Editors' Note:This article is part of the Public Square 2014 Summer Series: Conversations on Religious Trends. Read other perspectives from the Jewish community here.
Jewish identity, like all identity, is a narrative construct, a by-product of story. The Jewish story is rooted in the call to leave behind the conditioning of nationality, ethnicity, and parental bias (and to these I would add religion, gender, race, and all other elements of constructed identity) in order to see the world anew and to become a blessing to all the families of the earth (all of them: mineral, vegetable, animal, human, etc.) by working tirelessly for global peace and prosperity (Genesis 12:1-3; Micah 4:3-5). A Jew is a person who makes this story foundational to her sense of self–worth, meaning, purpose, and the way she lives her life. A Jewish community is a network of Jews who together live this story into the world through shared action: religious, cultural, social, political, etc.
The challenges we Jews face today—intermarriage, assimilation, biblical and Talmudic illiteracy, abandonment of mitzvot, etc.—are symptoms of a greater problem: the loss of story, and the loss of personal and corporate meaning and mission that comes with losing our story. Either we Jews matter to the world or we don't, and if we don't there's no reason to be Jewish at all. Jewish survival is not a value in and of itself:
It isn't enough that Israel be My servant, it isn't sufficient that I lift up the tribes of Jacob and restore the remnants of Israel. I will also make you a light to the nations in order that My salvation may reach the ends of the earth (Isaiah 49:6).
Jews and Judaism are not ends in themselves, but means to planetary salvation:
And nations shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks. Nation shall not take up sword against nation, and people shall never again know war. Instead they shall sit unafraid beneath their grape vines and fig trees. And all people shall walk in the Name of their Gods as we walk in the Name of YHVH (Micah 4:3-5).
The salvation the Jewish story promises is a world without war, thirst, hunger, and fear; a world in which people are free to pursue their own search for meaning and purpose in their own way. The obligation the Jewish story places upon Jews is the endless work of actualizing this salvation: "It is not incumbent upon you to complete the task, but neither are you free to abandon it" (Pirke Avot 2:21). Authentic Judaism—Judaism rooted in this story—is a path of justice, kindness, and humility (Micah 6:8) leading to global peace and prosperity, and everything we Jews do as Jews must further this goal if we are to legitimately call what we do Judaism.
This view of Jews and Judaism leaves lots of room for denominational differences, and personal and communal creativity and experimentation. But it requires all Jews to reclaim, teach, embody, and live our story and the salvation to which it obligates us. And we're not.
Rather than work toward a redemptive future, we focus on imitating a romanticized past. Rather than proclaim the cosmic God of creation and creativity, we focus on a tribal God obsessed with chosenness, blood, land, and conformity. As survey after survey of Jewish life shows, a growing majority of postmodern and postethnic Jews see Judaism as a narrow, jingoistic celebration of tribal self-aggrandizement rather than a catalyst for global salvation. For these Jews, Judaism is shallow, tedious, insular, meaningless, and anything but compelling. For them—and for me—either Judaism aids in the salvation of the world, or it doesn't; and if it doesn't, we have no need to preserve it at all.
The future Judaism toward which I work is one that reclaims our story and lives the challenge of being a blessing to all the families of the earth. This Judaism is rooted more in the existentialism of Job and Ecclesiastes than the tribalism of Exodus and Leviticus; more in Spinoza than Akivah, and Buber than Rosensweig; more in universalism than parochialism; more in aggadic creativity than halachic conformity; more in the iconoclasm of the early Abraham than the authority of rabbis; more in the intrinsically cooperative nonzero worldview of Micah than the intrinsically violent zero-sum worldview of Moses.
But whether you find my Judaism of value or not, it is the story you must reclaim, and reclaim it soon.