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Communal Malaise: When Habits Become Hollow

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Michael H. Steinhardt, Jewish philanthropist and co-founder of Birthright Israel, spoke recently at the 92nd Street Y about the state of world Jewry.

Though he mentioned some optimistic signs for the future, the focus of his talk was on “a darker, more worrisome tale.”

“A barometer of the malaise in the Jewish world today is the standing of our communal organizations,” Steinhardt said. “No more than 15 percent of philanthropic contributions given by Jews go to Jewish organizations. That’s a pretty low and depressing number, and I think it is emblematic of the lack of passion these organizations have been able to inspire.”

According to Steinhardt, the reason for these dismal numbers is that too many organizations forget the ideals for which they were founded and instead divert valuable resources on merely sustaining their own viability.

“But if that’s the goal, at the end of the day, who are these organizations servicing? Their constituents – or themselves, and their donor base?”

I found Steinhardt’s observation an astute reminder of why many things that have become “organized” lose their initial passion.

And don’t many of us suffer from the same malaise on a personal level? Don’t we mirror some of the same duplicity in our daily rituals?

The other day I was watching a group of boys beginning their morning prayers. They had just sung the verse, “We hereby take upon ourselves the commandment of ‘Love your fellow as yourself.’ ”

Right at that point I noticed a boy shoving his elbow really hard into the ribs of the boy next to him who, apparently, had accidentally stepped on his toe a minute earlier.

I wish I could excuse this behavior as just a youthful lack of consideration. But it reminded me of too many examples in our adult lives where we have similarly lost the inner passion of our ideals while preserving the hollow outward shell of our acts.

I remember once being a guest at a Shabbat meal when the husband belittled his wife for forgetting to place the challah cover on the table during Kiddush.

Normally we recite the blessing on bread before wine, but on Shabbat we reverse the order to say Kiddush. In order for the challah loaves not to feel “slighted” or “embarrassed” by being second place, we cover them.

Obviously, bread has no feelings, but the custom is meant to cultivate within us an awareness and sensitivity for the feelings of others. If we are concerned about inanimate bread, how much more vigilant must we be not to humiliate another human being – especially a spouse.

So how did the challah cover suddenly become more important than a wife’s feelings? How do noble words of loving our fellow get transformed into a shove in the ribs? And how do selfless communal organizations become breeding grounds for politics and self-promotion?

And why have so many of our youth become disillusioned with what they perceive as lifeless rituals and visionless communal organizations – even while still searching for more innovative spirituality?

Gerald Edelman, Nobel Prize winner and neuroscientist, proposes that our most familiar ways of thinking, feeling and reacting take shape at the neural level through the impact of simple repetition on the connections between cells. The more often a particular circuit in the brain is used, the stronger its connections become.

As we repeat a habit over and over, the neural connections for it strengthen while those for alternatives to the habit weaken. Or, in the words of our Sages, “Routine becomes second nature.”

On the positive side, that is why once we’ve learned to ride a bicycle or drive a car, we basically can do so mechanically. It is also why if we become conditioned while young to dropping pennies into a pushka, we become trained in the trait of giving.

But on the downside, that is why repetitive patterns become automatic responses, often lacking proper evaluation. That is also why well-meaning organizations can fall into a cycle of self-perpetuation, and how actions that are supposed to cultivate the noblest qualities can become hollow, if we don’t constantly and actively challenge our default state of mindlessness.

Judaism is full of reminders – in the form of mitzvot and customs – meant to make us stop, think and become aware. From the moment we wake up we are meant to cultivate a consciousness of why we are here.

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