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Return Torah to Its Place of Glory

November 15, 2011 By:
Elie Kaunfer
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I want to challenge one of the mainstay assumptions of organized Jewish life: Jewish continuity is the end goal, and everything is in service to that.
 
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 to Jewish identity. Birthright strengthens Jewish identity. Day schools strengthen Jewish identity. Summer camps strengthen Jewish identity.
 
The theory: Strengthen Jewish identity and Judaism will continue.
 
But here's the problem with that: In our zeal to ensure the future, we forgot to articulate why Judaism matters.
 
Abraham Joshua Heschel already recognized this in 1965, when he addressed the Federations' 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."
 
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 emails, status updates and tweets, the more we want to go deeper.
 
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, and a tradition that responds to the human need for meaning, substance and connection.
 
We Jews have a word for the pathway to meaning, substance and connection: It's Torah. I don't just mean the 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 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.
 
So who is Torah for? Is the search for meaning and content reserved for a few motivated Jews?
 
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.
 
This 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!
 
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, then continuity will be the result.
 
Second, we have to make Torah accessible to all. We have to stop imagining Torah as only for the clergy and the elite or those with a strong Jewish education. We have to stop telling ourselves: "I do social justice, other people do Torah."
 
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 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.

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