In a recent article in the Jewish Journal, Professor Jonathan Zasloff proposed that young Jews be encouraged to perform two years of “korban” (tikkun olam, or community service) after graduating from college in order to draw closer to God through altruistic service. There is much in his article to interest Mormons, including its title and references to LDS missionary service as a model to emulate. While I certainly applaud his desire to involve young Jews in an extended period of tikkun olam, as a former Mormon missionary I’m fairly positive that his stated goal – to “strengthen” Jewry and “re-energize Torah” – cannot be realized within his proposed framework. The reason? If you want to connect people to their faith, service by itself is a poor substitute for an intensely religious experience.
Professor Zasloff, a rabbinical student, starts off his essay by trying to define the problem that the korban program will seek to remedy. He certainly draws a chorus of “amens” from Mormon readers with the following statement: “When we as a people lost korbanot [i.e., ritual sacrifices performed in ancient Israelite temples], however, we lost something deeply profound — and our relationship with God demands that somehow we recover it.” So far so good. However, I have no idea why he would write that “Modern Judaism replaces sacrifice with prayer.” Did the ancient Israelites not pray as well? The Book of Psalms is a collection of 150 prayers, and Isaiah says that the temple “shall be called an house of prayer for all people.” The truth is that both ancient and modern Jews use(d) prayer to draw close to God. However, unlike ancient Jews, their contemporary counterparts don’t have sacrifices, temples, priesthood, or prophets. Rabbinical Judaism has replaced them with nothing (indeed, it can’t—how do you replace Moses and the Temple?), and tikkun olam can’t make up for their absence.
I have long advocated that Jews once again become active proselytizers, so I disagree with the professor’s desire to keep the korban program focused on service, not “increasing membership.” For good measure he slams LDS missionary efforts by declaring that “We come close to God by giving of ourselves, not by building institutions.” A greater understanding of the LDS missionary program reveals that it is possible for a young adult to do both at the same time.
As I see it, the primary purpose of the LDS missionary program is to establish a spiritual base for a young man/woman’s life, with a secondary goal of preaching and converting. When I was serving in southern Italy, the average baptism rate per missionary was less than one – for the entire two years. While I didn’t have much success with conversions, the spiritual habits that I developed have stayed with me until today.
Prior to serving a mission, a typical teen attends church for three hours a week, participates in scripture study each weekday morning for four years, obtains a patriarchal blessing declaring his Israelite lineage, is ordained to the priesthood (if male), and performs certain rituals in an LDS temple. During the mission, he gives up dating in order to focus on scripture study, fasting, prayer, and service to current and future members of the LDS Church. Two years later, the results are life-changing. My wife and I are both former missionaries (you’re never really an “ex-missionary” in the Mormon Church), and like many LDS couples we pray together five times a day, study the scriptures together daily, fast together at least once a month, have a weekly family night, etc. Would we be doing these things if we had spent two years in a program that stressed service to others but lacked an intense religious component? I doubt it.
Based on the LDS experience, if the good professor really wants to “re-energize Torah” through korban, he will ask participants to participate in daily hevruta (companion scripture study), deliver lectures to non-Jews on Judaism, fast for others every month, and pray several times a day in addition to the laudable service that they will perform. The Torah will not become re-energized unless it becomes the center of young Jews’ lives. As much as I applaud Professor Zasloff’s idealism and altruism, I’m afraid his proposal is incomplete.