Sunday, June 12, 2011

who cares?

What should a good synagogue - or any Jewish institution - do?

Thought experiment:

Let's imagine that Judaism mattered. That is, it made a difference whether or not it were being done - and by extension, done well. What would it be about Judaism that was important?

Maybe it's the moral imperative. I hear that a lot; in fact, I heard it a number of times just today. A friend was telling me about a conversation a friend of his had had with her Orthodox parents about her mover away from observance. "Isn't the most important thing whether I'm a good person?" And then later today, I saw that a wise and influential rabbi had written "Jewishness is believing one person can transform the world."

Now, it is really, truly, desperately important that one try to be a good person. And there's no question that believing that one can transform the world - or should at least try - is crucial if there is to be any kind of justice done, any repair of the world. But. But. But. If being Jewish meant being a good person, then either all good people would be Jewish by definition, or only Jews would have the capacity for goodness (either through some inherent quality, or through a monopoly on moral teachings). And both alternatives are patently nonsense. But think of Gandhi, Dorothy Day, Dr. King. Of Florence Nightingale; of Harriet Tubman. Not a good Jew in the bunch.

So the Jewish part of being Jewish, the stuff that would matter if Judaism matters, has got to be different than just the moral imperative*.

To be sure, maybe it doesn't matter - not beyond a kind of ethnic pride, a desire for the kind of immortality that comes from being connected to something that lasts. In which case, who really cares what we do, or how? As long as you get people in the door, and get them to pin the "Hi, I'm Jewish" name tag on their psyche, you've succeeded.

But if it there was something, or a couple of somethings, that were really important on their own; if there was something there that the God or the world or your neighbor or you would be poorer without, then it seems that the institution would have two tasks:
1) Identify what it was that needed to be done - and what that thing looked like when done well;
2) Make sure it gets done well.

Actually, if we thought there was a core that really mattered - in the way that other stuff that matters matters - we'd be changing our relationship with our shuls and JCCs and the like. We wouldn't be so concerned about whether they entertained us or bored us - we'd want to know whether they helped us do the stuff we needed to do, well. We'd demand it.

Sounds simple, don't it? But I don't see that happening, by and large. Do you? I wonder what that means.

*That doesn't, doesn't, doesn't mean that one can be fully Jewish and be a schmuck; just that there's more to being Jewish than not being a schmuck. Did I really need to say that?

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