Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Mitzvot - Which Are the Low Hanging Fruit?

Until fairly recently, the Conservative and Reform movements were comprised of people who had at least some knowledge of the basics of traditional Judaism. Many had more observant or traditional parents or grandparents, had grown up in more observant homes and in primarily Jewish neighborhoods, and in some way or another were exposed to the basic traditions, rituals, beliefs, and holidays of Judaism. However, many Jews today in these movements have virtually no knowledge of, or experience with, some of the basic ideas and practices in Judaism.

Fifty years ago and earlier, these movements could operate with what I will call subtractive Judaism. They could take the existing set of traditional beliefs and decide what practices to relax, modify, or eliminate. For example, the Reform movement in the 19th century could switch from Hebrew to English (or German) in prayerbooks. The Conservative movement in the 1950s could liberalize some of the stringencies of shabbat and kashrut. But in both cases, they were starting with people who observed, or at least were familiar with, the traditional way of doing things.

That is no longer true. A substantial percentage of people in Conservative and Reform synagogues simply do not have any substantial knowledge of Judaism. They have not read the Torah, have no idea what it says, have not read other traditional texts, do not daven, do not attend services, do not keep any level of kashrut, do not know about most rituals, and do not know about, let alone observe, most holidays other than Rosh Hashana, Yom Kippur, Chanukah, and Passover. The challenge facing the Conservative and Reform movement is not what to subtract from traditional Jewish practices. It is what to add to no traditional Jewish practices. In many ways, this is the same issue that Orthodox kiruv groups face.

Given that, what are the low-hanging fruits in Judaism? That is, what are some mitzvot, holidays, rituals, or types of learning that interested but not very knowledgeable Jews might do at relatively low cost and obtain relatively large benefits. Where do you get the biggest Jewish bang for the buck. This is really a very practical question.

For example, Chabad started a campaign 50 years ago or so to get less observant Jews to wear tefillin. My (no doubt ill-informed) opinion is that this is a really odd mitzvah to start with. Non-observant Jews often view tefillin as strange and meaningless, and it reinforces the idea that traditional Judaism is full of bizarre arcane rituals. But Chabad has had some success with this, so what do I know?

I have a few other ideas, and I would be interested in other people's thoughts.

Shabbat evening. It is simply nice to be with family and friends, to light candles, for husbands to say something nice about or to their wives and kids, to drink wine, and to eat challah. And maybe even talk about something important and meaningful.

Shabbat day. More of a challenge, given the rest of life. But carving out time to be with family and friends, not to answer phones or e-mail, not to be distracted by video games or television, and not to worry about work or chores is a good thing.

Sukkot. A really nice holiday. I have no idea why it has fallen out of favor with many Reform and Conservative Jews. It might have something to do with Jewish men and their inability to use tools, but now there are lots of nice kits around. (I like building my own sukkah, but I may be exceptional here. I think I am the only Jewish man on the planet with a tablesaw and several routers.)

Counting the Omer. My kids and I think it is cool, but my wife thinks it a bit silly. There's all sorts of interesting interpretations and things to think about while counting the omer, and it all makes you better and wiser. And I told the kids that if we make it through all 49 days withing skipping a day, we'll go out for ice cream after Shavuot. So far, we are on track.

Reading the Torah. No substitute for that. And lots of good English translations available.

A Really Interactive Seder. Seders do not have to be boring exercises where people take turns reading paragraphs from the Maxwell House haggadah. A little reading and planning ahead of time (and some willing participants), and it can turn into a pretty meaningful performance art, a fun time for the kids, and a great intellectual discussion on the ideas of freedom.

Any other thoughts?

UPDATE: (here's more)
The Rules of L'shon Hara. Judaism takes a very strong position against truthful gossip. One is forbidding to say something negative about someone, even if it is true, with some limited exceptions. (Saying something false and negative falls into a different and worse category.) American culture does not place much value on this idea. People gossip, and much popular entertainment is devoted to this. Judaism is refreshing counter-cultural here.

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