How Can We Revitalise Judaism: Chapter 15 of My Book, “Who Stole My Religion?”
Little does contemporary religion ask of man. It is ready to offer comfort; it has no courage to challenge. It is ready to offer edification; it has no courage to break the idols, to shatter callousness. The trouble is that religion has become “religion” – institution, dogma, ritual. It is no longer an event. Its acceptance involves neither risk nor strain. – Abraham Joshua Heschel183
We must cultivate a sense of injustice, impatience with vulgarity, a capacity for moral indignation, a will to readjust society itself when it becomes complacent and corrupt.– Abraham Joshua Heschel184
What young people need is not religious tranquilizers, religion as a diversion, but spiritual audacity, intellectual guts, power of defiance. Our task is not to satisfy complacency but to shatter it. Our duty is confrontation rather than evasion. – Abraham Joshua Heschel185
Working to meet the challenge expressed in the three quotations above can help revitalize Judaism. Rabbi Heschel expressed the central role that Judaism must play in helping to solve contemporary problems. Much of my own Jewish philosophy comes from Rabbi Heschel, whom I often quote in this book. I regard him as the ideal Jew, because he not only took Jewish prayer and ritual seriously and wrote beautifully on such a wide variety of issues, but also put Jewish teachings into practice in active involvement in many social issues, including supporting freedom for Soviet Jews, working for civil rights, helping improve relations between Catholics and Jews, and opposing what he regarded as an unjust, immoral war in Vietnam.
Unfortunately, relatively few Jews are familiar with his writings nowadays. I strongly believe that if many more Jews read Rabbi Heschel’s books and essays and tried to live by them, we would have a far more sensitive and dedicated Jewish community. This, in turn, would lead to a revitalized Judaism and a far better world. Heschel writes:
Our civilization is in need of redemption. The evil, the falsehood, the vulgarity of our way of living cry to high heaven. There is a war to be waged against the vulgar, against the glorification of power, a war that is incessant, universal. There is much purification that needs to be done, ought to be done, and could be done through bringing to bear the radical wisdom, the sacrificial devotion, the uncompromising loyalty of our forefathers upon the issues of our daily living.186
Suggestions for Revitalizing Judaism
183 Abraham Joshua Heschel, The Insecurity of Freedom (New York: Ferrar, Strauss, and Giroux, 1967), 218. 184 Ibid, 49.
185 Ibid, 1-2.
186 Ibid, 218
Building On Jewish Progressive Teachings
As indicated in Chapter 3, Judaism is in many ways a radical religion, in the best sense of the word “radical.” However, our Jewish schools and synagogues seem to be grooming mostly contented and complacent individuals, people unwilling to apply Jewish values to help change an unjust status quo. I believe that in this time of violence, oppression, bigotry, selfishness, and materialism, there should be greater stress on Judaism’s powerful, radical teachings. These include:
- “Justice, justice shall you pursue” (Deuteronomy 16:20).
- “Seek peace and pursue it” (Psalms 34:14).
- “Be kind to the stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt” (This appears in
various forms 36 times in the Hebrew scriptures).
- “Love your neighbor as yourself” (Leviticus 19:18).
- “Bal tashchit” You shall not waste or destroy (Deuteronomy 20:19-20).
- Be a “light unto the nations” (Isaiah 42:6).
- “If I am not for myself, who will be for me? If I am only for myself, what am I? And if
not now, when?” (Hillel, Pirkei Avot 1:14).
These and other challenging teachings in the Jewish tradition should become watchwords in synagogues, and Jewish schools, institutions, and homes. This would help return Judaism to its radical roots and help Jews apply its teachings to societal problems.
Using the Jewish Festivals as a Spur to Activism
Many important Jewish teachings are reflected in Jewish holidays. Rabbi Irving Greenberg, author of The Jewish Way: Living the Holidays and other books, has written, “The Holy Days are the unbroken master code of Judaism. Decipher them and you will discover the inner sanctum of your religion. Grasp them and you hold the heart of the faith in your hand.”187 Judaism’s rich and beautiful holidays can help raise awareness of how our tradition speaks to modern social issues:
Shabbat: We can highlight the important environmental benefits of Shabbat as a day of rest, putting aside computers, TV sets, cars, and other items that are so prevalent during the workdays, and refraining from striving to increase one’s wealth. As Rabbi Heschel states in his classic book The Sabbath:
To set aside one day a week for freedom, a day on which we would not use the instruments which have so easily been turned into weapons of destruction, a day for being with ourselves, a day of detachment from the vulgar, of independence of external obligations, a day on which we stop worshipping the idols of technical civilization, a day on which we use no money, a day of armistice in the economic struggle with our fellow men and the forces of nature – is there any institution that holds out a greater hope for man’s progress than the Sabbath?
Rabbi Samuel Dresner, a devoted student of Rabbi Heschel, suggests that the Sabbath should represent an armistice in battles between people and society, between people and nature, and between people with themselves. We are not to even pick a flower on Shabbat, not only because we should not harvest things on that day, but also because we are to be at peace with
187 Rabbi Irving Greenberg, The Jewish Way: Living the Holidays, (New York: Summit Books, 1988), 17. 157
everything, as in the Garden of Eden, for which reason we do not make or destroy anything on the Sabbath day.
I always welcome Shabbat with joy as a chance to recharge my batteries, to renew family relationships and conversations, to catch up on my reading and, of course, to commune with God and God’s creations. I sometimes wonder how I would manage without Shabbat. I get some of my best work done on Saturday evenings after a restful Shabbat, perhaps partly because by turning away from the endless barrage of messages, tasks, and data, I return refreshed and able to see things anew. Of course we must maintain the sanctity of Shabbat and other Jewish holy days, but we can also direct the great peace and strength we gain from observing these days toward greater involvement on the other days of the week. I agree with Rabbi Arthur Waskow that the entire world needs a Shabbat, or perhaps an entire Sabbatical Year, to pause from efforts to constantly produce and amass more and more goods, to reassess where we are heading, and stop or reform the practices that are harmful to the environment.
Rosh Hashanah: On this day that commemorates the creation of the world, we should consider how the wonderful world that God has created is now imperiled by climate change and many other environmental threats, and vow to work with others to turn things around in the coming New Year. In praying for a healthy year for our loved ones, and ourselves, we should recognize that having a healthful, meat-free diet is the best way to reduce risks of disease and increase chances for a longer life.
Yom Kippur: On this Day of Atonement and repentance, we should consider how we can repent and atone for all the ways we, as individuals, communities, and societies, have exploited and savaged our environment and vow to work to restore and improve it.
Sukkot: On this harvest festival, as Jews in their holy booths (sukkahs), exposed to the elements and smelling plants and tree branches, we might focus on Jewish teachings about food and preventing hunger. The poetic references to the cycles of sun, wind, and water in the book of Ecclesiastes, which we read on the Shabbat during Sukkot, could inspire discussions of renewable energy. Our prayers for rain on Shemini Atzeret can remind us of the importance of conserving water, especially in this time when many areas face severe droughts.
Chanukah: The importance of non-conformity and fighting for one’s beliefs should be stressed, with the victory of the holy few (the Maccabees) against the far stronger, pagan Syrian-Greeks as an example. It is also a good opportunity to consider how we can make our oil last longer through conservation and improved efficiencies, just as it occurred miraculously in the holy Temple.
Tu B’Shvat: An event on the Jewish calendar that is ideally suited to raising environmental awareness and activism is Tu B’Shvat, the “birthday of the trees,” which has become a kind of “Jewish Earth Day” in some Jewish circles.188 The traditional foods served at a Tu B’Shvat seder are all grains and fruits, which make it a good opportunity to consider Jewish teachings on the
188 Connections between this holiday and the environment were made long before the invention of the secular Earth Day. In Israel, Tu B’Shvat comes at tree-planting time, and it is a time-honored tradition to plant trees in someone’s honor or memory on this day. Much of the early reforestation of Israel was done with donations for planting trees on Tu B’Shvat.
environment, vegetarianism, and veganism, like the ones in lessons from trees discussed in the next section. When the holiday falls on Shabbat, it can be turned into an environmentally-themed Shabbat, including a Tu B’Shvat seder overflowing with plant-based foods, especially fruits and nuts from trees that grow in Israel, plus environmentally-oriented sermons, talks, panel discussions, and debates, nature walks, and other appropriate activities. If Tu B’Shvat falls during the week, besides having a seder, it provides a good opportunity for school children to get close to nature by taking hikes, planting trees, studying relevant texts, reading and writing appropriate material, singing songs, and in other ways learning to appreciate our deep connection to nature. The holiday also provides an opportunity to discuss threats to Israel (and the U.S. and the entire world) from climate change and other environmental problems and from resource scarcities.
Passover: The themes of liberation and freedom from oppression can lead to seder table discussions about democracy and civil liberties. It is also a good time to consider the implications of the oft-quoted Jewish mandate that we should be kind to the stranger since “we were slaves in Egypt.”
Shavuot: On this holiday that commemorates the giving of the Torah to the Jewish people, we might study, during the traditional all-night gatherings to learn Torah, some of the Torah’s teachings about justice, compassion, peace, environmental preservation, community, kindness, and helping our neighbors. The book of Ruth that is read on Shavuot is an especially valuable source for discussions on kindness.
Tisha B’Av: On this sad day that commemorates the destruction of both our ancient holy Temples, we should recognize that today it is not only holy temples and the residents of the holy city of Jerusalem that are threatened with destruction, but the whole world as well. We should actively work to avert an impending, climate catastrophe and other threats to the planet.
Every Jewish holiday provides an excellent occasion to increase awareness and sensitivity about Jewish teachings that speak to current crises. I suggest connections between Shabbat and all of the Jewish festivals and other sacred days to vegetarianism in my articles in the holidays section at www.JewishVeg.com/Schwartz. We can similarly tie all the Jewish holy days to other environmental and social justice issues.
Rabbi Arthur Waskow has written an excellent book called Seasons of our Joy, which follows the holiday cycle and explains how each of the holy days not only commemorates a historical event, but is also connected to the natural cycles of the earth. Each sacred day has its own theme and its own special energy. When a Jew is conscious of and tuned into this cycle, it can become the story of one’s own life as well. There is plenty of room for authentic creativity and innovation within Jewish tradition.
An Example Related To Tu B’Shvat
I am writing these words shortly after Tu B’Shvat, the birthday of the trees, in 2015. Below is the dvar Torah (Torah teaching) that I presented at the Tu B’Shvat Seder at my synagogue:
Some of my most important lessons in life I learned from Jewish verses about trees. From the following I learned that I should be an environmental activist, working to help preserve the world:
In the hour when the Holy one, blessed be He created the first person, He showed him the trees in the Garden of Eden, and said to him: “See My works, how fine they are; Now all that I have created, I created for your benefit. Think upon this and do not corrupt and destroy My world, For if you destroy it, there is no one to restore it after you.” (Ecclesiastes Rabbah 7:28)
From the following and the rabbinic commentaries on it I learned that I should avoid destruction and should conserve resources:
When you shall besiege a city a long time, in making war against it to take it, you shall not destroy (lo tashchit) the trees thereof by wielding an ax against them; for you may eat of them, but you must not cut the down; for is the tree of the field a man, that it should be besieged by you? Only the trees of which you know that they are not trees for food, them you may destroy and cut down, that you may build bulwarks against the city that makes war with you, until itfall. (Deuteronomy 20:19, 20)
The following verse helped convince me that I should be a vegan:
And God said: “Behold, I have given you every herb yielding seed which is upon the face of all the earth, and every tree that has seed-yielding fruit – to you it shall be for food.” (Genesis 1:29)
From the following I learned that as a Jew I should strive to serve as a positive example:
And they came to Elim, where were 12 springs of water and 70 palm trees; and they encamped here by the waters (Deuteronomy 15:27). Rabbi Bachya saw a very deep message in this apparently simple verse. He stated that the 12 springs represent the 12 tribes of Israel, and the 70 palm trees represent the 70 then nations of the world. He stated that just as the 12 springs nourished the 70 palm trees, the 12 tribes (the Jewish people) should serve to “nourish” the world by serving as a good example.
From the following I learned to consider the consequences of my actions on future generations: While the sage Choni was walking along a road, he saw an old man planting a carob tree. Choni asked him: “How long will it take for this tree to bear fruit?” “70 years,” replied the man. Choni then asked: “Are you so healthy a man that you expect to live that length of time and eat its fruit?” The man answered: “I found a fruitful world because my ancestors planted it for me. Likewise, I am planting for my children.” (Ta’anis 23b)
From the following I learned how important it is to be involved in the natural world:
In order to serve God, one needs access to the enjoyment of the beauties of nature – meadows full of flowers, majestic mountains, flowing rivers. For all these are essential to the spiritual development of even the holiest of people. (Rabbi Abraham ben Maimonides, cited by Rabbi David E. Stein in A Garden of Choice Fruits, Shomrei Adamah, 1991).
From the following I learned the importance of acting on my knowledge and beliefs:
Whoever has more wisdom than deeds is like a tree with many branches but few roots, and the wind shall tear him from the ground….Whoever has more deeds than wisdom is like a tree with more roots than branches, and no hurricane will uproot him from the spot. (Pirke Avot 3:17)
From the following I learned the importance of working for a more peaceful world:
And He shall judge between many peoples, and shall decide concerning mighty nations afar off; and they shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks; nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more. But they shall sit every man under his vine and under his fig tree; and none shall make them afraid; for the mouth of the Lord of hosts hath spoken. (Micah 4:3-5)
Last but far from least, from the following I learned how the Torah is a guide to a happy, productive, and fulfilling life:[The Torah is] a tree of life to those who hold fast to it and all who cling to it find happiness. Its ways are ways of pleasantness, and all its paths are peace. (Proverbs 3: 17-18)
Building Progressive Jewish Values into Bar and Bat Mitzvah Ceremonies and Other Jewish Events
Bar and Bat Mitzvah ceremonies are a big part of the lives of 12 year-old Jewish girls and 13- year old Jewish boys. Such occasions often end up focusing on materialism and lavish parties and indulgence, especially as the boys and girls attend and compare many parties of friends and classmates in a short period of time, not to mention competition among the parents to “keep up with the Cohens.” However, with a change of focus, these events could also provide an opportunity for young Jews to reflect on and apply important Jewish values.
One group that helps infuse such occasions and other events with Jewish values is Areyvut, which means responsibility. This organization emphasizes that Jews should feel responsible for other Jews and should play an active role in creating a better community and a better world. Founded and led by Daniel Rothner, Areyvut’s mission is to infuse the lives of Jewish youth and teenagers with the core Jewish values of chesed (kindness), tzedakah (charity), and tikkun olam (social action). Areyvut offers Jewish day schools, congregational schools, synagogues, community centers, and families a variety of opportunities to empower and enrich their youth by creating innovative programs that make these core Jewish values real and meaningful to them.
Areyvut’s fundamental belief is that sparking a passion for service in the young can inspire a lifelong commitment to charity, kindness, and social justice. Therefore, Areyvut creates programs that reach out to Jewish youth, building on their individual interests and putting their experiences into a meaningful Jewish and communal context. They encourage young people to engage in both hands-on service and philanthropy, in the belief that all of God’s gifts should be used to improve our world. Areyvut also believes that community service can benefit – and change – both the recipient and the provider of the service. Their target audience is middle school and high school students from all denominations of Judaism, in all types of Jewish educational settings, and of every kind of Jewish communal affiliation.
Among Areyvut’s many programs are mitzvah clowning, Jewish teen philanthropy, and mitzvah and chesed fairs. Areyvut organizes hands-on, community service fairs for schools, synagogues, and community centers to educate students about the many different ways they can make a difference in their community. More information about Areyvut and its programs can be found at www.areyvut.org.
Getting Students More Involved
Much of the apathy and very conservative values in the Orthodox Jewish community seem to be continuing among our youth. Schools are doing a fine job teaching students how to learn Jewish texts, how to daven, and how to carry out mitzvot and lead a religious Jewish life. But they generally are not inspiring students to apply the Jewish teachings they are learning about in efforts to make the world more consistent with the highest of Jewish values. Changing this will not be easy, but here are some suggestions for ways to involve students in order to help imbue them with Jewish teachings and values, and encourage them to relate Jewish teachings in response to current challenges:
- High school students could be asked to submit papers – perhaps as part of an essay contest – and make class presentations that use Jewish teachings to address current issues such as climate change, energy conservation, hunger, poverty, peace, health, animal rights, vegetarianism, and many more.
- Debate teams could be set up, and students could learn the value of researching positions they don’t personally agree with. The chapters in this book and many other books can be used as starting points for debating many topics pro and con. Many Jews today are afraid to expose their children to opposing views, but they shouldn’t be. The Talmudic rabbis were not afraid of intense debate, and even preserved the ideas that were voted down, so we could learn from the process. Judaism is a strong religion that has stood the test of time; it can certainly withstand the questioning of today’s teenagers. Students should learn that there is not necessarily one correct answer to an issue, and that they should respect others’ opinions even while disagreeing with them.
- Having guest speakers with a wide variety of opinions, consistent with Jewish law and values, would create much interest in a wide variety of current topics.
- Students could be encouraged to come up with their own questions and issues that they would like to investigate. Use of the Internet gives students wonderful opportunities to explore issues.
- When students learn to lead the davening in preparation for adulthood, there should be an effort to relate the prayers to the issues that they are addressing in their research, discussions, and debates. For example, what are the implications of the verse, “Blessed is the One (God) who has compassion on all the creatures,” or “God is good to all, and God’s compassion is over all of God’s works?” How would these verses apply to the way we treat animals and the environment? The same could be done with many other statements in davening. We should be making a conscious effort to connect the words with our actions in the world.
There are many other creative ways through which we can help revitalize Judaism. It is
my hope that wiser people than me will build on the few ideas in this chapter and suggest additional ideas, so that Judaism may become more of what it was always intended to be: a light unto the nations, a kingdom of priests and a holy people, and God’s witnesses on earth.