It’s a good thing that the word, “mother”, still fares slightly better than the word “God” which, unless is is merely the first syllable of “goddam”, is generally received among educated westerners with, at best, an eye-roll, more frequently the witticism that “more people have been slaughtered in the name of religion than any other cause”. Recent studies of the decline of Judaism in the US don’t present any new information and are shocking only to those who’ve successfully buried their heads in the sand for decades. Between the overwhelming focus on the most superficial aspects of secularity, be it money, celebrity or simplistic social fixes, and the self-destructive elitism and arrogance and increasingly ignorant fundamentalism that entraps most of the orthodox/traditional, simultaneously repelling most other Jews, we’re back to relying solely on God since we, in the rabbinate, in Jewish education and in Jewish community organizations have largely dropped the ball.
I’m appalled by much of the response to these studies. The, loosely-speaking, “left” seems to celebrate our “liberation” from medieval superstition and isolationism, wishing the surviving religious segment will either wise up and abandon their follies or otherwise disappear. The “right”, on the other hand, seems to think that further extremism and neurotic social behavior will rally the faithful and finally and forever get rid of the “erev rav” (the biblical mixed multitude who accompanied the Jewish People as we left Egypt, but who were never really part of us other than as a convenient bogey-man to blame for our own sins and failures such as the Golden Calf).
The more “positive”, the “how can we fix this” responses seem equally hopeless to me, centering on marketing and gimmicks. “Let’s poll to find out what people want and then give it to them”, an extension of the ever-popular “leading from behind” fad, neglects the question as to whether or not the resulting product will, in any but superficial “ethnic culture” ways even resemble Judaism, let alone be Judaism. It seems more like a “Jewish” version of the ethnic pride silliness of the 1960s when dashikis and Nehru jackets were all the rage. Nowadays it ranges from trying to create a “Fiddler on the Roof” ambience or adapting last century’s gospel church experience to Jewish-sounding words. The conversations range from rebbes to occupy, from Uman to Memphis. The “serious” discussions begin with the Holocaust and end with Jewish Participation in the Civil Rights Movement. If it figures at all, Israel is either the subject of an insincere song, “L’Shana HaBa’a B’Yerushalayim” (Next year in Jerusalem) or a source of shame in the politically-correct landscape.
I try to not lose heart, but it’s an uphill battle. I repeat my mantra that “Judaism is the art of unreasonable optimism”. I remind myself that, in the words of Shlomo HaMelech, King Solomon, in Mishlei, Proverbs (24:16), “A Tzaddik falls seven times and then rises”, that the road directly ahead does not necessarily look like our final destination, that this historical period, approaching the Geula, ultimate redemption, are, by definition and design, scary, difficult and seemingly upside-down. I often ask if I’m not merely kidding myself.
I don’t know if there’s a fix on the horizon. Although my experience, my studies and my intuition is that the only real future for Judaism is in Israel, if anything there is more of a crisis there than anywhere else. The secular hate the ultra-orthodox, the ultra-orthodox hate the secular and the center seems to rapidly shrink. While Israel withstands ever greater international isolation and pressure, it seems to fracture within between left and right, between those who think the Palestinian issue can only be solved by getting rid of the people (unilateral expulsion) or getting rid of the land (unilateral surrender)–neither with a whisper of a chance of success. Although there are some who talk about our spiritual heritage and connection with the land, more often it seems to be a matter of either cynical manipulation or embarrassment.
What is there to do? What can a rabbi do? What can this rabbi do?
One would think that such a complex problem can only be addressed with an equally complex and multi-dimensional approach. But as I’ve spent time with this issue, it begins to appear ever more clearly to me that this approach will ultimately prove counterproductive, one more intellectualization which actually avoids the issue.
I realize that the Jewish experience, in the US and elsewhere, cannot be revitalized through argument or debate. Very few people will be inspired for intellectual reasons because inspiration both transcends and underlies the intellect. The thing about inspiration, however, is that it is contagious. But this infectiousness only works if the inspiration is truly authentic.
Thus, without knowing how effective I personally will be in addressing the overall problem and in actually providing any corrective energy to it at all, I realize that I need to confront and examine my own relationship with this spiritual path of Torah and mitzvot. I need to honestly observe how much of my own practice is truly inspired and how much is merely rote, habit or lifestyle. I need reinforce that which works best which, in my personal case is Torah study and the subsequent sharing/teaching of that experience (again, in my case it’s not a matter of sharing information that I’ve gleaned, but, rather, the intense feelings I experience while engaging Torah through this “channel” (admittedly, I’m not as proficient at tefilla (prayer), story telling, communal work as other colleagues)).
I can also suggest to my friends and colleagues, teachers and students, that they find their own strongest connections to our broad spiritual tradition and let themselves travel that road with as much love, enthusiasm, intensity and, yes, inspiration as they can generate.
Because it is only truly inspired Jews who will inspire other Jews to be, themselves, truly inspired. The Mishna in Avot (1:6 and 1:16) instructs us to עֲשֵׂה לְךָ רַב, Aseh L’cha Rav, make yourself great (alternately, make yourself a teacher, often mistranslated as “find yourself a teacher”). This isn’t directed only to professional rabbis, but to all of us. I think, hope and pray that this kernel does, indeed, hold at least part of the secret of how we can possibly move on from our current doldrums.