Thursday, June 3, 2010

Diversity an an Offensive Tool

Perhaps the biggest challenge we face as a community is making Judaism exciting. How do we get unaffiliated and disenchanted Jews, especially young ones, to renew an interest in their Jewish heritage and become active in the community? How do we cultivate Jewish identity in an era of assimilation and intermarriage?

It is a tough challenge. For most of our history Jewish identity was a product of an all-encompassing Jewish environment that did not require much introspection in its formation. It was the product of life in the ghetto. Though the physical realities of being Jewish – the oppression, the constant threat of expulsion, and the inferior legal status to which they were relegated – were undoubtedly a challenge to Jewish life, the intellectual difficulties of coming to terms with a Jewish identity in an enveloping Christian world were not really present.

Today’s world is characterized by its fluid boundaries, its rapid flow of information, and its increasingly globalized popular culture. The modern individual is distinguished by his range of interests and by his multiple and at times conflicting identities. It is precisely this interest in diversity, which we can and should use to our advantage. Because of its tumultuous history, Judaism has developed a whole range of different theological ideas, philosophical trends, and cultural expressions. Whether an individual is drawn to mysticism, religion, music, literature, art, gastronomy, philosophy, archaeology, sociology, or even politics, Jewish history, as well as the contemporary Jewish world can offer a little bit of everything. Every person can and will choose a different gateway into Judaism, what is necessary is for the all the doors to be open.

In this respect, it seems that the mainstream Jewish establishment is lagging behind. Most of the current efforts aimed at strengthening Jewish identity seem to revolve around revitalizing religious services and creating awareness and support for Israel. In order to captivate the modern individual, the Jewish world cannot limit itself to its national and religious components. We must recognize that in today’s world it is less and less likely that a Jewish individual, especially one who doesn’t identify strongly with his heritage, will suddenly have a religious epiphany or a moment of transcendent connection to his people. What seems more likely to happen, and what the Jewish world should be striving for, is that something seemingly insignificant as a song, a movie, or a philosophical insight, that captures the essence of Jewish culture or thought, will spark the individual’s interest and then he himself will want to explore this connection further.

The task at hand for the Jewish world, is not to remold, and not to push itself onto individuals in a sort of propaganda scheme as it seems to be doing now, but rather to open up its gates and expose its diverse heritage of thought, culture, and practice so that the individual himself can come and explore.

There are encouraging signs that this is happening. There is a growing number of non-profits around the country dedicated to strengthening Jewish identity by creating programs that blend Jewish thought with specific areas of interest such as music, film, and sustainable farming. These organizations are on the right track. As they sometimes say in football, “the best defense is a good offense”. Instead of agonizing over high rates of assimilation and intermarriage, and accordingly trying to find new ways to make Judaism relevant, how about flaunting the entire breadth of Jewish expression, and hoping that people will be interested of their own accord. If it makes the scope of Jewish thought and cultural expression available, from Israeli music, to Jewish American literature, to ultra-Orthodox mysticism, the Jewish world might be able to benefit from its diversity and fragmentation.

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