Do you ever find yourself questioning your own motives for the most basic things in your life? You think your actions are resting on well-reasoned arguments or at least solid assumptions, and then you realize there’s a fundamental flaw in the reasoning.
Over the last few months, I have, over and over, run up against what I’ve been calling my Grand Theological Dilemma. I’ve discussed it with multiple clergy members in the field, several professors, countless peers, and others whose opinions I value. I would love to hear yours.
Here it is: as I see it, there are three modes of Jewish outreach and engagement. The first is what I’ll call the institutional model. This is the simplest, and perhaps most common, form of Jewish engagement: a synagogue or other institution (school, Jewish Community Center, etc.) offers programming aimed at achieving its goals, which may range from “pleasing God” to “preventing intermarriage.” The institution advertises these programs and encourages participation, but the mission is set and so is the programming.
The second concept is what I’ll call the Chabad model. [Chabad is an ultra-Orthodox Jewish group most known for its outreach in far-flung locales and on college campuses.] The Chabad model is to meet people “where they’re at” (a grammatically questionable construction I’ll just go with for now) and encourage them to move forward in their observance in ways that are meaningful to them. The end goal, though, is always evident: to make the searcher more like the Chabadnik in order to please God.
The last model is what I’ll call the DIY Judaism model. In this concept, the institution’s goal is the self-realization of the individual, and it creates programming and outreach to help individuals reach their goals, not the perceived goals of God or the synagogue. This is where you get the “multiplex” model of synagogues, with four different service styles, a yoga studio, an arts and crafts room, etc. In some ways, this is the model of the Limmud conferences.
So what’s the dilemma? Well, when I became Jewish, it didn’t have a lot to do with God. I felt most fulfilled in living a Jewish life, and as I became more observant along with my partner, it was still about me (or us). Observance guides my life and makes it more rewarding. It provides me with community. These are all human-based, even humanistic, goals. And for a very long time, I had no problem with other Jews choosing to live their Jewish lives in whatever way they chose, because if Judaism was about “living your best life now” (thanks, Oprah!), it only mattered that each individual practiced (or didn’t practice) in the way that was best for his or her life.
Now, though, as an emerging Jewish leader, this philosophy presents an issue. If Judaism is just another set of life practices and beliefs, like Buddhism or yoga or veganism, then I have to believe that it is the best one, that is has something absolutely unique to offer. Okay, assuming that I do– why should I be offering it specifically to Jews? The traditional answer is that the Jews own it, that it is their birthright…but what about those who don’t claim it, who don’t want it? And what about those who do claim it but are not considered Jewish? Why must they convert?
If the Jews have a special mission in the world, our tradition teaches us that it is to perform mitzvot [commandments]. It seems to me that I must either urge Jews toward that mode of Jewish self-realization (perhaps through “gateway observances” like Jewish yoga or Jewish social justice) or offer Judaism as a take-it-or-leave-it life practice for anyone, Jewish or not.
So that’s my Grand Theological Dilemma. Is Judaism about “What God Wants from Us” or “What We Want from Judaism”? Hoping to find more insight on this soon.