November 18, 2009

Thoughts on the Jewish Future after a Lecture by Adin Steinsaltz

Filed under: Judaism — marcstober @ 9:49 am

For a class in college, I was required to buy a volume of Adin Steinsaltz’s translation of the Talmud from Aramaic into Hebrew. We mostly worked off photocopies of an English translation in class, though, and as a testament to my ignorance, 13 years later, I still have just that one of the 63 tractates on my shelf.

So, when I heard that the famous Talmud scholar was giving a lecture in my neighborhood–at the JCC, where I take Max to preschool every day–I decided to attend.

The topic of the lecture was “love and hatred,” and it was essentially a talk on the direction the Jewish community needs to take. Because we already know how to cope with hatred, but we don’t know how to cope with being loved, which is the situation today.

He gave the example that animals either have a shell or a backbone. For an animal to survive outside of its shell, it needs a backbone. All too often, it has been the shell–the response to an external threat–that has kept Jews together. (I’m not sure if he meant this an an evolutionary metaphor, but it sounds good to me to say we must make an evolutionary leap.)

He also gave the example of a Jewish woman who become a Buddhist nun, who says she doesn’t find anything in Judaism because it’s about kneidlach, and she’s a vegetarian. And he admitted that kneidlach aren’t enough. Which I wholeheartedly agree with, but it’s a pretty radical idea. The voice of the typical Jew that I imagine, perhaps not of my generation, but certainly of Steinsaltz’s, would be offended. Jews who prided themselves on secular learning and achievement and on sticking together for chicken soup and to remember the Holocaust would be quick to respond to such an idea with a litany of people who still hate us.

I think that we may have, very recently, reached an inflection point, accelerated by the weakened economy. Jewish institutions that speak to people’s needs for meaning, connection, celebration and wisdom are thriving; those that exist now simply for historical reasons are threatened. People who maintained a traditional life out of guilt have fallen away, and people who practice out of personal motivation have joined. (Though I might have a skewed perspective, because I have sought out a certain sort of community and base my knowledge on that.)

In response to a question, he indicated that a single lecture to a general audience could not provide specific solutions, but rather was a way to get people in thinking about certain questions. The main point was the need to focus on the “backbone” problem. Which is not entirely black-and-white, because there is still antisemitism; and Judaism already has a strong backbone of culture, philosophy, ritual, literature, etc. (but far too few learn it).

It seems obvious to me, but I’m often surprised how often Jewish institutions don’t see it as their fundamental mission to get as many people as possible “turned on” to Judaism. When I worked at United Synagogue (which does, in fact, have a few programs that do “turn on” people) I was struck that the talk was more about service to members or at best outreach to a static group of members rather than a a true mission to reach as many people as possible with something we believe in. This is not to ignore that different organizations have different tactics and competencies and will reach different people; but we also can’t ignore the sacred mission that we all (should) share.

On this topic, Steinsaltz quoted from Alice in Wonderland: “It takes all the running you can do, to keep in the same place. If you want to get somewhere else, you must run at least twice as fast as that!” (This was somewhat déjà vu, too, because I seen a children’s theater program perform Alice in Wonderland on that same stage earlier this year.) Jewish life is just like an other endeavor in this regard: if you’re focused on what you’re doing, and not growing in some dimension, you may feel like you’re running but you’ve actually been left behind.

I suspect that sometimes Jewish groups are reluctant to promote their work because it is a special mission, so let me be clear: When I say “turned on” I don’t mean converting people or anything on that level. As in other enterprises, a great product still needs to be sold. In my field, computer software, a developer can write a perfect, elegant, efficient program and no one might use it; while a company with a less perfect program and great marketing wins in the marketplace. Similarly, keeping the treasures of Judaism locked up in books accessible only to scholars does not protect it; it is only preserved as much as people can learn it. We don’t want to be hated; the more learning, the more we can cope with being loved.

Steinsaltz (quoted on Wikipedia) said, “I never thought that spreading ignorance has any advantage.” I agree with that. There are many organizations, some of which I’m a part of, that are already doing a great job spreading Jewish knowledge, but there is much more that can be done.