Tuesday, September 23, 2014 Elul 28, 5774

Lets Decide What Judaism Is, Then Open the Tent

October 26, 2011 By:
Marc Erlbaum
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I was fortunate to be one of 50 participants invited to a two-day retreat last month called "The Conversation." Sponsored by The Jewish Week, a New York weekly, the annual program is an opportunity for a diverse group of Jews from across the country to come together to discuss Jewish issues. There is no agenda other than communication and creating bonds between segments of the Jewish community that are rarely in contact or in concert.

I went in with a sense of trepidation and curiosity, respect for the founders' initiative and gumption, and cautious optimism that maybe there was a way to address touchy issues with the kind of civility and mutual respect that is often lacking among the factions of our fractured and sometimes fractious people.

By the end of the 48 hours, it seemed that we had just gotten started. Each of us seemed to be stimulated and engaged, and I was ecstatic to find that there is not only common ground, but common purpose and passion among such people. Everyone in the room seemed to be concerned and committed to the perpetuation and fortification of Judaism.

The obvious question, then, is: What is Judaism? What exactly is this thing we're all so anxious to protect, revive and pass on? This was the subject of more than one session, and for me, at least, it remains one of the most elusive issues.

What became clear was that few of us could easily articulate what Judaism is for ourselves. Is it a religion, a culture, a practice, a set of laws? Certainly, there are those for whom it is simply a burden.

Those Jews were not represented in this conversation. They are what the Lubavitcher Rebbe called the fifth of the Four Sons in the Passover Haggadah: the one who is not even interested enough to attend the seder. They are the ones that the rest of us are talking about when we discuss means of engaging the disengaged.

There are the old jokes about what it means to be Jewish: 1) Judaism in America is the Democratic Party platform, with a few holidays thrown in, and 2) the essence of all Jewish holidays is "they tried to kill us, we won, let's eat."

These jokes can actually be useful in identifying two fundamental facets of our heritage: social consciousness and shared history/persecution. Add to these a rich culture of customs, and we're still discussing something that nearly all of us can agree on. But throw into the mix the code of law and the word of God, and we are suddenly on uncertain ground.

Can we develop strategies for Jewish continuity if we can't agree on what Judaism is? Is it important to preserve and promote something if it is simply sentimental, aesthetic or parochial?

If so, how important is it: Is it worth dying for, or is it only relevant if it doesn't cost too much? How much can be compromised? Can we interest future generations in something that may not be essential? Can anything withstand the ravages of time if it is not Divine?

In the circles I travel in, the conversation is not whether Judaism will survive, what it is, or what it should look like, but rather how to expose more Jews to its beauty. In the circles I travel in, there is no Judaism without God and without Torah -- once you remove these, you're left with a shell and no nut, or a lovely bottle and no wine within. We first need to seek and embrace the soul of Judaism if we want to see it flourish.

It occurred to me when "The Conversation" concluded that the circles I usually travel in don't have much of a radius, and that there is much to be gained by opening the walls (as our forefather Abraham did) and recognizing that, despite our diversity, we can all share one tent. The great news is that there are so many of us who love Judaism enough to want to pass it on.

The task may be to understand better what it is in order to know how to hand it to those who have not yet experienced its power and sweetness. Equally important is the enterprise of joining together with all of those willing to engage, regardless of difference or distance.

Marc Erlbaum of Merion, is a filmmaker and co-founder of the Jewish Relief Agency.

 

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