Posts Tagged ‘essential Judaism’


Earlier this week we commemorated Yom Hashoah – Holocaust Remembrance Day. In our community, there was the requisite lighting of the memorial candles in memory of the 6 million lost, a bit of poetry from Holocaust victims, the chanting of Ani Ma’amim and Eil Malei Rachamim. A speaker talked about anti-Semitism, how it still exists (see recent events in Overland Park, KS and the Ukraine). It is, appropriately, a day of sadness.

I feel the sadness as well. Yes, I am the child of a survivor (not of the camps but of Nazi oppression) and yes we lost a lot of family in the Shoah. But the real, deep sadness I feel at these events is not so much about the Jews that have been lost, but about the Jews who are living today, and the kind of Judaism they seem to be embracing. I find it sad that too many Jews base their entire Jewish identity on the Holocaust. American Jews are obsessed with the Holocaust. They are obsessed with anti-Semitism. Most American Jews will exclaim “Never again” with more religious fervor than Sh’ma Yisra’el. The Holocaust has become a central element of being an American Jew – even for those who have no connection to family lost in that time.

This is born out by the results in the Pew survey on American Jewish life released last October. When asked the question “What is essential to being Jewish?” the number one response, by 73% of all Jews was, “Remembering the Holocaust.” This came before “Leading an ethical and moral life” (69%) and well above “Working for justice and equality” (56%). Way, way down on the list were “Being part of a Jewish community” (28%) and “Observing Jewish law” (19%). Forgive me this piece of blasphemy, but from my perspective that list is pretty much upside down – although if I could use my own wording I would place “embracing life by repairing the world” as the most essential piece of being Jewish closely followed by morality, learning and observing some Jewish tradition and law, and being part of a community. Of all these values, “Remembering the Holocaust” would be last.

Of course you will ask me, “Isn’t remembering the Holocaust important?” To which I would reply – absolutely – just not as important as engaging in those Jewish activities that build a vibrant Jewish life. While we engage in our mourning over the victims, we too often forget that the Shoah is not just an individual tragedy. It is not just the end of 6 million lives because they were Jewish. It is also, equally, the loss of so many vibrant Jewish communities and institutions throughout Europe. It is the destruction of Jewish spiritual and intellectual life. Despite the return of some Jews to Europe, the richness of Jewish life will never be anything close to what was lost. So the sad words we speak on Yom HaShoah are nice, and appropriate. But they are almost meaningless if not followed by something much more – and different.

The best response to the losses incurred by our people during the Shoah, whether it is the loss of people or communities, is to build vibrant, joyful, meaningful Jewish communities here – in America, in Florida, in Tallahassee. It is NOT enough to mourn and remember. We must live as Jews, spiritually, intellectually, morally. That means being engaged in living Jewish life as well as translating Jewish values into how we conduct our everyday lives. It means building vibrant Jewish institutions that serve as centers of kedushah (holiness), Torah (learning), and ma’asim tovim (good works).   It means infusing Judaism into our lives every day, every week. It means not letting morbid fascination oppression define our Jewishness.

This week’s Torah portion gives us a basic outline on how to do that through the description of the sacred times we are to mark throughout the year. Shabbat, of course, is every week. The festivals dot 3 key moments in the agricultural cycle of the year and we are told in the Talmud to celebrate them with joy. Yes, Yom Kippur is a time of serious work on atonement and forgiveness, but it is not morose, just a recognition that the work to repair human relations is important and must include both individual and communal elements. We are to note the new moons each month and from Pesach to Shavuot we countdown the journey from freedom to a covenant of responsibility by the counting of the Omer. To these Torah mandated times we add Purim, Chanukah, and Tu b’Shevat, just to name a few.

The point is, it is just as important to enjoy the silliness of a Purim schpiel as it is to mourn the losses of the Shoah. It is just as important to celebrate with friends and family at a Passover seder as it is to attend a Yom Hashaoah service. It is just as important to dance with the Torah on Simchat Torah as it is to watch any Holocaust inspired movie. Indeed, all of these things are more important than any Holocaust related activity. All are joyful expressions of our Judaism. Yet, sadly, they are ignored by too many Jews. Which means that the Judaism being passed to the next generation is about victimhood, death, and remembering the suffering. Is that really the only Judaism we want our children to receive? Can anyone believe that is a Judaism that can survive?

Yet, I am not without hope. On Wednesday night I had my usual session with this year’s Confirmation students – all 15 and 16 years old. It was our wrap up discussion for the year, as now we will organize their service that occurs in a few weeks. I asked them to share the most significant Jewish lesson they had learned over the course of their years in Hebrew school. I loved their answers. One said it was how Judaism encourages questioning everything – even God. One said it was about working for justice. But my favorite, the one which gave me real hope about the young Jews in our community was this: the value of forgiveness and repentance. This came from a young woman I have known since she was two. She said that in 5th grade they learned how important it is to go to people you might have hurt to admit you were wrong and apologize. She said that she and her friend, ever since they learned that Yom Kippur lesson, sit down with each other every year right before Yom Kippur, and talk about any problems they had with each other the previous year. She said this process has made them closer friends.

When I heard how this young woman and her friend (also in our congregation) had integrated a piece of Jewish observance into their lives, I left class that night smiling and filled with hope. For theirs will be a Judaism of life, not of death.

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