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A Judaism Obsessed With Its Survival Is a Judaism That Will Not Survive

August 10, 2011 By:
Rabbi Eric Yoffie
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I have no patience for survival Judaism. Whenever I hear someone talk about what Jews must do in order to "survive," I head for the door.

Joel Alperson, whose piece "Tikkun Olam May Feel Good But It Doesn't Build Community" was published in the Aug. 4 Jewish Exponent), joins the long list of Jewish leaders offering a formula for survival. He informs us that Modern Orthodoxy has the answers and Reform and Conservative Judaism are on the road to extinction -- a point with which I strongly disagree but that I will not argue here.

What needs to be said, however, is that he shows a total misunderstanding of what Judaism is about and fails to comprehend that a Judaism obsessed with survival is a Judaism that will not survive.

Anyone who's urged college students to care about our survival knows that they'll respond with incomprehension and contempt. They're not interested in being Jewish so that we can survive. They need to hear the opposite: Jews do not observe Torah in order to survive; they survive in order to observe Torah. And -- this is the key for such students and many others -- observing Torah means much more than worrying about our own souls.

Observing Torah involves fulfilling a grander purpose. It means taking to heart the words of R. Hayyim of Brisk, the greatest Talmudist of the late 19th century, who defined the rabbi's task as follows: "To redress the grievances of those who are abandoned and alone, to protect the dignity of the poor, and to save the oppressed from the hands of the oppressor."

Social justice is required by our texts and is inseparable from our religious mission. And there is no such thing as a morality that is selectively indignant -- that looks within but fails to look without.

Do we need to study Torah, embrace Jewish ritual and observe Shabbat? Absolutely, although Reform, Conservative and Orthodox Jews will interpret these differently. Social justice, absent text study and ritual practice, is inauthentic and will not sustain itself.

Indeed, I have found that the work of tikkun olam, for all its rewards, is lonely and discouraging work, and only by absorbing the light of the Shabbat candles and by studying and worshiping communally can I immunize myself against the cynicism that surrounds me.

But the point that Mr. Alperson misses is that social justice is not, as he claims, a secular pursuit meant to compensate for the absence of "God-based" experience. Social justice is God-mandated in the same way that Shabbat observance and Torah study are God-mandated.

The book of Jeremiah (9:24), contains these words: "I am the Eternal, who exercises kindness, justice and righteousness on earth, for in these I delight." Serious Jews know that in our tradition, healing the sick, clothing the naked, helping the poor, pursuing peace, loving my people and neighbors are the attributes of God, and we testify to God's existence by emulating God's behavior.

Mr. Alperson can't seem to decide whether Jewish education and practice are "God-based" or are means of survival. He appears to choose the latter, referring to them as "the water pumps and sandbags employed by the Orthodox movement against the rising tides of assimilation." Orthodox leaders can speak for themselves, but I will share with you the reaction of my daughter Adina, who's a social activist, belongs to an Orthodox congregation and was incensed by the article.

"We don't observe Shabbat because it is a sandbag against assimilation," she said, "but because it is part of the eternal covenant between God and the Jews that evokes the miracle of Creation and the Exodus from Egypt and links me to Jews throughout the centuries."

The essence of Mr. Alperson's argument, and of his folly, is that "we can't have it both ways"; we cannot, he says, insist that social justice is central and also embrace serious Jewish education and practice. But we can and we must. To do one without the other is to retreat from the world and distort Judaism's essence.

Rabbi Eric Yoffie is the president of the Union for Reform Judaism.

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