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Brand New Judaism

Brand New Judaism

In the 1940s, C.S. Lewis, author of the classic Chronicles of Narnia series, wrote a succession of essays later collected as "Mere Christianity," which had a galvanizing effect on Christians. A passionate and charming articulation of the central tenets of Christianity, the book is reputed to have brought more people into the fold than any other written in the last half century.

At "The Conversation," a national conference on Jewish life in America sponsored recently by The Jewish Week, a number of participants suggested that what Judaism needs now is a book that could be called "Mere Judaism." This volume would explore our key laws, beliefs and concerns and would seduce the unaffiliated or Jewishly under-inspired while staying true to Judaism’s core values.

Unlike Christianity, however, which has fairly straightforward defining tenets, Judaism is a complex organism made up of various laws, customs, languages, behaviors and texts. One would have to call the book "Mere Judaisms" to have a shot at it, and even then, the book’s success seems doubtful. Tradition tells us that there are 70 legitimate interpretations of the Torah, and that sounds like the number of books that would have to be written to cover the terrain of Jewish life.

The instinct to write a "Mere Judaism" could also be seen as an attempt to create a Jewish brand that is clear and compelling both to Jews and to others. One could say Christianity has been such a smashing success because of the genius of its branding: simple message, brilliantly told. Judaism, on the other hand, has been in some ways a spectacular failure. We are not as numerous as the sands of the sea, as God told Abraham would happen- that would be the Christians, Muslims, Buddhists and Hindus. Our message has been proudly complex, and therefore limited in its appeal. The key point of the famous story of Rabbi Hillel, who tells his visitor "not to do unto others as you wouldn’t have them do unto you," is not the ethical aphorism itself, but the postscript: "Now go and study." It’s interesting to see what happens when this branding process "succeeds." Look at the explosive growth of the Kabbalah Centre, an international network of institutions of Jewish mysticism that are slickly run, promise redemption and don’t even require one to be Jewish (this is the style of Kabbalah Madonna has made famous). The Kabbalah Centre promotes a simple message, clear as a bell: pray with us, buy our products and you will be enlightened. This is Jewish scientology. The Kabbalah Centre’s Jewish "story" is that our tradition is really a lead-up to a kind of spiritual magic. This is an extreme dilution and corruption of Judaism, an obvious failure of Jewish sensibilities and textual tradition.

But this segmentation of Jewish life into several pieces (a disentangling of the Jewish story into its many narrative strands) has accelerated in recent years, which is troubling.

For many of us, certain aspects of Judaism have been emphasized over all others, to the point of becoming bumper stickers. Instead of "Got Jesus?" we have "Tikkun Olam R US," "Never Forget!" Israel Forever," or "Moshiach is Coming." Can people who would place one of these stickers on their cars still talk to one another? And could they recognize the Jewish authority of the other’s position?

The urge to create a Jewish "brand" may be an attempt to re-integrate these strands, using the advertising language that is almost the spiritual basis of our country. To continue the metaphor, one could say these strands make up a family of products that are all part of a holding company called Judaism.

No, "Mere Judaism" would be impossible to write. But we do have a radically inclusive book that comprises, to a prophetic degree, the variety, conflict and potential of Judaism today. It combines universal ethics and parochial theology as well as fierce loyalty to Jews and God, coupled with grievous insurrection. It documents our obsession with family lineage and constant intermarriage, our zealous connection to the Holy Land and offers a constant warning that we are hardly worthy of it.

That book is the Bible. And its bumper sticker? Go and study.

Daniel Schifrin, director of literary programs for the National Foundation for Jewish Culture, is the editor of "Across the Great Divide: The Collected Essays of Abraham Coralnik."

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