Jewry-inward or outward
Jews were a peoplehood long before we were a religion. I’ve said many times, I know a lot of ex-Catholics, but I never met an ex-Italian. When we became a religion we suddenly had a bunch of rules to follow and the peoplehood and the religion kind of merged.
For a long time people left us alone and we did pretty well. Then along came the Babylonians and then the Romans and pretty soon we were for the most part out of our native land and this great Diaspora was created. We lost our Temple and most of our social organizations that held us together. So, we invented something uniquely Jewish: The Portable Community.
We had no Temple, so we built synagogues (Vey! Do we build synagogues!) Our national social network was destroyed. So we created Jewish organizations like Family Services to create our own wherever we happen to be.
Today, at least half the Jewish people reside outside the Jewish Nation of Israel. We are well integrated into these societies worldwide. We maintain the “Jewish Community” for the most part but we adapt. Those of us who really want to remain Jews do it in many wonderful ways.
We contribute to our Jewish organizations, monetarily and with our time and expertise. We do or do not belong to a given synagogue and we have our individual ideas of what constitutes a Jew. The Heritage Florida Jewish News, our Jewish newspaper here in Orlando, had two interesting columns, one on top of the other a few weeks ago. Two rabbis arguing (so, what else is new?). The subject? Tikun olam—roughly translated: “To Heal The World.”
I was raised that tikun olam was the whole purpose of Judaism. That with our laws, our sensible community organizations, our tradition of taking care of our own and then reaching out—we could, each of us in our own way, heal at least a little corner of the world.
One rabbi, from the Conservative Rabbinical Assembly, pretty much defined tikun olam as I understood it: healing our part of the world and seeking social justice for all from a Jewish point of view.
The other rabbi, extremely orthodox and supposedly a descendant of the Bal Shem Tov himself, takes a totally different course. He feels if there is any “meat” at all to tikun olam, it is strictly in the study of Torah and living the life of an observant Jew. That the goal of life is the study of Torah and living by those rules as they are interpreted by this particular group of rabbis.
Well, in what world? In the days of the shtetl, we had “our ways,” they had “their ways.” We do not live in a shtetl any more—Williamsburg Brooklyn notwithstanding. Orthodox Jews like Senator Joseph Lieberman of Connecticut serve in the U.S. government and work for their beliefs in social justice and a good life for all, totally in keeping with the core values of Judaism.
To put it in a different way, as Hillel said, ”If not me, then whom? And if not now, then when?” The earth needs a whole lot of healing and Jews should be in the forefront. There are philosophies that, fronted by the mask of religion, state that not only should their believers live in their way—so should all of us. Jews never believed this: Accept our beliefs; fight your way in. You can become Jewish. Sorry, not a Jew—that’s by birth—but a follower of the Jewish religion.
The Catholic kings of the Middle Ages tried to force their religion down the throats of all people with some devastating results, especially for the Jewish people.
Today, the descendants of the Caliphate, the Muslim believers, are trying the same thing. But look at them in action. Shia fights Sunni. The civil war in Syria is descending into just that: A religious war between two warring factions of Islam. The millions of relatively secular citizens of Syria who, while probably practicing some form of Islam, lived in peace with their Sunni and/or Shia neighbors are mostly in Turkey and Jordan, afraid to go home.
We Jews keep our disagreements mostly in intense discussion, some lasting for generations. But, we don’t take up arms against each other. However some of us may argue that we should continue to turn inward and study and forget the rest of the world. It is not possible today.
In an integrated society like America, doing the right thing—the just thing—would seem to be easy. There are those, some of them even Jews who feel, “I got mine. Go get your own.”
That is not tikun olam. To me that is not Judaism. We live in a tough world. Our job as Jews, as human beings, should be to make it better. Who said it was easy? But burying yourself in ancient texts and customs is not the way to create the kind of world we want for our children and grandchildren.