Keep Judaism Weird!

Let’s move from our obsession with the new marketing of Judaism and move to new ideas and initiatives. Let’s move from hierarchical and centralized decision-making to empowered and inspired grassroots Judaism.

by Rabbi Shmuly Yanklowitz

We had a saying at the University of Texas: “Keep Austin Weird!” I propose that our Jewish slogan should be: “Keep Judaism Weird!” By weird, I don’t mean that Judaism should be strange or absurd; instead, by weird I mean that in this complex world, we should keep our unique commitments as Jews and that uniqueness within the Jewish people itself. Judaism should not be popular, watered-down, and easy. Judaism operates by conscience and authenticity, not by conformity and acceptance. If the religion is demanding, complex, and unique, it survives and thrives. If it requires commitment to something broader, it progresses. If it is kept individualistic and relative, and not packaged and universal, it maintains authenticity.

The Jewish people have always been small and unique. We have a special message for the world, which is different from any other message that other religions or people offer. We were created to be anti-conformists and to agitate from the margins of society. Still, over time, many Jews and elements of Jewish culture have been accepted by society, assimilated, and even “normalized.” This may seem positive given our tragic history; however, this assimilative normalization destroys the uniqueness of our message. Today, we must embrace our “weirdness” and move away from the “normal.”

A century ago, Jews, understandably, longed to be normal. Consider Chaim Nachman Bialik’s dream: “We will be a normal state only when we have the first Hebrew prostitute, the first Hebrew thief, and the first Hebrew policeman.” In a world of oppression, we longed to be normal and to have that typical lifestyle that so many others seemed to have. The safety, anonymity, and simplicity of normality seemed a fantastical utopia that we would never achieve. Dreams of a homeland, of security, of acceptability, and of opportunity were just that – dreams.

But now the times are different and we have our homeland as well as security in the diaspora, and we must move back from “normal” to “weird.” Now we are blessed with a more complete freedom of choice and we must seize this opportunity. University of Michigan political scientist Ronald Ingleheart, amongst other researchers, reported that the freedom to make choices is the factor most highly correlated with happiness around the world. Our choice, as committed, positive, forward-looking Jews, comprises not only what we inherit but also what we create. We should continue to persuade others to be a part of our movements, and encourage them when they choose their own movement, organization, ideology, genre, or niche. With this choice, we inspire and promote intellectual, spiritual, and relational uniqueness. We must re-commit ourselves to remain alive and evolving, a process that Nietzsche called “the transvaluation of values.”

Today, there are all kinds of Jews “doing Jewish” in unique ways: they are radical musicians, social entrepreneurs, artists, spiritualists, farmers, educators, chefs, philanthropists, campers, activists, travelers, filmmakers, and writers. This talent pool expresses itself in totally different ways from just a decade ago, as Jews move away from the “normal” Judaism that bored previous generations. These new models of Judaism often make parents and grandparents uneasy, because many only know “normal” Judaism and are uneasy with change.

Let’s move from our obsession with the new marketing of Judaism and move to new ideas and initiatives. Let’s move from hierarchical and centralized decision-making to empowered and inspired grassroots Judaism. No one needs to give the green light to permit our people from starting. There is a unique confidence today among our young people. A new Financial Times survey revealed that three out of every four millennial leaders truly believe that they can make a significant difference. The worldwide youth movement that began in the 1960s created tumult but also enormous progress in civil rights and many other areas. Just think what a new youth movement can do with Judaism.

A great lesson that should be on all of our hearts is that one cannot create change from a distance. The great Rabbi Akiva taught his son, Rabbi Joshua, that he should never sit and study at the highest point in town (Pesachim 112a). The lesson he was conveying to his son was that we must never become removed from the people. Today, staying connected with our communities is easier than ever as we are all connected through listserves and social media but these light touches are not the same as real presence. Inspired Judaism is all about presence and we must remain cognizant of this. When we don’t encounter one another in person, we can miss each other’s uniqueness. Consider that Joseph’s brothers could not recognize him once he had a new position of authority and influence, and thus was different from them.

The rabbis taught that one is only able to learn Torah when one’s heart is drawn open. When, as Jews, we speak about our moral and spiritual visions, in our own unique ways, we are speaking “Torah.” Rabbi Zeir’s teaching that “Even the everyday talk of people in the Land of Israel is Torah” can be extended to include “Jew talk” that shows commitment anywhere in the world. So let our unique Jewish activism and teaching open peoples’ hearts so that Torah may penetrate and impact the world.

The Greek philosopher Xenophanes argued that even if man were by chance to declare the final truth, “…he would himself not know it: for all is but a woven web of guesses.” Just as Xenophanes suggests about truth, we Jews do not know what enables our religion to survive and thrive. All we can do to ensure its longevity is to honestly engage our tradition and remain authentically committed to our truths as we discover them, and our choice will prove itself worthwhile.

Let’s keep Judaism weird! Only passionate, fiery, inspired and renewed Judaism that we ourselves choose and own is worth keeping alive!

Rabbi Dr. Shmuly Yanklowitz is the Executive Director of the Valley Beit Midrash, the Founder & President of Uri L’Tzedek, the Founder and CEO of The Shamayim V’Aretz Institute and the author of “Jewish Ethics & Social Justice: A Guide for the 21st Century.” Newsweek named Rav Shmuly one of the top 50 rabbis in America.