We need better marketing. The Reform movement that is. Well, Temple Emanuel, too, but this Shabbat, I’m concerned about the broader umbrella of Progresive Judaism.
You may have heard that Jews throughout the world have been called together this Shabbat (Shabbat Noach) to participate in The Shabbos Project. This Shabbos Project is being marketed as an “international movement to unite all Jews through keeping one Shabbos together.” Sounds like a lovely idea, doesn’t it? Though, isn’t that what we do week after week- observe Shabbat with Jews throughout the world? It was the Israeli writer and philosopher Ahad Ha-am who first reminded us, “More than Israel has kept Shabbat, has Shabbat kept Israel.” The international construct, if you will, that keeps Jews “together” is already present. It’s called Shabbat, and it has the potential to unite us. Indeed, Jews worldwide observe it.
While not so obvious on the Shabbos Project flyers posted throughout our community in places like Starbucks, or in the materials advertising the Baltimore Challah bake that occurred at the JCC as part of the project, this Shabbos Project is far from a pluralistic effort at uniting world Jewry. It has been organized by a South African outreach organization called Kiruv. Kiruv’s mission is one of unifying the Jewish people. Their website states, “Our united efforts, with HaShem’s help, will be the seeds to infuse light, love, and inspiration to all of Am Yisrael.” What becomes clear when digging a bit deeper specifically into the directions for the Shabbos Project’s hosts, however, is that the goal of unifying the Jewish people is only about unifying us according to one narrow definition of what it means to be an observant Jew.
Hosts are encouraged to “share the beauty of Shabbos by inviting a less-affiliated Jew into your home.” I’m not sure what they mean by “less-affliated,” but I have a sense they are referring to folks just like me. Non-Orthodox Jews. It is striking that nowhere in the marketing materials are denominational terms used, just “Jewish” and “less affiliated.” There are guidelines, of course, on how to handle “halachik mistakes” made by guests. Encourage Torah observance, but don’t judge. Tell your kids not to make any comments regarding lack of knowledge about basic Jewish concepts. Remind them, your kids that is, that your visitors have never had the privilege of a Yeshiva education. Oh, and my favorite suggestion, “when bringing female guests to shul, make sure there is a user friendly mechitza”…If the women’s section isn’t inviting, it is “better to encourage them to stay home with the women of the home. This is particularly important for beginners.” The website manual states.
I could share more about the instructions for those serving as hosts for this worldwide Shabbos effort, but you get the idea. It is less about Shabbat ideals, and far more about promulgating a Halachicly narrow, Orthodox definition of Shabbat observance. It is not at all about true unity, or making the world a better place, or even providing that taste of redemption. It's about forwarding one idea about how to keep the Sabbath.
As I said, we need better marketing.
How do we – Reform Jews who do observe Shabbat, who live full Jewish lives, even if not halachikly bound ones – how do we respond to this divisive message that their “keeping Shabbat” is better than ours, that their way is God’s preference? First and foremost, we must never be apologetic regarding the Reform movement’s stance on ritual, our understanding of history or Torah, or our personal level of Jewish observance. Whether we tear toilet paper or not or use a light switch on Shabbat, should not be held up as a defining measures of our Jewishness, our connection to God, let alone our moral character. Moreover, we should speak proudly about how we do express our Jewish observance. We must always speak in the positive: affirm what choices are made and provide explanations that extend beyond mere convenience.
Despite the concerns I have regarding Kiruv’s Shabbos Project, I hope it motivates us in one very important direction. Each of us, regarding of our level of observance should take time to consider what makes us Jewish. Is it simply a matter of our biology? Or, is it our commitment to social justice, the values of tikun olam? Is it a matter of a faith in a singular God? Or, is your Judaism defined primarily through historical and cultural connections to the past? For so many generations, Jewish identity was assigned to us as much by external forces as by individual choice. That is no longer the case today. In our modern, some argue post-modern, world, we are not identified as Jewish unless we choose to be. And, I’d argue, it behooves us to do so, to each be a Jew by choice. I firmly believe that we must each consciously and proactively identify as Jewish – we must choose it. In that sense the Shabbos Project has it right: we must choose to opt-in if we expect Jewish life to thrive into the decades and centuries ahead.
My hope – a hope that is at least as passionate as, if not more so, than the one behind Kiruv’s Shabbos Project—is that Progressive, Reform Judaism remains a vibrant, accessible, intellectually engaging, aesthetically beautiful and welcoming place for all Jews to opt-in.