I wasn’t yet nine when President Kennedy challenged the American people “Ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country.” I’m saddened and actually a little surprised that so many people who grew up with that inspiration not only lost it themselves, but failed to pass much of it on to their children. Perhaps a lot has to do with the coronation of greed in the 1980s, perhaps with exhaustion from the unending state of war the United States has been in throughout my lifetime and Israel for even longer. Perhaps we’re all so conditioned by today’s micro-marketing which actually does aim every appeal directly to us (or at least to our “demographic”) that we think everything really is about us.
Despite various self-congratulatory proclamations which occasionally come out of the ba’al tshuva, newly orthodox, movement, at least in America, Jewish involvement in Judaism is plummeting across all the denominations (including the orthodox). Although I haven’t lived in Israel for years and might be totally off-base, it seems that except for an aggressive birthrate, and even they have many dropouts, among the ultra-orthodox, traditional Judaism is highly challenged there as well.
Much of what I read from synagogues, federations, hillels and denominations boils down to marketing. How do we appeal to the young, to the unaffiliated, the disaffected? Without an organization that supports or pays me, in other words, even though I’m not looking for new members, nonetheless, I am passionately devoted to passing our tradition into the future, so I also find myself thinking in terms of marketing. (I guess I’m not excluded from my times either….)
One thing I find conspicuously lacking in Jewish Marketing these days is an appeal to be part of the chain. Oh yes, there are plenty of opportunities, especially in today’s orthodox world, to pretend to be a link from far back, to be part of nineteenth century and earlier eastern Europe. (Forgive me for saying it, but if it weren’t for the horror of the Nazi holocaust in the twentieth century, that period would have stood out as the worst our people have gone through!) But appealing to a bowdlerized nostalgia is not inviting folks to join the chain, rather it’s just an invitation to play make-believe. And while you might cure your loneliness with a group of fellow-players, are you really bringing Judaism into the future? Really being part of our chain involves receiving wisdom and tradition in good faith rather than skepticism, honestly processing them in our very real lives, and passing that, our processed Jewish experience, to our children, always moving forward.
The other major appeal I often see, which I find at least as empty, is essentially the promise of a safe, legal psychedelic experience–some sort of kaballistically-inspired “spiritual” high which somehow skates around inconvenient things like obligations and mitzvot and discipline. This is often accompanied by the opportunity for the self-satisfied conviction that you’re on “the right side” of all the “important” issues: the environment, world peace, “inclusion” and other clichés of today’s liberal agenda. It’s all about making yourself feel good, righteous and “holy”.
Well, I hate to be the party-pooper, but that’s not what it’s all about either. Our tradition values responsibility more than privilege, hard work rather than play. About being an adult and leaving childhood to the children. Truly imitating the Creator by giving rather than taking, doing right rather than feeling righteous.
Although it can be difficult to distinguish between our real responsibilities, the mitzvot, and the make-believe pieties (chumrot), even the chumrot place you in the right ballpark. Rather than following your own whims and desires, you’re trying to please a beloved, God. There is an explicit assumption that taking oneself out of the equation, putting God in the center of the universe is a positive thing to do. Although it’s far from always reliable, we do assign a higher truth-value to our accumulated wisdom than we do to our individual analysis and intuition. We accept our fallibility and don’t insist on reducing everything to our own imaginations. We realize that our vision is limited and even our empirical knowledge will always be more incomplete than it is complete.
None of this contradicts a stake in world peace, in a safe and healthy environment, in justice and in helping all people live safe, healthy, free and fulfilling lives. We do advocate a different modality, a different approach of how to achieve these goals, however. I invite each of us to open our minds to the possibility that what we often see as direct action might actually be counterproductive and that what might appear arbitrary, archaic and irrelevant, such as fulfilling mitzvot and otherwise following our tradition, might, in a way we, with our limited vision, can’t personally perceive, actually be a much more effective method.
Everybody likes to feel good about themselves and there’s nothing wrong with that. Over and over, Chassidic writing reminds us of the balance that even though we are limited beings and, compared to the Infinite, insignificant, each of us, in our uniqueness, is an entire universe. When we take the spiritual to heart, not just as an easy high, but as the source of many truths, we can learn to see beyond our ego-limited, empirical-only blinders and have the courage and the strength to at least try what our tradition teaches really can make the world better for all life. Perhaps we can market our tradition as Tikkun Olam rather than marketing Tikkun Olam as a substitute of our tradition.