Why Be Jewish?

Rabbi Nick Renner uses unique examples from his rabbinic career to explore the blessings offered by being Jewish and taking part in Jewish communal life.

Why be Jewish? Following the Reconstructionist definition articulated by Rabbi Mordecai Kaplan that Judaism is the evolving religious civilization of the Jewish people, we look for contemporary resonances within the framework of our traditions and ancient civilization.  

We live today in a world filled with fragility, anxiety and fear. Both within the Jewish people and beyond, religious community and devotion are no longer serving us the way they used to. There has been a massive decline in religious affiliation across the United States, and in our own time we have seen the rise of myriad kinds of ideological extremism, whether religious in nature or not. So much of this is related to and stems from the uncertainties of our world today.

What does Judaism give us to respond to the challenges of this world and of our individual journeys? There is a great deal that is fixed in terms of our journeys and relationships, how we connect with others in the world. And yet, Judaism has the potential to radically transform those structures, moments and journeys in our lives. I’d like to share some stories of individuals with whom I have worked as a rabbi as a way of approaching the question of the value of living a Jewish life.

Whoever walks through my office door, she or he is in a place in his or her life that connects with Judaism. But why be Jewish in the first place? Why come through that door? It depends on who walks into the room and where they are in their own personal, familial or communal journey. Indeed, Judaism is going to present itself very differently depending on how it is that one sees it and who is experiencing it.

Framing the Rhythms of Our Lives

Dave is in his early 30s, and he’s married to Sarah. He works at an engineering firm, and she is a pediatric physician in the early part of her career. The challenge for Dave is that they’re both so busy. They have such difficult schedules. Because of heavy traffic, he goes into work at 4 a.m. and returns by 2 p.m. Sarah works some nights, some weekends. She’s frequently on call, and so even when she’s home, her mind is often elsewhere.

Dave is a good friend, and I stayed with him over a summer few years ago when I was a rabbinical student. At the time, my Shabbat custom was primarily concerned with differentiating Shabbat from the week of creation and work. As such, when I would come back to Dave’s house at the end of the week, I would cook something that felt special, and that night I’d light candles, recite Kiddush and the motzi, the prayers over wine and challah (even if it was some other kind of bread), and sit at the table. Dave and Sarah started joining me whenever they could.

Now, years later, Dave is in my office telling me about his Shabbat practice. He and Sarah don’t necessarily recite the berakhot, but they retain the same symbols: two candles, wine, challah and a special dinner at the table, rather than on the couch or by the TV. Dave has never really expressed any significant religiosity to me, so I am surprised to hear that he’d kept returning to Shabbat dinner on his own.

Dave explained how Shabbat has actually changed their lives. Having careers with such unusual and varying schedules, it was entirely too easy for days to slip by without taking stock of the passage of time—of where they were a week ago, a month ago, a year ago. I don’t think Dave is unusual in that respect. Studies show that Americans work almost 25 percent more time than Europeans. In this country, we’re increasingly taking fewer vacation days and are retiring later. Many of us derive our identities from what we do as workers. Against this backdrop, Shabbat becomes a powerful countercultural response.

The idea of ceasing work or web connectivity serves to mark our time and our journeys. It helps us to differentiate one moment from the next, and that act of differentiation actually creates holiness in our lives and in the world. Dave expressed that having this small ritual changed the way he and Sarah live their lives and relate to one another. To have  ritual that they set aside from their normal routines lifts them out of those routines, and gives them a greater awareness of each other and of the world around them. It gives them perspective on the life they’ve made together, and the family they want to have going forward.

For Dave, Judaism provides ritual that in turn provides insight to the journey. Shabbat transforms the work week into the week of creation, and the weekend into Shabbat. The days are still 24-hours long, the weeks are still seven days, but the experience of living in them is transformed by a weekly recognition of Shabbat.

Framing the Trajectories of Our Lives

Ritual doesn’t just frame the rhythms of our journeys; it also frames the broader trajectory of our lives.

Abby and Rebecca were once students in our Confirmation class, but now they stop by just to say hello. They’re at the synagogue for the high school graduation Shabbat dinner and celebration we’re having. They come to talk to me before the larger celebration.  One of them is leaving home to start college in Baltimore. The other will be staying in Los Angeles. We talk about the excitement and challenges that come with going so far and staying so close. They are now in a place of transition, but they aren’t just marking that transition with a diploma. They are at their home synagogue, connecting with other young people they knew as toddlers in the early child-care center or young teens from their b’nei mitzvah. They and I have developed a Jewish connection through our teen programs at KI, and they are here for words of blessing, a little bit of Torah, and a place to share both the anticipation and some of the anxiety about their respective moves away from home.

That Friday-night service included the usual folks who come to every Kabbalat Shabbat service as part of their weekly routine, with the unusual addition of Abby and Rebecca. Davka, they’re not Friday-night regulars, but they took the opportunity on this particular Shabbat eve to mark the end of their time in high school. While one might not normally use tefilat haderekh, the traveler’s prayer, on Shabbat in deference to the traditional halakhic prohibition against traveling on Shabbat, we used those words of blessing. We recognize that the trip wasn’t taking place that night, but instead that this moment served to mark their transition from one point in life to another. That evening, Judaism provided a place for Abby and Rebecca, along with their peers, to celebrate how far they had come in 18 years, and to hold the excitement and gravity of the journey ahead. Judaism offered a blessing for the road ahead and a way to hold the momentousness of the change as Abby and Rebecca depart for school, whether it steers them on a cross-country flight or a 20-minute drive.

Text Study and Mindfulness

Larry has just turned 70, and he finds a profound sense of spirituality in Jewish text and learning. Larry comes to Torah study once a week, as well as to classes on “Jewish Mysticism” and “Tales of the Talmud.” He comes to services, too, but I hear from him that the Hebrew liturgy isn’t the most moving thing for him. It’s really in the texts that I see the light in his eyes as Judaism touches his life.

During one particular class, I was teaching about how in the Talmud, Rabbi Meir teaches that one is to say 100 blessings per day. I explained that perhaps for the rabbis, this means the formulation “Barukh ata Adonai … ” 100 times a day, but as my teacher Rabbi Yael Levy taught me, we should understand this to be teaching us to notice 100 moments of blessing each day. Larry immediately jumped in:

Wow, I know exactly what this is! You know where I see it? When I’m driving on the 10 westbound in Santa Monica, and just before it hits the Pacific Coast Highway, you go into this tunnel. The tunnel is dark but on the other side of the tunnel, your vision opens up, and you see the entire coastline and blue sky open up in front of you. It’s like creation opens up before your eyes.

I hadn’t noticed that particular moment, but now every time I’m driving west, and I hit the ocean and see the coastline open from this tunnel, I say a blessing and I think of Larry. This is an example of how connecting to Jewish tradition opens up a kind of mindfulness practice that suffuses his life with meaning. For Larry, Judaism has transformed his sense of where he is in the world, teaching him to notice and experience time and place differently. This transformation in Larry’s spiritual life took place due to his engagement with Jewish text and Jewish learning. Larry’s example represents an awareness of Jewish tradition—a commandment to seek and share blessing in the world. He has transformed the experience of LA traffic to an experience of God’s creation.

The Call to Service and Higher Values

Lynn is in her late 40s, and she converted to Judaism several years ago, after she’d already been part of our KI community. She’s has come to pick up donations that people left for one of our Tikkun Olam programs, and she stops by to say hi. For Lynn, caring for those in need in her community and in the wider world has always been a strong personal imperative. As such, her growth within Judaism has been strongly linked to her leadership within KI’s Tikkun Olam efforts. Abstractions regarding holidays and spirituality don’t necessarily speak to her. Rather, she warms to planning and coordinating Tikkun Olam events, speakers and projects through which we can give to actual people. This kind of giving is deeply nourishing to Lynn in terms of her Jewish growth. The growth hasn’t been in the kinds of service Lynn pursues; she was already active! The growth has been in the articulation of Jewish values, and in understanding how the voice of Jewish tradition calls us to higher purposes and values.

This kind of service has not only been spiritually nourishing for Lynn. It also anchors her in our KI community, and it serves to bring people together. We’ve had tremendous success in bringing panels to educate our community on homelessness in LA, as well as the humanitarian catastrophe posed by the seven-year Syrian civil war. These speaker series have educated people about these crises and they’ve organized our community, bringing us closer together as we work to find solutions and offer aid to those in need.

Communal Support

At times, we’re the ones in need, and the community is here for us. Kylie was a 13-year-old bat mitzvah student in November of 2016, during the presidential-election season. Distraught over some of the vulgar misogyny she heard, she came to our session not to talk about her Torah portion, but to talk about her fears as a young woman becoming a teenager and about her anxiety around her own body. In this way, having a Jewish community gave her an outlet for her own fears. Jewish community provided a space for her to ask questions about the wider world, about our politics and ideology. Within that conversation, our Jewish community provided Kylie a narrative about who she is. It provides her with an identity, as well as values. It gave a young girl a language to articulate who she is in the world, what her essential values are and how they come to bear on how she treats others. What are the moments that draw her to speak with hesed, with lovingkindness? When is she called to speak from gevurah, from strength and fortitude? Judaism has given Kylie a framework to understand how she fits into a landscape of ideological conflict and protest, and find ways to express herself and her values.

Text Study and Rootedness

There’s also a connection to tradition as a way of connecting to authenticity in our lives. One of the surprises I’ve experienced relates to Dan and Jon. They were both 15 when they first walked through my office door. I’d met them briefly when they came to a Talmud class I teach for adult education, but they came in this time to tell me that they loved it. They wondered if I could teach a series for them and their high school-aged friends. I quickly agreed, and now, two years in with this group, it’s clear to me how much they love it. I think what speaks to them about Talmud in particular is that it gives them a sense of rootedness in the world, in tradition and in history. Additionally, I think it imparts a sense of authenticity. They’ve expressed to me that something with a deep-seated authenticity that comes out of 1,500 to 2,000 years of rabbinic discourse feels real to them in a way that much of what they encounter around them feels inauthentic. In that way, learning Talmudic stories is almost countercultural. They talk about it in terms of how cool it is, and maybe if the idea of rebellion is something that’s been marketed to you, learning ancient religious texts and legends becomes countercultural. For some like Dan and Jon, maybe it does become cool.

A Structure to Express Powerful Moments

The last person to come into my office this afternoon is the mother of a bat mitzvah student of mine. Her daughter Ava’s bat mitzvah celebration took place at a remarkable convergence of circumstances; it occurred five days after her grandfather died. I took part in honoring her grandfather’s memory at the funeral and then joined the family the next day for shiva. In the course of the liturgy, we arrived at the Shema and V’ahavta prayers, and on a whim, I asked Ava if she wanted to lead them for her family. She hopped out of her seat and launched into those prayers with a beautiful, atonal abandon.

I’ll never forget this image. Her parents and surviving grandmother were in tears, and here was Ava singing away what she had learned for her bat mitzvah. The entire episode was an incredible example of Judaism holding the space of mourning and joy together. That one doesn’t cancel the other, and in that moment, Judaism was a container to hold the extremes of both realities, as well as give voice to those experiencing them. Judaism gave language and structure to a moment of such emotional whiplash that would otherwise have been nearly impossible to contain. Judaism gave a way forward to hold the celebration with the sadness, and it gave the way for a girl to grow up a little in the space of a funeral, a couple of shiva minyanim, and finally, in becoming a bat mitzvah.

These individuals weave together a tapestry of vibrant Jewish life and community. To provide a framework to this series of stories, I want to suggest a Jewish model. There’s an idea that Jewish prayer is composed of keva, the fixed words, and kavannah, the intentionality.  I believe we can take this binary of keva and kavannah, and apply it more broadly. In this case, the keva is each one of the people I mentioned. The keva is our journey, our lives, the driving and traffic, the recitals and appointments, all the things that, for us, are fixed. The kavannah is how we suffuse them with meaning, and how we imbue our lives and journeys with purpose, awareness and connection.

The keva is Dave’s work week; the kavannah is Shabbat. The keva is Abby and Rebecca’s graduation; the kavannah is suffusing this moment with blessing and Jewish community. The keva is Larry’s LA traffic; the kavannah is the blessing for the wonders of creation. The keva is Lynn’s social-justice work; the kavannah is the Jewish imperative care for others, for tikkun olam, repairing the world. The keva is Kylie’s dawning awareness of brokenness in the world; the kavannah is her developing a Jewish identity, finding strength for herself and treating others with lovingkindness. The keva is Dan and Jon reading stories; the kavannah is finding a voice that is countercultural and authentic in their lives. The keva is Ava’s grandfather’s death; the kavannah is Ava and her family holding the sadness of the moment with the joy of her becoming a bat mitzvah.

Why be Jewish? I answer that Judaism may not serve to reorder the structure of one’s life. But within the frameworks of the journey, it serves to suffuse the way with great meaning. Judaism provides mindfulness and ritual. It imparts connection to the Divine in this world through spiritual and intellectual flowering. It whispers in the voices of our ancestors and the articulation of our shared values. It gives us a sense of who we are in the world and how to treat others as a function of this. It connects us to authenticity when we’re unrooted and counterculture when we seek inspiration. Just as we hold Judaism, Judaism holds us when we are at the greatest extremes of tragedy and elation.

Our lives and journeys are the keva, the fixed. Judaism is the kavannah, the holiness and the intention that we bring when we live in accordance with our highest aspirations and values.

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