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Relationships are the essence of Judaism

Amy Hirshberg Lederman (Courtesy Lederman)

Human beings are born into relationship. It is our natural way of being – a state of need coupled with desire – without which we languish physically, mentally, emotionally and spiritually.

In the Jewish tradition, being in relationship is regarded as one of the highest and most sacred of values. Jews do not cut themselves off from others. We don’t believe in celibacy for the priesthood and are taught repeatedly not to remove ourselves from the world but to live fully and deeply within it. As Hillel teaches in Pirkei Avot: “Do not separate yourself from the community.”

In Judaism there are three primary relationships that form the foundation for Jewish thought, practice, culture and life. They are: our relationship to God, our relationship to Torah (and sacred texts) and our relationship to one another. While commonly referred to as God, Torah and (the People of) Israel, these three pillars of Jewish relationships can also be understood as the “Three B’s” of Judaism: Believing, Behaving and Belonging.

What we believe, how we behave, and to whom we belong is the essence of all things Jewish.

The Bible uses various metaphors for the relationship between God and the People of Israel: parent/child and husband/wife being the most frequent. But regardless of whether we understand this relationship to require ritual observance or acts of social justice to redeem the world through tikkun olam, one thing prevails. In the Torah’s understanding of the God-Israel “marriage,” there is no possibility of divorce. It is a relationship that is here to stay.

The relationship between God and the Jewish people is a covenantal one (called a brit in Hebrew.) Covenantal relationships are, by definition, committed relationships. They are relationships in which the partners are committed to one another and to maintaining their relationship even when the words “I love you” are not the motivation for staying put and staying committed. At least, not at that exact moment in time.

Like all relationships, we can expect that as our needs, priorities and interests change over time, so too will our relationship to the Jewish community. At one point we may desire to develop our knowledge of ritual practices; at another, we may seek to fulfill a yearning for education, spiritual fulfillment or social experiences. We may look for meaning in Jewish rituals and traditions and be comforted by them. Or we may feel let down when our synagogues, Jewish centers and community organizations are unable to give us what we need.

As with all relationships, we have to accept and acknowledge that we will have rough patches, miscommunications, frustrations and yes, hurt, when we engage in being a part of the Jewish community. What happens in daily life when we don’t feel love for those with whom we are in primary, committed relationships? What do we do on the days when a spouse or partner acts with disregard for our feelings, or a parent refuses to listen to our point of view?

What keeps us hanging in when things are hard is not always love but the overriding commitment to be in an intimate relationship with another human being. It is the relationship itself that gives life meaning and the incentive to persevere, believing and behaving as if feelings of love and devotion will return.

Applying that sort of commitment to our relationship to the Jewish community, how do we react when we are frustrated, disappointed in or angry with our congregation, Jewish organizations or Jewish community? What do we do about our relationship – to the Day School, Jewish Community Center, synagogue, even the state of Israel – when we “fall out of love” because the things we worked so hard to understand and support in years past are no longer the marching orders or guiding missions for the years ahead?

These are uncomfortable and difficult questions to ask but even harder ones to answer. And yet the answers will determine the outcome and well-being of the American Jewish community in the future.

We are living in a time when change is rapid and many of the initiatives and methods of past Jewish engagement are no longer working or desired by younger generations of Jewish cohorts and families. Now is the time to engage in more open and honest conversation about how we can continue to remain in the Jewish covenantal relationship – not in spite of these changes, but with and through them.

Just as with other committed relationships, there is no perfect Jewish organization or community. But belonging to the Jewish people means that we never give up on us: that we work to understand, learn and change rather than abandon our efforts to stay engaged in the shared vision of a redeemed world. This commitment to remain engaged is not just part of our Jewish journey; it is our destiny as well.

Because in the end, it will be through our combined efforts of BELIEVING, BEHAVING, and BELONGING that we will create a pathway for BECOMING. And who we become, as individuals and as a Jewish community, is a commitment worth fighting for.