Rebranding efforts miss spirituality inherent in Judaism

Set during the Spanish Civil War years before World War II, Ernest Hemingway’s “For Whom the Bell Tolls” tells the story of a valiant, but ultimately doomed, attempt by a group of republican rebels to launch an attack against the Fascist powers in Spain. Their heroism is often magnificent, but the tragic results seem to mock their defiant courage as they fail to recognize just what they are up against.

That image came to mind as I read Rabbi Deborah Waxman’s “From being to doing: Why the Reconstructionist movement is rebranding” (AJP, 2/9/18). She accurately describes the problem: how so many Jews today no longer “meaningfully take part in most expressions of organized Jewish life.” She goes on to articulately recount the theoretical teachings of Rabbi Mordecai Kaplan and how the “golden years” of the 1950s and ’60s may have had large houses of worship, but failed to truly engage Jews in Jewish life over the longer term. To address this situation, Rabbi Waxman calls for us to “focus our energy on doing Jewish,” which means “observing Jewish law, attending synagogue or sharing a Shabbat meal … studying texts … learning Hebrew or Yiddish … immersing oneself in social action…” etc. Honestly, it is a theme that many rabbis have echoed over the years in many non-Orthodox synagogues, albeit to steadily shrinking congregations. I kept reading, hoping for the “and” that, unfortunately, never came. I realized the key statement was: “The point of being Jewish is that we are here on earth to live lives of meaning and connection to each other, Jews and non-Jews alike.”

Really? That is the point of being Jewish? Simply put, and incredible as it may sound — or maybe not — there are absolutely no references to “God” throughout the entire article. There are references to “religion” and “experiences” and even “spirited prayer,” but not a word about the point of these activities. There have been studies and studies about how Jews for years have been looking elsewhere for spiritual inspiration. There are countless demographic analyses that, despite numbering only about 6 million out of 320-plus million, Jews — especially young Jews — make up 40 percent and more of eastern religious groups and a host of New Age movements in the United States. Jews have been “voting with their feet” for years and, when we bother to ask, these Jews have been candid about their longings for something missing in their spiritual lives.

Of course, the absurdity is that Judaism has a wealth of spiritual, mystical resources. The Kabbalah has sustained Jewish communities throughout centuries of pogroms and indescribable hardship. The tefillot of siddurim [prayers of the prayerbook] are replete with images taken from the writings of such as Isaac Luria. Our Martin Bubers and Aryeh Kaplans speak eloquently about dimensions of relationship to God and each other that are powerful and intense. That so many Jews think they need to go to Hinduism and Buddhism if they are interested in meditation or reincarnation would be hysterical if it wasn’t so tragic. Yet our leadership routinely ignores these sources and, if it teaches them at all, does so with the intellectual objectivity of a Wissenschaft worldview (a systematic pursuit of knowledge) that does to Jewish spiritual life what a scientific pin does to the wonder and beauty of a butterfly.

None of this is meant to reject Jewish study, practice, or mitzvot, but it is meant to cry out that, when it comes to Jews desperately seeking for meaning, we need to stop scoffing at them and lecturing that they need to return to the edifice complex they have found so unsatisfying to begin with. If we do not start listening and answering with very Jewish spiritual answers, we will all too soon be forlornly repeating Ezekiel’s question of God, “Can these dry bones live?” In the meantime, we need not ask “For whom the bell tolls.” It is tolling for us.

Arthur Yavelberg  is retired and living in Tucson. He was most recently dean of students at Sir Manasseh Meyer International School in Singapore.