Mission-Driven Judaism

I have spent the past two days in conversation with colleagues on the future of Judaism. We were, characteristically, depressed.

Rabbi A despaired over low attendance at Shabbat and Holy Day services. Rabbi B found that after decades of dedication to adult education “my Jews are no more Jewishly knowledgeable then when we started.” Rabbi C agonized over intermarriage and multiple belonging: “BuJews, HinJews, Jewfis abound, but Jew-Jews are more and more rare.”

My Jewish dread is a bit more existential: I despair that Judaism has become meaningless.

My parents, grandparents, and great grandparents knew (not believed, but knew) that we Jews are chosen by God for some purpose. They were convinced that we Jews, like Jake and Elwood Blues, are on a mission from God. That surety ends with me.

I don’t believe in choosing gods or chosen peoples. But if we aren’t chosen, if we lack a mission, why bother being Jewish at all?

What Jews and Judaism need is a resurgence of meaning in a post–Chosen People, post–Choosing God world.

For me our mission is simple: to be a light unto the nations (Isaiah 49:6) and a blessing to all the families of the earth (Genesis 12:3). I don’t believe God told us this. I know (not believe, know) that we invented this notion of ourselves, and find it all the more compelling because I know this. As a people we Jews challenge ourselves to model a corporate structure that is rooted in the highest expressions of justice and compassion that we can imagine. And as individuals we challenge ourselves to live lives that benefit others, however we might do this in the particularity of our individual setting and circumstance.

What matters in my mission driven Judaism is living the mission in the present and not necessarily preserving the forms in which we once lived it in the past. My benchmark of Jewish authenticity isn’t conformity to the past, but allegiance to the mission in the present.

Of course we won’t agree as to how to do that, but that won’t matter. Our diversity will continue, and what will unite us will be our mission.

Will this insure the survival of the Jews and the thriving of Judaism? Probably not, but it will give the next generation something else to despair over when they too discover that Judaism is dying.


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