing on the JTA website about four years before this teen leader’s soul split in two, Joel Alperson, past national campaign chair for the Jewish Federations of North America, observed, “Judaism teaches us how to be better friends, businesspeople, husbands, wives and philanthropists. It tells us how to help the weak and to fight evil. In short, Judaism done right makes us better human beings.” Alperson declares Judaism as “life-affirming.” Judaism enhances all of life, not just Jewish life.

Rabbi Irwin Kula, president of CLAL, recognizes the power of Jewish learning when he eloquently and so simply explains, “Judaism is a wisdom that can help anyone improve their life.”

Using the expression we default to so often, which is so precious and means so much to us, “Jewish life,” creates and then reinforces the false notion that there are dimensions to life that are devoid of Jewish content and context. “Jewish life” sends the message that this disconnect is deliberate, even appropriate. “Jewish life” unintentionally, yet surely, diminishes the very essence and unique power of Jewish learning – the potency of Jewish knowledge, traditions, values and experiences to permeate every interaction and to enrich them, as oxygen fills our lungs and animates us with breath. The chemistry that enables life knows no distinctions between ‘J life,’ and the rest of life.

Try this for the next weeks leading up to Shavu’ot – our anniversary of receiving the Torah, the wellspring of Jewish learning. Whenever you feel the words “Jewish life” welling through your lips, suppress them. Focus on the real subject. Is it synagogue life? Say that. Is it Jewish communal life? Say that. Better yet, just say “Life.” L’chayim.

Robert Lichtman is the Executive Director of The Partnership for Jewish Learning and Life, the Jewish identity-building organization of The Jewish Federation of Greater MetroWest NJ.