I was fortunate to be invited as one of 50 participants in a two-day retreat last month called “The Conversation.” Sponsored by The Jewish Week, the program is an annual opportunity for a diverse group of Jews from across the country to come together to dialogue about Jewish issues in a comfortable and casual environment. There is no agenda other than to stimulate communication and create bonds between segments of the Jewish community that are not always in contact or in concert.
Going in, I knew very little about the other participants, but from the brief blurbs provided, it was clear that there would be a wide array of perspectives represented. The event promised to be an opportunity to mingle and wrangle with a cohort of coreligionists who share a common heritage, but not necessarily common ideas, passions, or beliefs. I agreed to attend with some trepidation, and many, by the end, admitted a similar uncertainty about
how such a gathering would go. I went in with a sense of curiosity, respect for the founders for their initiative and gumption, and cautious optimism that maybe there was indeed a way to address touchy issues with a civility and mutual respect that is often lacking between the factions of our fractured and sometimes fractious people.
By the end of the 48 hours, it seemed that we had just gotten some really fruitful conversations started when “The Conversation” was already finished. Each of us seemed to be stimulated and engaged, and that is promising for prospects of continued dialogue in less idyllic settings. I was ecstatic to find that there is not only common ground, but common purpose and passion. Every person in the room seemed to be genuinely concerned and committed to the perpetuation and fortification of Judaism.
The obvious question, then, is what is Judaism? What exactly is this thing that we are all so anxious to protect, revive, and pass on? This was the subject of more than one session (participants proposed topics and separated into groups to discuss those that interested them), and for me, at least, it remains one of the most essential and elusive issues.
What was clear is that Judaism is not the same thing for all of us. Equally clear was the fact that few of us could easily articulate what Judaism is even for ourselves. Is it a religion, a culture, a practice, a set of laws? Certainly there are those for whom it is simply a burden, an antiquity that has no place in the modern world. Those Jews were not represented in this conversation. They are what the Lubavitcher Rebbe referred to as the fifth of the Four Sons in the Passover Haggadah– the one who is not even interested enough to attend the seder. They are the ones that the rest of us are talking about when we discuss means of engaging those who are unaffiliated or disengaged.
But for those of us who are at the table, the question remains – what is it that we would like to share with the fifth son/daughter? Is it simply a stale and tasteless flatbread? If so, what chance do we have of bringing him/her back from the smorgasbord with which we are competing?
Of course there are the old jokes about what it means to be Jewish (and God knows we need a sense of humor to contend with the stark realities we have always faced): 1) Judaism in America is the Democratic party platform with a few holidays thrown in, and 2) the essence of all Jewish holidays is ‘they tried to kill us, we won, let’s eat.’ These can actually be useful in identifying two fundamental facets of our heritage: social consciousness and shared history/persecution. Add to these a rich culture of provocative customs, and we are still discussing something that nearly all of us can agree on. But throw into the mix the code of law and the word of G-d, and we are suddenly on uncertain ground.
A host of questions arise from our inability to establish a common definition. Can we develop strategies for Jewish continuity if we can’t agree on what Judaism is? Is it truly important to preserve and promote something if it is simply sentimental, aesthetic and/or parochial? If so, how important is it – is it worth fighting for, dying for, or is it only relevant if it doesn’t cost too much? How much can be compromised? Can we really interest future generations in something that may not be essential? Can anything withstand the ravages of time and entropy if it is not Divine?
With all of this uncertainty, we may take some solace in the fact that Love is also something that has always eluded precise definition, and yet it is something we all desire and it has stood the test of time. But love, despite all of the aggression and antipathy that pervades our world, is not something whose future we need to doubt or guard; it will continue to occur spontaneously alongside its counterpart. Judaism, on the contrary, perpetually seems to be at risk, and so we speak of continuity, we worry, we strategize, and we pray. With true faith, of course, there is no fear, but rather the confidence that things will happen precisely as God plans them to. In the circles I usually travel, the conversation is thus not whether Judaism will survive, what it is, or what it should look like, but rather how to expose more Jews to its beauty and inspire them to uncover the faith that is their essence and inheritance.
In the circles I usually travel, there is no Judaism without God and without Torah – once you remove these elements, you are left with a shell and no nut, or a lovely bottle and no water or wine within. It’s interesting to note that when the Jews were exiled by the Babylonians, the Ishmaelites pretended to help by offering them salty foods and then water-pouches which appeared to be full – but when the Jews thirstily put the nozzles to their lips, they found that there was only stale air inside, and they expired from intense thirst and exasperation.
In the circles I usually travel, one cannot expect something to survive for long without its soul. The Baal Shem Tov teaches that everything has a soul, even minerals and matter that seem to be completely lifeless. “Forever O Lord, Your word stands firm in the heavens” (Psalms 119:89) is taken to mean that if the ruach/breath of life were removed from any aspect of creation for even a moment, it would cease to exist and be as if it never were. It follows then that we first need to seek and embrace the soul of Judaism if we want to see it flourish.
It occurred to me when “The Conversation” concluded that the circles I usually travel are fairly short in their radius, and that there is much to be gained and learned from opening the walls (as our forefather Abraham did) and recognizing that, despite our diversity, we can all share one tent. The great news is that there are so many of us who love Judaism enough to want to pass it on. The task may be to understand better what it is in order to know how to grasp it and hand it to those who have not yet experienced its power and sweetness, but equally important is the enterprise of joining together with all of those who are willing to engage, regardless of difference or distance. I am extremely grateful to The Jewish Week for getting “The Conversation” started and inviting me to be a part of it, and with great optimism I look forward to the Jewish future and all of the wonderful sharing and growing that we are destined to enjoy.
Marc Erlbaum, a filmmaker, is the co-founder of the Jewish Relief Agency in the Greater Philadelphia region.