Anything but Torah!

I hold a coveted position, but I feel very alone. I think I’m the only person left in the Jewish communal world who has not yet put in his or her two cents on the Pew Survey.

By some estimates, over a million words of commentary have been spilled in the aftermath of the Pew Survey’s dire description of American Jewry. Never before has the saying “two Jews, three opinions” proven to be more of an understatement. I am reminded of Abba Eban’s description of the incessant speeches in the Knesset – it’s all been said, but not everyone has said it yet.

Nevertheless, for the sake of Jewish unity, I am willing to give up my coveted position as the lone non-commentator and break my silence.

Much of the Pew commentary falls into one of the following categories:

1) the sky is falling and we need to start writing our obituary;

2) the sky is falling, except for the Orthodox – yay!;

3) the sky is falling, except for the Orthodox – oy vey!;

4) the sky is not falling – the U.S. Jewish community has never been stronger – they’re just expressing themselves differently, that’s all.

So which version is the truth? Clearly, at least a good portion of the sky is falling. Clearly, no matter how one feels about it, the Orthodox community has grown and will likely continue to grow – through a combination of birthrate, Ba’alei Teshuva (those who didn’t grow up observant but become so as adults), and a much lower attrition rate than in the past. Clearly, of those who are “expressing themselves differently,” as is already unavoidably evident from several decades of studies, they or their children have a very high chance of falling off the Jewish map entirely – to say otherwise is, well, delusional.

So what to do about it? There’s another category of commentary – exemplified by Barry Shrage’s recent article at The Times of Israel – that attempts to walk between the raindrops, avoid any of the hard and fast labels assigned by the Pew Survey, and embrace all of us in, as Shrage calls it, “A Judaism of Meaning.” A nice idea, and perhaps the best approach to an impossible situation. But a critical element is missing in Barry Shrage’s description of this “Judaism of Meaning,” and without it, the sky will not only continue to fall but pick up speed rapidly.

Full disclosure – I’ve known Barry Shrage for many years. When people ask me how I became a Jewish communal professional, I always say, “It’s Barry Shrage’s fault.” A chance meeting with Barry nearly 15 years ago developed into a senior fundraising position with Combined Jewish Philanthropies, followed by a stint as Executive Director of the Jewish Federation of Western Massachusetts, and then on to working with non-profit organizations in Israel. Barry’s mentorship had a huge impact on my life as a Jewish professional, and on my life as a Jew.

Barry is an observant Jew whose every waking moment is dedicated to serving God, his fellow Jews and humanity. He is a model for how Jews and Judaism can be a light in the world. I was therefore surprised to see one word glaringly absent from Barry’s 1,000 or so words about creating a “Judaism of Meaning.”

That word is “Torah.”

There are vague hints, to be sure, in Barry’s prescription for what ails us – phrases like “Jewish spirituality” and “Jewish learning” and “programming rooted in substance.” But nowhere does the word “Torah,” the very bedrock of the Jewish people, appear.

I know, I know. That’s the one word the Jewish communal world doesn’t like to emphasize so much. Because we think that some Jews might find it off-putting, or anxiety-inducing, or even offensive. “Spirituality” is rather more vague and benign. As is Jewish learning and words like “substance.”

Much of the Jewish world, however, doesn’t even employ euphemisms for Torah, for fear that someone is going to be scared off. Instead, we like to talk about “peoplehood” and “Jewish culture” and “welcoming” people into we don’t quite know what. We forget that, absent a clear articulation of our purpose as a people, no one is going to get too fired up about a word like “peoplehood.” Nor is anyone going to build a meaningful life around klezmer music. As for welcoming, if we are welcoming people into a community that is not permeated by Torah, then we sound like not much more than a pseudo-religious version of “Cheers” where “everybody knows your name.”

Yet, many in the Jewish world still cling to this fantasy that those on the Jewish margins will be brought back by something, anything but Torah. They insist we can’t push Torah too much, or in some cases even mention it at all, because the very thought of a text that stretches back thousands of years, that some Jews actually believe is of Divine origin, and that – gulp! – does make some demands on us and how we live our lives – is sure to send the less religiously inclined heading for the hills.

Newsflash: they’ve already headed for the hills. Some have gone further and are several mountain ranges away. The vast majority did not leave because they were scared off by Torah. Most left because they encountered a Judaism devoid of meaning, a peoplehood devoid of purpose, a world of bagels in place of Torah.

Should we not try to put Torah at the very center of our efforts? We have nothing to lose. As the Pew Survey shows, for those who already have checked out, the anything-but-Torah approach hasn’t exactly been a resounding success.

For those who still think that unapologetically offering Torah will never work, we need only look back to a week ago, when 5,000 Chabad Rabbis celebrated their successes at the 30th annual Chabad conference. In just a few decades, thousands of Chabad rabbis have expanded to 84 countries across the globe, reaching millions of Jews from Scarsdale to Siberia. They operate synagogues, pre-schools and Hebrew schools, teach classes for adults, reach out to college students, visit the sick, and run summer camps and soup kitchens.

Chabad’s phenomenal growth (as well as the notable successes of any number of traditional Jewish outreach organizations) should, by the thinking of much of the Jewish world, never have happened. If Torah is off-putting, then isn’t it a bit counter-intuitive that the fastest-growing and most widespread effort in Jewish history has been led by rabbis with black hats and long beards – the very thing that should be scaring people away?

And yet – go into any Chabad center. You will find there Jews who were unaffiliated and would have remained so if not for Chabad. You will find there intermarried families who, according to conventional wisdom, should be going just about anywhere else.  It is Chabad’s uncompromising commitment to Torah, coupled with a completely non-judgmental approach, that has created exactly the environment where any Jew can comfortably explore what it means to be Jewish.

This is not a commercial for Chabad, but for an approach that is grounded in Torah. That’s the “meaning” in Barry Shrage’s “Judaism of Meaning.”

My wife was raised as a Christian and today is an observant Jew. We went from being an intermarried family to becoming a Jewish one because we found something compelling in Judaism we couldn’t get anywhere else. A life of bagels we could find anywhere. Even a life within a warm community we could find in many places. A life of Torah – that’s the one thing for which we needed Judaism and the Jewish community. And that’s the one thing we Jews have to offer that gives our quest for Jewish continuity its urgency, that will keep the sky from falling, that will convince the next generation that being Jewish truly matters.

About the Author
Harold Berman is the co-author of "Doublelife: One Family, Two Faiths and a Journey of Hope," the first true life account of "an intermarriage gone Jewish." Harold was the Executive Director of the Jewish Federation of Western Massachusetts and has held senior positions throughout the Jewish communal world. His musings on Jewish life and spirituality have appeared in numerous print and online publications.