Look at the Tallit: A Different Way to View Jewish Vitality

By Rabbi Brian Field, Dr. Caryn Aviv and Wendy Aronson
Judaism Your Way

Like many other Jewish organizations, we have been following the “Statement on Jewish Vitality” conversation. We were delighted to read the statement from the Lippman Kanfer Foundation for Living Torah. Jonanthan Woocher, the Foundation’s president, writes: “…there is a reservoir of Jews who are positively disposed toward their Jewishness, but who have not found a way to actualize this feeling.” Our experience at Judaism Your Way bears this out: this year, at our free High Holy Day services at the Denver Botanic Gardens – we welcomed 6770 duplicated people, the overwhelming majority of whom have no connection to the organized Jewish community. This was a 21% increase over last year, and here is why: Judaism Your Way provides inclusive, accessible, and meaningful Jewish experiences for Jews and their loved ones in the Denver/Boulder area.

The Vital Judaism statement calls for a reinforcement of the Jewish middle, and we empathize. The middle is what we know and are used to. However, in our experience, the vital and meaningful work is on the fringes, the growing edges of our people and our understandings of who we are and what Judaism can be.

We look to the tallit, one of the most enduring symbols of Jewish covenantal engagement. According to the Torah, it’s not at the middle of the garment we’re commanded to look at, in order to know what we must do, but at the fringes, the tzitzit. The tzitzit transform an ordinary shmatte into a garment with sacred Jewish power. We focus on the tzitzit of the Jewish people, to evolve Judaism into a vital and compelling spirituality.

The very form and placement of the tzitzit guide us. The top 1/3 is a series of formally tied knots: evoking tradition, inherited wisdom. But the bottom 2/3 are simply free-flowing strings: evoking openness, the potential for something new. The tzitzit are located at the intersection of the individual’s personal space and the rest of the world – not a place that is already comfortably Jewish. Neither is it a place that has no connection to the Jewish people, but a place where the two realms meet. This is the place of tension and of creativity, between the Judaism we know and the Judaism that is ripe to be born.

What does it mean to work with the tzitzit of the Jewish people? At Judaism Your Way, it means we welcome with complete warmth and respect:

  • Individuals who are not participating in the organized Jewish community
  • Interfaith couples and families
  • LGBTQ individuals, couples, and families
  • Secular/cultural Jews
  • People whose spirituality and identity includes Judaism and another tradition or spiritual path
  • Individuals of all financial means.

It means to meet them where they are, without an ulterior motive of changing them from unaffiliated to affiliated, interfaith to converted, or secular to more religious. It means to believe that each individual has their way, their path to integrity and authenticity. Our job is offer people Jewish tools to walk this path.

The Lippman Kanfer Foundation for Living Torah predicted that the community we imagine for the future may look quite different from the one we are familiar with today. We couldn’t agree more. This means that there is so much ahead of us that we simply can’t know. But one thing that we do know is that the Jewish people have been in this situation before. Two thousand years ago, and faced with unprecedented internal and external challenges, the early Rabbis courageously offered new understandings of Jews and Judaism. When they didn’t know what to do, they followed this principle articulated by the sage Hillel: “Look to the people, for if they are not prophets, then they are the children of prophets.” (Talmud Bavli, Pesachim 66a)

In other words, respect their integrity, foster their agency, and help them discover Judaism their way. We think the Jewish future depends on it.

Judaism Your Way, a Denver-based Jewish outreach organization, provides innovative opportunities to connect Jewishly for all Jews and their loved ones through holiday celebrations, lifecycle events, and educational programs.