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Saturday, March 11, 2017

Toward a More Realistic Model of Jewish Outreach

Last week we had a disagreement in shul, and I vocally disagreed with the rabbi on social media, and I therefore assumed I would not be welcome in shul anymore.

Went back to shul this week, and lo and behold: It wasn't a big deal.

I am experiencing cognitive dissonance about this. Because I was raised in a religious environment where conflict management meant kicking people out.
  • Can't sit still in yeshiva? Out.
  • Parents religious, siblings religious but not you? Out.
  • Disagree with the rabbi? Out.
  • Marry a non-Jew, God forbid? We'll sit shiva for you.
Now - my attitude has always been: Nobody's gonna tell me what to do or how to believe. Not my father, not my teachers, not my husband, and certainly not any rabbi.

So of course I never felt comfortable in yeshiva or in synagogue.

Some have suggested I might like other branches of Judaism more, e.g. Conservative, Reform, Reconstructionist, etc.

But my feeling on that is, while I enjoy the services very much, "you and I both know this isn't real."

It's like a comment that someone made at a Jewish event on campus: "Judaism is a culture, not a religion."

I fairly spit out my soda. "What a chutzpah-bonim," I thought to myself, "a 'culture' and not a 'religion'? Hah!"

But I'm not entirely observant either, and the dichotomy between what I believe to be true in theory, and what I actually live in practice, has always stuck in my throat like a bone.

An alternative could have been Chabad Lubavitch - Torah-true, seemingly open-minded, happy. But the cultishness, the insularity, and the closed-mindedness between the seemingly open-minded exterior is a bit of a turnoff.

Let's face it, too: I am not going to be Orthodox again. Because Orthodox means following the rules without question, without making your own judgment calls, and without rationalizing the things you do and don't do.

As someone pointed out, you disagreed with the Orthodox rabbi, but you wrote your comments on the Sabbath, so come on.

In any case - the Orthodox Judaism I grew up with was an all-or-nothing proposition. If you did not personally keep the mitzvot and follow the Orthodox crowd, you simply were not wanted. 

You were outside.

I still think that is the case. From what I can see, the traditionally observant put other Jews in one of five categories:
  • Religious like us - you're in
  • Religious, not like us - still in
  • Ba'al teshuva - becoming like us - most definitely in
  • Not religious - we'll talk to you, but you don't "count" in the religious conversation
  • Self-hating Jew - the enemy
This mentality, I believe, is the reason why Jewish outreach fails. Because somewhere inside that model is a "perfect 10" of a human being, a black-and-white way of thinking. Recruits are "love-bombed" into the cult, but they can only stay in if they promise so hard to conform that they think they are thinking independently.

A better and more realistic model of Jewish outreach, I believe -- and one that is completely consistent with Judaism -- is what I would call the "Start Where You Are" model. 

This is the model I believe our rabbi and his wife are following. Though it is unusual, it makes a lot of sense to me.

From this way of thinking, human beings as inherently imperfect. Not just imperfect psychologically and physically, but also imperfect in our capacity and willingness to observe Jewish law. This is not a choice we make, it's not a rarity, but it is the default of human existence.

Contrast this with the ossified Orthodox approach that you are either "faithful to God" or you have some kind of "mum," a defect, and you cannot be trusted fully -- in fact, the same concept as kashrut. A person is like a piece of meat, either acceptable or defective, and if they're defective you stay away.

The marriage crisis in Orthodox Judaism also stems from this terrible model. People are "graded" along a scale, and they know very well who's considered "Grade AA" and who's a "D."

When you have this kind of dichotomous thinking and you do outreach, of course the person you are trying to "bring closer" is lesser than you. You may not think this consciously, but the effort is to "bring them up to an acceptable level."

This is why I could never stand to be in an Orthodox community. This kind of thinking repulses me.

I am much more receptive to a view of humanity that says, all of us are broken.

Because all of us are human. 

If there are 613 mitzvot, we hope to keep as many of them as we humanly can. Or at least get on the upswing, increase our level of observance but also the quality of our spirit as we do so.

Where we mess up, and we definitely will mess up, we strive to get back on the horse and recover.

In this fundamentally more realistic model, the ambassador of mitzvot can only be a reflection of humanity and brokenness.

We do not need to pervert the mitzvot or say that they are irrelevant "because most people can't keep them."

We can redefine Judaism as a brand within which every Jew is a precious shard of glass.

If you put all the glass together, there is a vase you can fill with roses.

But even if it is incomplete, and the cracks in the glass let the rain drip through, there is an inexpressible beauty there.

It is the beauty of making an effort. It is the effort that God seeks from all of us, not the pretense of wholeness.

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All opinions my own.