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Impulses to Change

Rabbi Dovid Gottlieb

What moves people to consider committing themselves to a serious, active, traditional Jewish life? I am not a sociologist, and I have not done a formal survey, but twenty-five years of personal experience has led me to recognize two very common motivations.

One is the desire to investigate roots. I was born a Jew--what does that mean? What is a Jewish identity? This desire is often coupled with a painful realization of ignorance, and a suspicion that previous sources of information have not been wholly accurate.

The second is a quest for a certain kind of personal growth--to incorporate ideals, meaning and integration into one's life. The goal is to contribute to a universal value based upon objective truth, rather than merely chase personal pleasures.

These motivations vary in strength and style from person to person. Nevertheless, some shared elements can be described, together with the kinds of responses which will help satisfy the inquirer's need.

1. Roots. Consider Joseph*, who graduated Yale Law School but had a minimal Jewish education leading to his Bar Mitzvah. What drew him to yeshivah study in Jerusalem was the puzzle of martyrdom. He was aware that throughout the millennia, millions of Jews have died rather than give up Judaism. According to his Jewish education, Judaism consisted of outmoded superstitions and antiquated, irrelevant customs. Why would anyone die for that? (Of course, he could simply have dismissed them all as misguided. Instead he realized that he must be missing Judaism's essential meaning.)

Or consider Uri.* Raised on a secular kibbutz in Israel, Uri had no knowledge of, or interest, in Jewish tradition. He qualified as a lifeguard and took a job at another secular kibbutz. When he arrived to take up residence, he was given a tour of the premises. He saw the dining hall, the pool, the cow shed, the chicken coop, etc. Finally he was introduced to a pig which the kibbutz had named Abraham. "A pig -- Abraham?!" he exclaimed. That shocked him. But then he reflected: ''Why am I shocked? What do I believe in? What is Abraham to me?" Nevertheless, he could not make peace with such contempt for the first Jew.

Both Joseph and Uri eventually arrived at yeshiva to explore their roots in depth. What kinds of response are useful for someone engaged in such an exploration? Although there may be many others, I find three to be especially important.

A. Jewish history. The unique experience of the Jewish people over 3500 years needs to be portrayed with its essential themes identified. Historians have not the vaguest ideas how to explain Jewish survival, especially during the last 2000 years of exile. And it is not "Jewish identity" or "Jewish cultural products" which survive: Jews have been involved in assimilationist movements throughout our history and those movements have not survived. No--what survives is a specific way of life. Certain values, beliefs, behaviors, literary sources and character types seem historically indestructible. The uniqueness of the Jewish world- view in the ancient world--one God embodying absolute power, ideally ethical and demanding human moral striving; human brotherhood leading to world peace and cooperation--is also without explanation. Examining these and other historical topics is a crucial step to a Jewish identity.

B. Contributions to world civilization. By any measure the Jewish contribution to human life and thought is awesome. But with monotheism and morality, Judaism gives the foundation of a world-view and the essential agenda for the future. When it is appreciated that both these elements are of Jewish origin, world history takes on a different aspect: The world steadily becomes more and more Jewish!

C. Quality of life in traditional Jewish communities. Statistics show that these communities are favorably distinguished from their surroundings in many important respects, including violent crime, drug addiction, divorce and family relations, literacy and general intellectual development. (Note that perfection is not claimed, only favorable distinction.) These differences represent traditional Judaism in practice. The record indicates possession of practical wisdom which again has no historical explanation.

These three responses go a long way towards instilling pride in one's Jewish identity, and a desire to develop that identity further.

2. Personal growth. Here are two conversations from my personal experience. The first took place at a Jewish fair in Baltimore. The person to whom I was speaking--call him Fred-- exuded a magnificent contentment, self-confidence, self-satisfaction. I wondered that a person could be so happy with his status quo.

    D.G.: ''Have you no goals for personal growth, no ideals of self-improvement to which you aspire?"

    Fred: "Nope."

    D.G.: "But surely you are not perfect!"

    Fred: "Oh, of course not!"

    D.G.: "But look -- if you had a problem with your business, you would study it, hire experts, etc., and work to solve it. The same with your health. Why don t you want to improve yourself as a person?"

    Fred: "You're right, Rabbi--in business or health I would try to improve the situation. But when it comes to myself as a person, I accept myself as I am. I am happy, I sleep well, I am content not to be better than I am."

At this point I was searching desperately for some way to reach Fred and show him the shallowness of his outlook.

    D.G.: "Fred, do you have children?"

    Fred: "Yes, two sons aged fourteen and ten."

    D.G.: "Imagine that your fourteen-year-old is caught shoplifting by the police. When you confront him, he admits it. Moreover, he tells you that he intends to continue (more carefully, of course). 'But don't worry Dad,' he adds, 'I am happy, I sleep well, I am content not to be better than I am. What would you answer him?"

Suddenly Fred remembered a pressing appointment and broke off the conversation.

The second case concerned a professor of engineering at a West Coast university--let's call him Bob.

    Bob: "Congratulate me--I just got a government grant!"

    D.G.: "Congratulations! That's wonderful! Tell me, from which agency did you get it?"

    Bob: "It is an anti-pollution project."

    D.G.: "Anti-pollution? I didn't know you were working on anything like that."

    Bob: "I'm not."

    D.G.: "But then how did you get the grant?"

    Bob: "Well, they need to build a certain machine. I told them that in order to build the machine, they need to rarefy a certain gas. To rarefy the gas they need a special electric current, and I am building a component to produce the current. They bought the story, so now I can complete my research!"

For once, I couldn't think of anything to say.

These conversations express an attitude of cynicism, anti-idealism and lack of personal aspiration, which is very widespread. Certain people find such an attitude appalling. "The unexamined life is not worth living," said Socrates. And the purpose of examination is not mere passive understanding; it is improvement. A person's life is measured not only by what he has done, but also by what he has become. I myself--my personality, my character, my very identity--am one of my chief responsibilities, one of my most central projects. And my actions must express and contribute to my life's meaning and value.

For people with such goals and values, it is a delightful discovery that traditional Judaism shares their concerns in full. They find a philosophy and a variety of programs of self-evaluation and growth. Even more important, they find people who have incorporated these values into their lives. A crucial response to this motivation is to introduce the inquirer to such people -- personally, if possible, or through biographies. It is also beneficial to describe the consciousness achieved by people like themselves who have decided to adopt a traditional Jewish life-style.

I met a woman in the second year of law school. Her commitment to Judaism was only a few years old. When I asked her what area of law she would specialize in, she told me:

"The truth is, I really like trial law. I debate well, the psychology of the courtroom fascinates me, and I am by nature a competitive person. But lately I have begun to have doubts. Since I have become committed to traditional Judaism I have been thinking about improving my character traits. The competitiveness and aggressiveness of the courtroom will not contribute to the person I want to become. Until I make my decision I'm exploring tax law as well."

Another fellow, already ten years into his commitment explained to me how his understanding of self-examination developed:

    "At first, when I heard about Yom Kippur, I was excited. A whole day for honest self-evaluation and for planning a better future! For a few years it was very effective. Then I began to find that one day wasn't enough. I found that the problems I was working on required more time. About that time I realized that the "Ten Days of Repentance" from Rosh Hashanah to Yom Kippur should be just what their title says--the effort should not be limited to one day, but spread over ten. That was a big improvement and for a few more years I was content. But then again it seemed that even ten days was not enough to really get a handle on the steps I wanted to take. And then it occurred to me that the tradition is to start blowing the shofar on Rosh Chodesh Elul (thirty days before the Ten Days of Repentance). That's when I should start my efforts. Since then things have gone very well."

Stories such as these illustrate the personal depth, meaning and idealism that traditional Judaism adds to one's life.

The prevalence of these two motivations for exploring Judaism--the ethnic impulse and the desire for personal growth -- is symptomatic of the failures of contemporary education, Jewish and secular. A strong sense of Jewish identity is not provided by non-traditional Jewish education. Rather, the emphasis is on universal humanism, which downplays national and cultural differences. In any case, it does nothing for the person who wants to understand his uniqueness as a Jew. No wonder that this type of Jewish education produces assimilation and intermarriage! Furthermore, it creates false impressions about traditional Judaism and Jews, implicitly and or explicitly.

Consider the question of a Jewish young man in Baltimore who joined Hare Krishna. Observing my personal commitment to Judaism, he asked: "Is there anyone else like you?" This in Baltimore, home of a world-famous yeshivah and a strong traditional community. Or consider the student in Pittsburgh whose class was given an opportunity to question an "Orthodox" woman. He asked about the "tassels" attached to certain garments. She answered, "Those are called tzitzis. The Torah says that every four-cornered garment should have them. Nobody wears them anymore." When I was introduced to my rabbi in 1962, the fellow who performed the introduction asked me how many Chassidim I thought there were in the United States. "You mean those people in the funny hats and the long black coats? Maybe three." I answered. And I grew up in Westchester County, a mere hour from Brooklyn. How often I meet the expectation that traditional Jews must be uneducated, unsophisticated bumpkins, somehow left over from the Middle Ages. Yet among my religious friends I count members of all the professions -- doctors, lawyers, accountants, etc. -- including three with Ph.D.'s from MIT. Misinformation such as this does nothing to give a Jew a sense of his roots.

Equally severe, and far more pervasive, is the failure to address the personal growth of the student. Educational institutions rarely discuss personal goals, character development or practical interpersonal relations. Part of the reluctance to do so stems from the illusion that true democracy requires value-free education. The result is that the values necessary for success in school -- intelligence, competitiveness, scholarship, etc.-- are rewarded and reinforced. Other values--cooperation, sympathy, self-sacrifice, humility, etc.--are treated as optional or even irrelevant by the school's silence. The effect is particularly tragic on the interpersonal sphere. With 50% of marriages ending in divorce, why are there no classes discussing communication, shared responsibilities, money management and other marital responsibilities? Surely knowing how to repair a damaged friendship, or console someone in pain, is as important as remembering the original thirteen states of America. Now for people who are content with the usual round of work, television, family and community, in that order, with the usual tensions and disappointments, the lack of stimulus and tools for personal growth merely reinforces the limits of their narrow, humdrum lives. But for those who seek to develop noble character, sensitive interpersonal relations, high ideals and a sense of life's significance, personal growth demands attention.

When a Jew is moved by interest in his roots and personal growth to explore Judaism with an open mind, we are challenged to provide a sophisticated education and first-hand experience in a sensitive environment. If we meet this challenge, the chances are excellent that he will join the tens of thousands who have committed themselves to their millennial Jewish heritage.

*Names and inessential details have been changed in order to insure anonymity.

Reprinted with permission from the The Informed Soul,
Mesorah Publications, Ltd., Brooklyn, NY 1990



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