Jewish Journal

The Case for Relevant Judaism

by Beit T'shuvah

July 10, 2013 | 1:03 pm

By Matt Shapiro

In Talmudic discourse, sometimes the phrase “mai nafka minah” comes up; roughly translated, this means, “what goes out from it?” As in, “this conversation is all well and good, but why does it matter?” This phrase came to mind for me in reading Rabbi Shmuly Yanklowitz’s (RSY for the rest of the post, for brevity) recent blog post about the need for an intellectual Judaism. RSY lays out an argument explicating how, though many Jews are very educated, there’s a need for more intellectual programming and teaching in order to raise the level of Jewish conversation. Though I agree that there can always be higher standards of learning, I don’t think it’s what’s primarily missing. To me, what’s missing in many Jewish communities is a sense of why Judaism matters at all and how it can enhance our lives.

Much of RSY’s argument hinges on different texts, in true intellectual Jewish fashion. Yet looking at the context of the sources gives a very different picture. By and large, the sources he utilizes are Chassidic thinkers; using Chassidic thinkers to justify the importance of intellectualism ignores what the movement was actually about. Chassidic thinkers emphasize connection with God, not dry intellectualism, though there is certainly a textual element to their thinking. Just as saying that being intellectual is critically important in Judaism ignores the larger spiritual element of the religious civilization as a whole, so too does quoting Chassidic thinkers to prove this point ignore their larger message.

There’s also an interesting quote RSY brings that, to me, proves exactly the opposite point he claims it supports. At one point, he writes, “Judaism teaches that…God desires the heart. For the heart to be pure it must be honest and critical; to dismiss big and important questions and concerns is to jeopardize one’s spiritual health." Out of all the quotes to prove why intellect is important, I’m not quite sure why this is the one he chose. It's true that the word “heart” can indicate something a bit more complicated than just our emotions; it's important to note that, at least in Biblical Hebrew, "lev," the word for heart, means both emotions and thoughts. This, to me, seems to be what we should each bring to the table, our full minds and also our full emotional experience. Furthermore, the quote we read in the first paragraph of the Shma, one of Judaism's central prayers, states, "you should love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul and with all your might." This speaks to the completeness with which I should devote myself to truly living a life filled with Torah. It is not an intellectual pursuit, it’s a fully realized one, in which all parts of me must be unified and working together with integrity. The question then, I think, is how to bring our my self to Judaism, and in order for that to happen, I have to see a full spectrum of what Judaism is, not just one dimension of what it can be. 

In my experience, intellectualism on its own doesn't work for a healthy spiritual life. What I need is relevant Judaism. Relevant Judaism, as we try to teach it at Beit T’shuvah, incorporates the intellectual tradition of Judaism, and also emphasizes the spiritual aspects of Judaism as a religion and the cultural elements of Judaism as a civilization. Judaism is so much more than just one thread in the beautiful tapestry of its history. Knowledge in and of itself is limited, and even isolating. There needs to be education not only in terms of teaching facts and texts, but education oriented to showing why those facts and texts matter in my life and how they can be applied. Judaism is not purely an intellectual pursuit. It is a religious system that must be felt and lived, uniting all parts of one's self in the service of something greater. That's not something that I can just think about; it's something I have to do. For next week, I'll follow up on this concept with one or two practical examples of how I personally try to utilize this approach. I'm not opposed to learning or to deepening one's understand of Judaism; learning Torah is one of my favorite things to do. I also know how the learning without the application becomes empty, and RSY's conclusion that “taking ideas seriously is an essential part of living a Jewish life” seems to be just part of the picture. The question of what the nafka minah, the takeaway, should be looms large for me. Yes, it's true that I should engage my minds with Judaism- the bigger question for me, each step of the way, is why it matters and how it makes my life better.

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