What is the Mission of the Jewish People – One Person’s Response

Before our first Shabbat, we had the chance to meet with Steve Israel. Steve is originally from the UK, but has been living in Jerusalem for 30 years. We met with him to talk about Jewish Peoplehood, why it is important, and what we can do to support and enhance what we do as Jews and as a People.

He started in a place with which we were all familiar- the idea of Jewish continuity. Many Jews are concerned with this and they form their ideas based on the notion that our first concern should be ensuring future generations of Jews. But, as I, many of my contemporaries, and Steve feel, that position begs the question: Why does it matter if the Jewish People continue? Put a better way, What is it about Judaism, the Jewish tradition, or Jewish people that we want to continue. What do Jews do- for themselves, for each other, for the w0rld- that we know we want to have and continue to have generations from now?

Which is part of a question that my fellow Fellows and I have been struggling with throughout this week. As we have been hearing and learning about Jewish Peoplehood, its historical genesis, and different ways to understand if, we have been returning to the same question many times: What is the purpose of Jewish Peoplehood. Framing it in the language of our previous seminars, What is the Mission of the Jewish People?

To help answers that question, we looked at a few texts (as Jews are want to do). Of particular note were a text from a Labor Zionist A.D. Gordon and a text about Jewish nationalism by Martin Buber. Gordon, recognizing that the Bible describes all people as having been created b’tzelem Elohim, in the image of God. The Jewish tradition understands this to mean that we should try to emulate the characteristics of God- mercy, compassion, being slow to anger, just and righteous, etc. Gordon takes this one step further, and describes the Jewish people as an Am b’tzelem Elohim, a People in the image of God. Thus, we as a People ought to emulate and personify those characteristics as well.

One point that we addressed and I feel compelled to note is that none of this means that other people are not b’tzelem Elohim or that other groups cannot consider themselves as a people in the image of God. They are and they could. But, as Jews, we do make that communal statement, that we have a purpose: to do the work that we believe God wants us to do, to make the world the place we think God tried (and for those process theologians out there) and tries to create. Our job is to help, to add, to fix, and to strive to perfect (some of you might see where this is going…I’ll give you a clue, its initials are T.O. or ת.ע.)

Buber adds a bit of humility to the conversation. He reminds us that as concerned as we might be for ourselves and for our people, the work of our people must always remain our focus. So, in 1921 as the Jewish community was expressing its nationalist drive and working to create the State of Israel, he reminded us that the creation of the State is not an end in itself. They end us the fulfillment of the purpose of the Jewish people, the reflection and expression of being an Am b’tzelem Elohim.

For inspiration, we look to those in our tradition who have held this concern close to their hearts and spoken out about it. The Prophets had this at their center. Isaiah, Jeremiah, Amos, et al., were concerned about the world in their lifetime (Isaiah wanted an end to war, Amos to social and economic oppression, as two examples). The Rabbis shared this concern. Hillel is a great example, when asked us in the same statement “If I am not for myself, who will be for me? If I am only for myself, what am I? If not now, when?” For him and the other Rabbis, they wrote to describe the world that they believed God wanted for us, God wanted us to try to preserve, and what positive impacts God expected of us. In other words, our job is to fix the world, to make it better, to do Tikkun Olam. It’s not optional, it’s obligatory. It’s why we are here, what our reason for existing is. We cannot escape it, it is ingrained in our culture. By saying we are Jews, we are saying that we see ourselves obligated in this way.

That, according to Steve, is the purpose of the Jewish People. To recognize that that is our purpose and act upon it. Which I find incredibly compelling, even though I had some serious concerns.

My first was about Jewish prayer, practice, ritual, etc. If our purpose it to enhance the world, how does lighting Shabbat candles, putting on tallit and tefllin, or sitting in a sukkah help? Steve explained that we cannot do Shabbat well without knowing our greater purpose, without recognizing these values that are inherent to our people. And I think that is half of it. That answers the question of how understanding our mission can help enhance ritual. But the question of why do ritual at all is something that didn’t address directly. My thought? Throughout our texts, we are told to do things as reminders. We wear tallit because the fringes remind us of the mitzvot. When we say kiddush we are told to member our Exodus from Egypt. Our holidays are reminders. Lisa Grant also noted that the holidays and rituals bind us together as a people; they are fun, meaningful activities that create community. So, they do that, and they serve as constant reminders of what our purpose is. In other words, if you “do” Judaism, whenever you do it, it serves to remind and reinforce the notion that we need to make this world a better place.

That was big for me. The idea of tikkun olam and Jewish ritual were in my mind two separate but very important aspects of the tradition. But now, with this understanding, they are inextricably linked. Powerful stuff.

The other big question that we all had was about obligation. Obligation is not something that many liberal Jews are comfortable with or compelled by. The popular understanding of Reform Judaism is that we are not obligated by anything beyond our own understanding of the tradition (choice through knowledge). And Steve’s argument is not that we are obligated to pray three times times a day, fast on Yom Kippur, or light Shabbat candles. Doing them just help to remind and reinforce what it is we are obligated to do: to work to make the world a better place and share the values of Judaism (which we believe are God’s values) with the world.

Dan Nichols’ song “L’takein” is a blessing to God, thankful that we have the opportunity to do tikkun olam. We used is as our theme song at Mishpacha this past year, since our focus was on Jewish values and tikkun olam. But I’m wondering, in light of all this, whether that is something we should be saying. It’s not just an opportunity to do tikkun olam. Opportunities are something that we can choose to pass up. Opportunities are things that are good for us and good to do, but we can opt out. If we see the purpose of the Jewish people is to be an Am b’tzelem Elohim, then it is more than an opportunity. It is an obligation, something inescapable and eternal. It is something we have always done and should continue to do.

At the end of the Torah service, we pray to God to חדש ימינו כקדם, to renew our days as in the past. Perhaps that means that we are asking God to help us remember that this is our eternal purpose, and that we pray that in the future we will be able to do what we have always known we ought to be doing.

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About Greg Weisman

Rabbinical Student at the Hebrew Union College in Los Angeles Rabbinic Intern at Congregation Kol Ami Teaching Assistant at the University of Southern California Husband, son, brother, dog owner, sports fan View all posts by Greg Weisman

2 responses to “What is the Mission of the Jewish People – One Person’s Response

  • Rabbi Paul Kipnes

    Just read this, too quickly though.
    What are we obligated to? Halacha? Which parts? Surely not the misogynist parts. Surely not the anti-gay parts. Sota? Aguna?

    How do we mix in the fact Halacha is evolving, that much of it is timebound, the result of the mileiu of the particular rabbi who decided it?

    Which parts are we obligated to?
    Shabbat? Sure. But not turning on electricity? Or prayer? Friday and saturday in Shul? Ballgame with the kids or not? That’s where I am stuck.

    Might we say that the smorgasbord of Jewish ritual and practice obligates us, whichever brings us closer to understanding and livin btzelem Elohim?!

    Enough for now. Let’s continue the conversation.

  • Greg Weisman

    I notice that you said you read this quickly, so I’m going to suggest that you look it over again. Only because the obligations that I mention are not about Halacha at all, rather about Tikkun Olam. We are obligated to strive to fulfill the vision for the world that we believe God had during creating, and to share our values with the rest of the world. The question that I am wrestling with, and put some thoughts out there about, is what the purpose of role of ritual, Halacha, practice, etc., is in light of this overarching mission of Judaism. My suggestion is that it serve as an אות, a reminder, and also as an opportunity to further deepen our understanding of this obligation to do good in the world, since so many of our traditions revolve around aspects of this. Not to mention, they serve to underscore a sense of connection between Jewish people (e.g., all Jews celebrating the same things on the same day).

    So, our obligations, in Steve’s understanding, are not about Shabbat, not about Sota, and not about the anti-gay mitzvot. Those are all ways in which we engage in the Jewish community and, if we can, further our commitment to tikkun olam. And if they get in the way, then we have dozens of other ways to connect.

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