Listen to the Language

by Rabbi Linda Joseph.

There has been a lot of evolutionary/revolutionary writing and initiatives in Reform Judaism of late. Ideas and projects are being designed, developed and bandied about —  a Campaign for Youth Engagement, a Bar Mitzvah Revolution, a URJ New Paradigm, etc. etc.

The gist of these investigations on a movement level is how do we make our movement and its’ member synagogues stronger into the 21st century? How do we ensure the vitality of our synagogues and our stream of Judaism? How do we reach out to our members (short and long term) to strengthen us?

Listen to the language.

It is about US! This is the language of me, Me, ME! The angle is that of egocentric enquiries and experiments. The parlance is not about meaningful Judaism and Jewish practice or the survival of the Jewish people. It is not about the Divine or spirituality (whatever that means to you).

It is about synagogue survival (read: membership)! It is about the survival of a movement (read: turf).

So hear me out with some radical thoughts: Could it be that this is the wrong angle? Are we speaking the wrong vocabulary? And by being self-centric – are we missing an opportunity to really reach out and include?

We are living in a world that is increasingly characterized by less limitation. One of my study partners, Rabbi Mitch Chefitz, shared with me a discussion he attended on the creation of a new Mishnah for our era. The panelists were asked the question: “What categories would you create for organizing this work?” Their reply: “There is no need for categories – the new Mishnah could operate with a simple search engine, using key words.”

No need for categories. What if we let down our boundaries – movement boundaries, synagogue boundaries, turf boundaries, clique boundaries – and we focused instead on the key words of being Jewish, making it meaningful, connecting to God in people’s lives?  What if we focused on the Jewish neshama (soul)?

Many of us are familiar with the Jewish folk story of the King with a damaged diamond. He called throughout the land to see if there was some artisan who could fix the blemish on the stone. No one would touch the diamond, deeming it irreparable through conventional means. Only one man dared try, and in doing so he carved a rose through the blemish, creating something beautiful and new.

If we wish to be chart new territory for 21st century Judaism, then let’s start an open discussion on the means by which to get there.

My take – we need to start speaking and designing with the big picture of Am Yisrael (the people of Israel) and Yisra-el (the ones who struggle with the Divine). Less talk of ME. The small picture approach. More talk of COMMUNITY. The big picture approach.

Let us make it our mission to become, bottom-line, vehicles to strengthen the identity of Jews and Judaism and Jewish life. Let us measure our success, not by affiliation, but by Jewish roots and Jewish wings.  Let us kvell when our students/congregants emanate their Judaism in what they do,  whether it be with us, somewhere else in the Jewish world, cyberspace, (the moon for that matter) or the secular community.

I theorize, if we were less concerned about retaining members through programs or incentives or having engaged kids, (not that those are bad things or would not be things we do under a new paradigm) if we were less concerned about ME, then we might design more compelling Jewish centers (call them synagogues if you like) to captivate Jews loyalty and to strengthen their individual souls and the soul of Jewish life.

What do you think?

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About Rabbi Linda Joseph

I am currently serving as Interim Rabbi at Tree of Life Congregation in Columbia SC, a Reform Jewish synagogue celebrating its 120th year. I love God, Jewish traditions, creativity and texts. I enjoy teaching, prayer, community and connection. Storytelling, making art, listening to music, writing, reading and cooking are some of my passions. I am blessed each day when I get to play with my dog Ben Bag Bag and my cat Khazar.

2 thoughts on “Listen to the Language

  1. Reading this I am reminded of my favorite quotation from Rabbi Alexander Schindler, z”l: “My dream was to see our Judaism unleashed as a resource for a world in need, not as the exclusive inheritance of the few, but as a renewable resource for the many; not as a religious stream too small to be seen on the map of the world, but as a deep-flowing river, hidden by the overgrown confusion of modern times, that could nourish humanity’s highest aspiration.” Rabbi Schindler looked outward to the world, to what Judaism could bring to the world, and it’s that sort of outward view that I agree we need to take.

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