Amidst a rapidly changing world, the Jewish community, like all communities of faith, is trying its hardest to preserve its heritage and pass it on to the next generation.
In this mission of love and devotion, we get a lot right. We’ve made sure that our humor, our culture, and our cuisine have been deeply embedded in the hearts of our young. However, in the transmission of our religious practices, we’ve fallen short.
Instead of investing in education of our mother tongue, the Hebrew language, we’ve adopted transliteration in its place. Instead of diving into the wondrous depths of the Torah and Talmud, we’ve erased entire sections of Jewish law deemed too antiquated. And instead of taking pride in the vastness of our religious civilization, we’ve simplified our heritage to “cultural Judaism” in the hopes that it will won’t be too heavy a burden for the next generation.
The idea seems to be to that in order to ensure our people’s survival, we have to condense Judaism and prove to increasing numbers of young, unengaged Jews that their faith still has something to offer.
This premise is deeply flawed. The time has come, therefore, for us to reacquaint ourselves with the purpose of Judaism.
This ancient system of faith which has, alongside our beloved homeland, been the lifeblood of our national life is not, like so many other religions, designed to serve its believers.
Rather, while its adherents certainly have much to gain from the practice of faith, the raison d’être of Judaism is not to serve its believers. Instead, it is to serve G-d everyday by manifesting our values through action.
To observe the principle that human beings are holy and that we are created betzelem elohim, we are commanded to love ourselves, honor our bodies through cleanliness, and refrain from scarring our bodies with ink.
To observe the ideal that faith should be practiced within the confines of a community, we are commanded to form minyanim and to actively support the weak and the suffering among us.
To observe the Talmud’s declaration that Jews are all responsible for one another, we are commanded to protect our land as soldiers in uniform, to participate in our democracy as citizens of the sovereign State of Israel, and to care for the environment that nurtures us.
To observe the ideal that we must act as a light unto the nations, we are commanded to love our neighbor as ourselves, to champion friendship among the peoples of the world, and to extend a hand of aid to those who need it.
A Jewish life, a life of service, means spending time studying our sacred texts and taking up arms in defense of the Jewish state. It means exercising restraint in what we eat, what we say, and how we dress. It means, in the words of the Conservative movement, spending our lives “proving to the world that in order to be people we must be more than people.” In other words, we differentiate ourselves from creatures with mere animal instincts by striving for holiness through action.
It’s not always the easiest way to live.
But deep within Judaism, this ancient, high-maintenance faith, lies the belief that we reap what we sow.
Through service to our bodies and our community we find ourselves healthy and comforted in our times of need. Through service to our country and to the world we find ourselves protected and free. And through service to G-d, to the highest ideal that we are capable of understanding, we find a life of joy.
Service, not simplification, is the key with which we unlock the gates of our grand heritage and deliver it, in all its complexity, to the next generation.