Seven Challenges for Life from the Jewish Tradition

Here’s a blog post that was published on eJewishPhilanthropy. What are the questions people ask of life, and how does Judaism provide answers?

Response to “What Can We Really Learn From Chabad: A Conservative Perspective”

Rabbi Paul Steinberg’s response to Dr. Windmueller’s piece on the lessons we can learn from Chabad focuses on “the kinds of questions that we ask of Conservative Judaism.” This ignores Rabbi Steinberg’s initial two take-aways: Begin with one Jew at a time, and Meet clients where they are. That is, who is asking questions of Conservative Judaism beyond those people already involved with the movement? If Judaism is to be relevant to the “Jew on the street,” we have to start with the questions that people are asking, not of a movement, and not even of Judaism, but of life.

For me, Judaism can provide an answer to some of life’s basic questions:

  • How can I live a life of meaning?
  • How can my life be more than the span of my days?
  • How should I treat myself and others?
  • How should I spend my time and resources?
  • How can I deal with injustice in the world and in my own life?
  • What can guide me when prevailing beliefs and behaviors don’t seem to make sense?
  • Which values trump others in a dilemma?
  • Who do I care about, and who cares about me?
  • How can I help my children when they face these same questions?

These are questions with which we must all come to terms. Judaism offers some answers. It is comforting to me to begin with Judaism because I am a Jew, and the wisdom of the tradition and its evolution make sense to me. When organizations and individuals reach out to people to connect them to Judaism, it is instructive to keep these questions in mind. Each person is at his or her own place in life’s journey, but the human condition raises these core questions for all of us at different points along the way. When we are confused about why people are spending less time engaged in Jewish organizations than they are in others, I think it is helpful to ask: are we providing some clear guidance in the areas above? Are we doing it better than the other places where people are spending their time and resources?

I was inspired by the link included in Rabbi Steinberg’s piece to The Rebbe’s 10-Point Mitzvah Campaign to consider what 10 mitzvot might be compelling to the modern, liberal “Jew on the street.” Anyone in the business of trying to engage Jews in Judaism should be practicing what they preach, so I think these apply equally to “professional Jews.” These aren’t specifically commandments, so I’ll call them “Challenges for life from the Jewish tradition.” I’ve started with seven, the first three from Pirkei Avot 1:6.

  • Get yourself a teacher. Make it a priority to learn something Jewish. Read a Jewish book, subscribe to a Jewish blog or podcast, watch Jewish movies, study Torah online or in person. Find a topic and a teacher that resonate with you, and make it a priority to learn more about the wisdom of Judaism’s rich tradition. This is about expanding your perspective beyond your own experience and solidifying your sense of yourself and the greater people and history to which you belong.
  • Find yourself a friend. Judaism isn’t a religion of hermits. It’s about being connected. When life has its ups and downs, the Jewish community can support you, but it’s not fair to expect that support without being there to offer it to others. Celebrate life cycle events in community. Find one person to take the journey with you.
  • Give people the benefit of the doubt. In terms of freeing myself from the ugly habit of judging others or feeling judged, I have found that this deceivingly simple ethical injunction goes a very long way. To me, this is about forgiving yourself and others and living with grace. Clearly, the Rebbe’s reminder to “love your fellow” is central. This take on that teaching is helpful to me in giving one suggestion on how to do it.
  • Celebrate Judaism. Judaism should not be defined by what we don’t do, who we are not, or the people who don’t like us. This challenge is about choosing a Jewish ritual that is positive and making it part of your life. As a Jewish educator, I reflected that I seemed to spend a lot of time encouraging other people to incorporate new mitzvot, but it had been a long time since I had added anything to my own practice. Pick something new to try. Do it intentionally and reflect on it.
  • Give it away. Spend some of your resources to make the world better. Stretch beyond the concerns of yourself and your family, and give money, time, food or goods to a people or cause that need it. Of course you already to this. Do some more. This one addresses nearly all the life questions above.
  • Struggle with God. We are the people of Israel. That name means “struggle with God.” When is the last time you visited your theology? Lots of folks have some kind of existential crisis in their young adulthood, come to terms with it, and never look back. Are you the same person you were when you decided what you believe about God? My challenge is this: think about it again. Read something. Write something. Try out some sophisticated ideas that match where you are in your own intellectual, spiritual and emotional development.
  • Speaking of Israel… We live in a time when the Jewish people have a homeland. Don’t miss it. Do one thing to deepen your connection to the land and the people. Get to know Israelis; read an Israeli blog; study the news about Israel; read a book on Israel’s history or a famous Israeli; check out some of the cool online exhibits, interactive maps and websites; listen to some Israeli music; try some Israeli food; learn about an Israeli artist; learn a little (more) Hebrew. Visit Israel.

What would you add or change?

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