Return Torah to its place of glory

Rabbi Elie Kaunfer

I want to challenge one of the mainstay assumptions of organized Jewish life: Jewish continuity is the end goal, and everything is in service of that goal.

It’s been 20 years since the release of the 1990 National Jewish Population Study, which found an unprecedented rate of intermarriage. It launched 1,000 ships of Jewish identity efforts in the service of ensuring Jewish continuity. Indeed, in our current language, everything is in service of Jewish identity. Birthright strengthens Jewish identity. Day schools strengthen Jewish identity. Summer camps strengthen Jewish identity.

Our theory: Strengthen Jewish identity and Judaism will continue.

But here’s the problem with that theory: In our zeal to ensure the Jewish future, we forgot to articulate why it matters for Judaism to continue.

Abraham Joshua Heschel already recognized this in 1965, when he addressed the 34th General Assembly in Montreal. He said, “The significance of Judaism does not lie in its being conducive to the mere survival of a particular people, but rather in its being a source of spiritual wealth, a source of meaning relevant to all peoples.” (“Moral Grandeur and Spiritual Audacity”)

Jews were not placed on this earth to survive. Jews were placed on this earth to embody and to model the quest for “spiritual wealth” and “meaning.”

Jews, like all people, are searching for meaning, substance and connection. The more we are inundated with e-mails, status updates and tweets, the more we want to go deeper. Our souls are calling out for engagement; our hearts are crying out to be opened.

Judaism, at its core, is a response to that yearning, an answer to that call. What are we “continuing” with our calls for “continuity”? Why does Judaism need a future? Because Judaism offers a system, a covenantal language, a heritage and tradition that responds to the human need for meaning, substance and connection. It is our system, our language, our heritage; it is relevant, and that is the reason that we need a Jewish future.

We Jews have a word for the pathway to meaning, substance and connection. It is called Torah. I don’t just mean the Torah scroll that sits alone in the ark, or even just the words of the five books of Moses. I mean the sum total of Jewish sources and texts — the wisdom stored up in our textual heritage.

So often we sideline Torah in the culture of the organized Jewish community. It takes the form of a pithy quote at the top of a website; an icon on our iPad; a glazed d’var Torah at the beginning of a board meeting. It’s what we pay lip service to before we really get down to business. But real Torah is so much deeper.

Torah has the power to draw us into the conversation, and to push us to think more deeply about ourselves and our struggles. Torah gives us a language for clarifying our own life’s mission, and an entryway to express our deepest values.

My Dad and I study Torah every week over the phone, and have done so for the past 15 years.

“When I discuss a text with my son,” he said, “I always ask questions to which I do not know the answer. What comes out of these dialogues is a set of novel and exciting ideas which never occurred to me. But my son and I do more than connect with the texts and their moral gems; we also connect with each other.”

Torah has the power to push us to ask bold questions and to transform our relationships.

So who is Torah for? Is the search for meaning and content reserved for a few motivated Jews? Is it stuck up in the heavens where no one can reach it? Or across the sea where no one can find it? (Deut. 20:12-13)

There is a radical teaching in Jewish tradition in Midrash Tehilim 65:6 about the moment of revelation at Mount Sinai that addresses that question: When God spoke the word [on Sinai], God’s voice split into seven voices.Those seven voices split into the 70 languages of the world so that everyone could understand.

What’s incredible about this Midrash? It means that Torah has something to say to everyone. Not just kids. Not just day school graduates. Not just synagogue goers. Not just rabbis. Not even just Jews!

We often assume that Torah is for the elite or only reserved for those with a strong Jewish education. But Torah never understood itself that way. This Midrash recognizes that it is a basic human need to yearn for meaning and substance, and that yearning doesn’t exclude anyone. Our real birthright, our real morasha, is Torah.

Our task is twofold. First, we have to abandon the old paradigm of Jewish continuity as an end in itself. Instead, continuity must be in the service of Torah; survival must be in service of the deep search for meaning and substance. When we are able to articulate why Judaism matters, why it is critical for us to have a future, then continuity will be the obvious result. In the 21st century, Jews are not inspired to survive just to survive. But we can be inspired to engage in the deepest questions of meaning and existence and do that through the wisdom of our heritage.

Second, we have to make Torah accessible to all. We have to stop imagining Torah as only for the clergy and the elite. We have to stop telling ourselves “I do social justice, other people do Torah.”

We would never limit the quest for pursuit of social justice, or charity, or service, to a few elite.

Why do that with Torah? We suffer and Torah suffers when we short-sell its relevance.

We often have trouble articulating why Judaism matters, and we start casting about for the “next big idea.” Torah always has been the big idea. Let’s bring it back to its place of glory, and in so doing, remind ourselves why we care so much about our Jewish future.

Rabbi Elie Kaunfer is the executive director of Mechon Hadar, an egalitarian yeshiva and independent minyan organization. He adapted this Op-Ed from a speech he delivered Nov. 6 to the Jewish Federations of North America’s General Assembly.