Are you frustrated about the way so many Jews have dropped being Jewish?
I, for one, count myself among the fair number of their fellow tribesmen who are. Our people and faith are so magnificent, so rich, so awesome, and yet in these historic and unprecedented times, most of our brethren are, in the words of author Tal Keinan, “dying in their sleep.”
As a Chabad rabbi, I work every day with many such Jews, doing my best in helping them come a little bit closer to their heritage and people. But the undeniable reality is that, in the diaspora, the general current going in the opposite direction is strong. Yes, there are many who make significant changes in their lives. But they are the minority. Despite the many Baalei Teshuva, the en mass loss of Jews to Judaism continues at full speed.
I live in a part of the US where the statistics of American assimilation and intermarriage play out in full. Oy… If only they would just marry Jewish, at least giving their children the chance of belonging halachically and consciously to our people.
One of the most tragic things I do as a Rabbi is officiate at the funeral of the “last Jew”: the Jew whose children and grandchildren are not Jewish. Personally, at such occasions I want to scream. But no one at the open grave would even understand. And, in the US, this is becoming more the rule than the exception. It hurts, and it should.
So what’s it all about?
Over the years, I have come to encounter many “pragmatic” and “practical” fellow Jews who really don’t think it’s worth my efforts, or anyone else’s, to work with an essentially dying demographic.
Outreach work, they say, is only justifiable if there is a realistic chance that the family or person in question will become reasonably active and committed Jews. As for the distant, assimilated Jew, well, put your time and effort into a “more worthwhile investment.” It’s sad, they will say, but you’ve got to be practical: what’s going to remain of these Jews anyway?
Be that as it may, I have had plenty of reason to do some thinking on the subject. There are several ways of approaching it. Below is one that helped me.
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One of the great subjects of Tanya, the classic work of Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi, is the frustration an average person will inevitably experience with one’s own self.
The first subject that Tanya seeks to establish is that the level of a tzadik — a genuinely holy man or woman — is basically unattainable for us average people. Most of us are destined to spiritually struggle our entire lives.
The objective, the highest goal, for most of us is to be a beinoni — the person who has worked hard enough to be in control of everything he or she does –– in thought, speech and action. But even the benoni is nevertheless constantly bombarded with temptation, distraction and urge to sin. They are able to control what they do, but not what they are. And that’s the ultimate… As old Chasiddim would quip “Halevy beinoni” — “Would it be that we just made it halfway” to being a benoni.
So the beinoni, or the person trying to become one, has lots of reasons to be frustrated: what’s the point? Why must I struggle with myself just to wake up tomorrow and have to wage the same battle all over again? And that’s a legitimate frustration even without failing. Most of us also fail. A lot… and that’s even less encouraging. Why does it have to be this way?
As an answer, the Tanya introduces what it views as the fundamental purpose of the human being and of creation itself: G-d’s deepest want and desire is to be in the physical and lowly world we inhabit. We, human beings, live in a naturally unholy and un-G-dly world. Our life’s mission and ability is to achieve the incredible: to make this world a place for G-d.
The first place where this begins is within the human being himself: our life work is to bring G-dliness into our naturally animalistic, selfish selves. By devoting our lives to the cause for which it was created, we do just that.
Now, for the most part, the animalistic side of us doesn’t change a whole lot. A person can spend all their waking hours doing one mitzvah after the next, and still remain tempted by, and still fighting some very lowly natural instincts. What does happen, though, is that this self-centered side of ourselves is subdued, or better yet, harnessed to thinking, speaking, and doing holy things. Precisely this situation results in our physical and animal-like being becoming a conduit for G-dliness, and this while remaining in its own animalistic self.
Throughout the generations there have been tzadikim; people who really transformed themselves into becoming genuine holy people. But most of us are not tzadikim. Our greatness is of an entirely different sort, namely, that even while the force of temptation, distraction, and evil is in its full strength, the force of goodness and holiness prevails.
“G-d saw there would be few tzadikim,” says the Talmud. Well, actually, that was G-d’s intent. He created most of us without the proclivity of being tzadikim. He created the overwhelming majority of us in a way that we will never cease to struggle. Evidently, G-d desires more of this latter form of greatness than the former.
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The reality described above seems to be reflected in our day within the Jewish people as a whole. As things were orchestrated by G-d Himself in the past century and more, the majority of the Jewish people have had very little worthy exposure to their own Judaism. And this was not by choice. In many instances, the choice was made for them long before they were born.
So what are we left with? The Jew who has married out, may have non-Jewish children, shows up at Shul – if we’re lucky – for an hour a year or less… and this Jew now does a mitzvah. And another one after that.
Bringing such a Jew just a little closer to his Creator is a real and actual accomplishment. He or she may indeed never take it “all the way.” Their family may not be a part of it. But in that one Mitzvah, that single act, is the achievement of G-d’s final purpose and objective: that G-dliness shine in the place where it is least likely to.
Working with every Jew, regardless of how far they seem should not be strange. It is actually the story of our own lives as well.