Survival or Renewal
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In practical terms, the survivalist and renewal categories are easy enough to track in the Jewish world. ADL’s fight against anti-Semitism, AIPAC’s fight against the Iran deal – these are efforts aimed at Jewish survival. So too, arguably, a program like Birthright, which – God bless it – as a fabulously successful Jewish mating ritual is also about the survival of the Jewish people. Jewish renewal, on the other hand, Magid argues, can be found in the work of the movement bearing its name, Jewish Renewal, but also in Chabad and elsewhere – efforts aimed at bringing out the essence of Judaism and the essential Jewish spark buried deep within every Jew. I would argue that any Jewish venture, cultural, religious, educational or otherwise, whose purpose is to bring forth the most dynamic expression of Jewish life and living, independent of ideological framework – that is Jewish renewal at work.
Even if you were not at last week’s lecture, I imagine you can sense by now that given the choice between the tactics of survival or renewal, in Dr. Magid’s mind it is the latter that recommends itself for the Jewish future. No game is won by playing defense. In order to win the Jewish future, the Jewish people must field a dynamic and compelling Judaism, a Judaism worth defending, a Judaism that is willing, if necessary, to color outside the lines, if doing so succeeds in attracting those who stand at the edges and beyond the edges of the community. Living in fear of the non-Jew who hates us or loves us too much is just not a winning strategy. Furthermore, without a vibrant Judaism, what exactly is the point of Jewish survival, as stated best by Saadia Gaon (in the tenth century): “Jews exist for the sake of Torah alone.” (cited by Magid) The focus of the renewalist is on the Torah, not on survival merely for the sake of survival.
While time does not permit me to do justice to his position, it is clear both from his remarks the other evening, and in his published and unpublished writing, that Dr. Cohen believes otherwise. Dr. Cohen flips Saadia Gaon’s dictum on its head, arguing im ein yehudim, ein yahadut, “If there are no Jews, then there is no Judaism.” Valuable as good rabbis, cantors, prayer, and education may be, investments in religious inspiration will not, according to Cohen, ensure the Jewish future. We must, in his mind, redouble our efforts to strengthen Jewish social networks, in cities, in high school, on campuses, at summer camps, on Israel trips, in preschools and otherwise, giving Jews every opportunity to do Jewish with other Jews. We must invest in youth groups, Moishe Houses, conversion efforts, and massive “Jewish public health” education with the hope that through such efforts, more Jewish parents will “approach Jewish child-rearing with greater information and intentionality.” (Cohen) We can never go back to the shtetl, but if we want a Jewish future, we need Jews, which means we need to enact a series of interventions which will create a close-knit Jewish community. These are the efforts, the survivalist argues, that will ensure the Jewish future.
The debate was, and remains, a good one. If you missed it, you can listen to it on Park Avenue Podcast and come to our Master Class on December 12. If nothing else, it was a great discussion because the categories of “survival” and “renewal” are incredibly useful to frame our priorities not just as an American Jewish community but right here in our synagogue.
We often categorize our efforts with the labels of “tradition” and “change,” liberal or conservative, or, more often than not, denominational affiliation – Orthodox, Conservative, or Reform. What if, I wonder, forward-thinking Jews asked a different question? What percentage of what we are doing and supporting is aimed at Jewish renewal and what percentage is aimed at Jewish survival? Are we writing checks to Jewish defense organizations but forgetting to fund synagogues, day schools, and those places training the next generations of Jewish educators, rabbis, and cantors? Are we telling our children that they must marry Jewish because we want Jewish grandchildren, fighting the Iran Deal, but neglecting to model Jewish lives worthy of emulation? And the opposite is also the case. Even the best rabbis and cantors will not stem the demographic exodus we face. The forces of assimilation are more formidable than any sermon can counter, no matter how inspiring. The most effective prayer group or study circle will not protect Israel against her hostile neighbors or American Jewry against populist strains of anti-Semitism. As the speakers themselves ultimately acknowledged last week, it is not either/or; it is both/and. The categories are complementary, not competitive, and many efforts – like Jewish camping and Jewish day school and, for that matter, the State of Israel – that fit squarely within both. There is also a chicken-and-egg aspect to the debate. What comes first: a strong Judaism or a strong Jewish community? The answer, of course, is that they are interdependent; each effort needs the other to succeed. No different than any portfolio that seeks balance among a variety of investment options, each one of us and our congregation as a whole must make sure that our efforts are allocated judiciously. We must light Shabbat candles and we must fight anti-Semitism, we must send our kids on Birthright and we must invest in Jewish education – and so on.
The critical scene of our Torah reading was when Eliezer, charged with the mission of finding his master’s son a spouse of suitable lineage, stood at the crossroads with the Jewish future on the line and prayed for guidance. It was precisely then, before he had even finished his prayer, that Rebecca appeared and drew water from the well, for Eliezer and for his camels, an act both physically restorative, and more importantly, signaling the spiritual revitalization which he sought. The combination of her lineage with the life-giving waters she drew forth would secure the Jewish future – at least until the challenges of the next generation.
Ours is a generation at a crossroads. As did our forebears, we too worry about the Jewish future, we too wonder if we are the last. No different than our Torah reading, the future of our people will be found by identifying those well-springs of vitality and those Rebecca-like individuals capable of drawing out sustenance for a generation in need. U-r’eh vanim l’vanekha, shalom al yisrael. May we see the children of our children and peace over all of Israel. (Psalms 128:6) May this, the greatest blessing our people know, be ours to enjoy as we work together, by any means necessary, to build the Jewish future our people so richly deserves.
Shaul Magid, “From Kiruv to Continuity: Survivalism and Renewal as Competing Categories in Judaism (Unpublished)
Steven M Cohen, “The Shrinking Jewish Middle – And What to Do about It” (Unpublished)