Community leaders were invited to share their feelings about “What’s really important about being Jewish?” As we went around the boardroom at Jewish Federation & Family Services the answers were strikingly similar. One said, “It’s family” the next said, “Its community.” Time and again these two themes were echoed. Distressed, I sent a two-word text to my associate Rabbi Yitzchok Newman of the Hebrew Academy sitting across the table, “Oy Vey!” When our turns came to speak, the answers were different: “It’s G-d, Torah and Mitzvot-Commandments.”
The Jewish community is talking about retooling Judaism. Inspired by my good friend, Ron Wolfson’s recent book, synagogues are attempting to copy the Chabad model in what has become defined as Relational Judaism. Synagogues are setting up welcome committees, rabbis are developing ideas to make Judaism more personal, and some congregations are rethinking their business model to lower the barriers of engagement.
However, there is a larger issue that stands at the theological divide between traditional Judaism and the modern liberal movements. Is Judaism a way of life that we follow because of a Divine imperative, or is it a variety of paths, cultural, historical and traditional, that we choose to define Judaism according to our limited human understanding?
The meeting at the Federation brought the issue into focus. To me it is clear, Judaism is a series of commands given by G-d at Mount Sinai. One of those commands is to love your fellow as yourself. Each person possesses a Divine soul, as the mystics call it, a piece of G-d from above. For that reason, we love our fellow because each human is an extension of loving G-d. The same goes for family. One of the central teachings of the Torah is the obligation to be fruitful and multiply, that humans are missing something until they find his or her Bashert—spiritually intended mate—and create a family. Modern society puts a great focus on career and success, Judaism says we need to make a living, the most important is how we live. By marrying and creating a family we fulfill G-d’s command.
It is uplifting to see segments of the community suddenly adopt Chabad strategies. The welcoming environment found in Chabad is not an outgrowth of a focus group or task force, it is an instinctive reaction based on the teachings of the Torah. The fact that most of the centers do not ask for membership up front is because we feel as rabbis our responsibility is to serve the needs of all Jews because we share a common destiny. That destiny reaches back to Mt. Sinai when G-d gave the Torah to the Jewish people. It is the instruction book of Jewish life, filled with 613 commandments, each a pathway between man and creator to bring holiness into the world.
Some time ago a leader of one non-orthodox movement asked me how to stem the attrition. I told him it is simple, all you need to do it to return to basics: learn Torah, fulfill the Commandments, and treat all with care and compassion. The rest, as Hillel said thousands of years ago, is commentary.
Rabbi David Eliezrie is at Congregation Beth Meir HaCohen/Chabad. His email is firstname.lastname@example.org.