Next year: Let’s end consumerist Judaism by becoming Jewishly ambitious

By Gil Troy, Jerusalem Post, 9-7-10

Two of the most traumatic cataclysms Westerners endured this past decade coincided with Rosh Hashanah. September 11, 2001 fell one week before the Jewish New Year. Some religious Jews who normally would have been in the Twin Towers when the planes hit were delayed because of the slichot, repentance, hymns which extend the morning service in Elul. Then, two years ago, the financial system melted down during Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. In some synagogues in New York, rabbis had to implore their congregants to turn off their Blackberries as the constant buzzing with market updates interfered with the PA system.

Alas, to echo White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel, we collectively have wasted these crises. The high anxiety experienced around the High Holidays did not propel us collectively to greater spiritual or moral heights. Traditionally, wars and economic crises have triggered geysers of self-sacrifice, streams of idealism, pools of communal concern, amid waves of revulsion against the complacency that often accompanies peace and prosperity. After 9/11 some regretted not having done more good works during the good times. Americans considered making September 11 a national day of voluntarism. But most of us followed President George W. Bush’s advice to get back to normal, to return to the malls. The opportunity for mass reckonings or dramatic reform vanished.

Instead, an unchecked consumerism continues to pervert our politics, our culture, our intimate relations, even our spiritual lives. Consumerist Judaism distorts across the religious spectrum. Consumerist Judaism reduces our profound link in the chain of Jewish civilization to another take-it-or-leave consumption choice. It fosters a paradoxical sense of harsh judgmentalism and enervating passivity. We scrutinize Judaism hyper-critically, picking and choosing whatever fragments work for us, if and when it is convenient.

Rather than using our critical faculties as springboards to transform modern Judaism, we take it as it is. We behave like shoppers not owners, an audience to be lured not empowered agents of change and renewal, rarely taking responsibility to make Judaism better, richer, deeper, more meaningful.

As a result, a corrupting materialism has too many focusing on what they will wear to synagogue rather than how they will grow by going; too many rites of passage showcasing the fancy “bar” not the meaningful mitzvah; too many community leaders selected because of their net worth not their Jewish values; too many communal decisions driven by the bottom line not a transcendent vision. We risk turning our Etz Chayim, our ever growing and flourishing Tree of Life, into an elaborate icon, frozen in time, evoking the past but not heralding an appealing future.

To start acting like concerned Jewish citizens not lazy Jewish shoppers, we must become Jewishly ambitious. The awkwardness of the phrase reflects the rarity of the phenomenon. This goes way beyond a few New Year’s Resolutions, treating Rosh Hashanah like a second January first. We should set ambitious goals for ourselves as Jews, individually and communally. Rather than simply pressuring our kids to do well in school, to achieve materially, we should start inspiring them – and ourselves – to grow spiritually and communally. And our institutions must start becoming more dynamic and visionary, taking risks to accomplish great missions not just trying to survive.

Religious Jews need less humility regarding Judaism as a system while modern Jews need more. Too many religious Jews confuse the current religious status quo with God’s vision. Halachic Jews need to distinguish between Torah-based essentials and cultural adaptations that should change. Too many modern Jews fail to appreciate Judaism as a way of life, a worldview, a moral vision, not simply a catalogue of traditional rites, stories and superstitions.

Becoming Jewishly ambitious would involve the religious world – in Israel and the Diaspora – rising up against the Rabbinate’s torpor, corruption and heavy-handedness – understanding that religion thrives from internal impulses reinforced by communal norms not government coercion.  It would involve remembering that mitzvot are means to morality and meaning, not chits to accumulate competitively or yardsticks for feeling superior vis a vis one’s fellow Jews. It would mean ensuring that Religious Zionism is more concerned with people than with land while building a state that showcases Judaism’s best values and Jews’ better selves.

Becoming Jewishly ambitious would also involve secular Jews refusing to allow themselves to be turned off by letting the rabbinate or ineffective rabbis define Judaism. Instead, we need ways to turn on to a vital, substantive Jewish identity that is historic, authentic and challenging – not simply a quaint ethnic or ancestral ritual or two. It means triggering a values revival throughout the Jewish world, using Judaism as a framework for meaning and virtue, as a bulwark against the me-me-me, my-my-my- more-more-more secular world. It means positioning Judaism as an alternative to modern society not a slave to the latest trends.

To be Jewishly ambitious, to stop approaching Judaism as another item to be sampled in the smorgasbord of life, we must take ownership. Individual happiness comes from taking responsibility for your own actions, for your destiny. Jews from across the religious spectrum can feel more fulfilled Jewishly by investing enough, learning enough, caring enough, committing enough, to make Judaism their own – and make the community better.

We forget how lucky we are. Never before have so many Jews lived with such freedom, with such prosperity. And for 2000 years we lacked a state that could serve as a point of pride, a source for protection, and, most important of all, home to half of world Jewry – even more if they choose to come. These gifts offer tremendous opportunities. This New Year let’s celebrate our good fortune with a mass Jewish revival, setting sweeping goals, taking more responsibility, pushing toward a Jewish community that thrives and a Judaism that sings an old-new song of revival and redemption.

Gil Troy is Professor of History at McGill University and a Shalom Hartman Research Fellow in Jerusalem. He is the author of Why I Am A Zionist: Israel, Jewish Identity and the Challenges of Today, and, most recently, The Reagan Revolution: A Very Short Introduction. He can be reached at giltroy@gmail.com

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