By Rabbi Aaron Potek
A major challenge for non-denominational / pluralistic Jewish organizations is creating an educational vision that is both open and substantive. A good vision is narrow enough to have focus yet broad enough to contain diversity. It must strike the balance between relativism and absolutism – between “all ways” and “one way.”
The current zeitgeist is one of inclusivity, leading many organizations to err on the side of relativism. This is why you will often hear lines like: “There’s no wrong way to do Shabbat,” “There’s no such thing as a bad Jew,” or “You don’t have to do anything to be Jewish.”
Of course, many Jews carry the painful baggage of rejection and exclusion, so the urge to be radically welcoming is both understandable and admirable. But, there is a difference between welcoming every person into a Jewish space and validating every belief, value, practice, and idea as Jewish. A house without walls isn’t welcoming – it isn’t even a house. A Judaism that stands for everything in theory stands for nothing in reality.
In light of this challenge, GatherDC has developed three criteria for identifying and clarifying compelling approaches to Judaism – we call it “The RAM Scale.” While these criteria may not resonate for every non-denominational / pluralistic Jewish organization, we believe it will be a helpful starting place for most. At the very least, we hope it sparks an important conversation about the different expressions of Jewish identity worthy of our resources.
1. Relevant – a Jewish belief, value, practice, or idea must directly relate to someone’s life.
For some it may be obvious, while for others it may sound like blasphemy: not all of Judaism is relevant to 21st century American Jews.
On a basic level, many Jewish concepts apply only in the land of Israel, or only when the Temple is standing, or only in an agrarian society – but those are only the most pronounced ways our society has changed since the time of Judaism’s inception. The challenge of living in an ever-changing world is in constantly maintaining Judaism’s relevance to the present day.
Jewish identity for many Jews is rooted in understanding and relating to the past – ancient history (the founding of Judaism), modern history (often: the Holocaust), or their immediate family’s story, to name a few examples. While this history provides a strong foundation for a solid identity, it alone does not provide a strong identity. A garden requires good soil, but it’s not a garden until something grows in that soil.
Something that was relevant in the past is not necessarily relevant today. As Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel wrote: “We do not adhere to the specific forms of observance because of their antiquity. Antics of the past are hardly more venerable than vagaries of the present. Is the archaic a mark of vital preference? Is unconditional respect for the past the essence of Judaism? Did not Judaism begin when Abraham broke with tradition and rejected the past?” (God in Search of Man, p. 321).
Maintaining relevance is a challenge that is embedded in the Torah itself, which is called a Torat Chayim – a living Torah. “It is not in the heavens” (Deuteronomy 30:12) is not only descriptive but also prescriptive. The Torah is not intended to be esoteric, foreign, or transcendent; it is meant to be, and to remain, relevant. Rashi, the 11th century biblical commentator, makes this point explicitly in his comment on the verse: “On the third month after the Israelites left Egypt – on this day – they came to the Desert of Sinai.” (Exodus 19:1). He writes: “It could have said only ‘on that day.’ What is the meaning of ‘on this day’? That the words of the Torah shall be new to you like they were given today.”
How do we make sure Judaism stays fresh and new? We must continually apply new explanations, new interpretations, and new applications. This work requires not just a knowledge of Judaism, but also a knowledge of the constituencies we serve – what they care about, what they need, and what they are able to hear. “The Torah was given in the language of humans.” (Babylonian Talmud, Tractate Berachot 31b). Judaism must speak to the human experience – both the collective experience of what it means to be living in 21st century America and also the specific experiences of individuals within that broader context.
Judaism’s relevance must be cultivated, never assumed.
2. Active – one’s Jewish identity must be lived in practice, moving beyond feelings and thoughts.
Most American Jews (94%) are proud to be Jewish. However, being proud is a feeling that is difficult to put into action. While “Snapple cap facts” about Judaism might make us feel nice and warm on the inside (ex. Did you know that this many Jews have won the Nobel Peace Prize since such and such a date?), these tidbits rarely translate to any consequential difference in an individual’s life.
A compelling Jewish identity must involve actions and practices. You can say you care about sports all you want, but if that rarely translates to going to a sporting event, watching sports, playing sports, or even reading about sports… then it’s clearly not a big part of your identity. Feelings that aren’t acted upon eventually die out. Judaism may begin with the heart, but it cannot end there.
Judaism must also move out of our heads. While study and intellectualization are important aspects of Judaism, that endeavor must lead to action. As the rabbis of the Talmud say: “Torah brings one to action” (Babylonian Talmud, Tractate Kiddushin, 40b). When Judaism is only accessed through books, museums, and lectures, it is relegated to the mind. Yet Judaism is first and foremost about action. As the ancient Israelites famously proclaimed: “We will do, then we will understand” (Exodus 24:7). “It is not in the heavens” can also mean that it is not meant to be abstract or theoretical. “Rather, it is very close to you, in your mouth and in your heart, to do it.” (Deuteronomy 30:14).
Judaism must be lived, not merely felt or pondered.
3. Meaningful – there must be a compelling “why” to motivate the “what” of one’s Jewish identity.
One can live a relevant and active Jewish life, yet still not have a compelling reason for doing so. Many Jews who engage in Jewish life often do so because of routine or guilt. These extrinsic motivations are neither inspiring nor sustainable. People should take the time to discover intrinsic reasons for caring about Judaism – i.e. Judaism should matter to them, their community, and the world.
Judaism is not inherently valuable; it is valuable only insofar as it adds value. This goes against the ideas of “Torah lishmah” (learning text for its own sake) or “minhag” (continuing a tradition for its own sake), which assumes texts and traditions have inherent value. A meaningful Judaism, then, is not focused on its own continuity or definition. Rather, a meaningful Judaism addresses universal questions and human wants and needs. Ask not what you must do for Judaism… ask what Judaism can do for you.
Like salt, Judaism is not intended to be a value in and of itself. Rather, Judaism is meant to enhance and add value to that which contains it. As the Ishbitzer Rebbe writes: “salt is the opposite of good… for nothing can grow in salted earth. However, salt is something that can be mixed in with good, and can add flavor to that which is already good.” (Vayikra, p. 102).
While the idea of a meaningful Judaism might sound appealing in theory, achieving it is hard work. For Judaism to truly add value, it must stand for more than validation and platitudes. This opens up the danger of being presumptuous by believing that Judaism can add value to one’s life, which requires the assumption that individuals, and maybe even the world, would be worse off without it. Alternatively, it also raises the possibility that Judaism may have nothing to offer certain individuals. However, these are the risks that come with taking the time and energy needed to explore the compelling “why” behind Judaism.
A meaningful Judaism is one that positively contributes to one’s life.
While there are many ways to be Jewish, we believe that a compelling and sustainable Jewish identity is best achieved when it is relevant, active, and meaningful. By acknowledging that Judaism’s value is on a spectrum and not a given, we are inviting others – ourselves included – to think more critically about the diversity of Jewish expressions in America today. The process of ascertaining which different forms of Jewish expression meet the criteria of “The RAM Scale” requires deep reflection, conversation, and intention.
Wherever you fall on The RAM Scale, let’s all strive to develop a more compelling relationship to our Jewish identity – for ourselves and for those we serve.
Rabbi Aaron Potek has been the Community Rabbi for GatherDC since 2015.