Title: Why Do Jewish: A Manifesto for 21st Century Jewish Peoplehood
By Zack Bodner
Gefen Publishing House, 240 pages
Several years ago, I was talking with a friend who explained why she had switched her kids out of Orthodox day school to a Jewish community school. She said she was concerned that the Orthodox school took for granted that its students would want to be Jewish, whereas the other school, though less technically observant, inspired them to love being Jewish.
Though the verb is different – “be” versus “do” – it was with this story in mind that I picked up Why Do Jewish: A Manifesto for 21st Century Jewish Peoplehood, by Zack Bodner. I kept my kids in Orthodox schools, but the conversation stuck with me, and I’ve wondered. Do we take too much for granted in our Orthodox communities? Could we – should we – be doing a better job of inspiring our kids with deep faith and love for our heritage? Are we so caught up in teaching the practicalities of how to be Jewish that we’re neglecting the whys?
Bodner himself seems to take for granted that Orthodox Jews don’t need to ask those questions, noting in his introduction that “The ideas in this book likely may not sit well with the Orthodox community. But frankly, I don’t believe the traditional Orthodox community is my audience, since they do not seem to need convincing as to why and how to find meaning and relevance in Jewish life – they already have.” Indeed, I had already encountered ideas on the preceding pages that didn’t sit well with me (such as a funny story about eating lobster that left me cringing more than laughing), and I appreciated the author’s acknowledgment of our differences as well as his apparent faith in my community’s faith. But I’m not sure.
Are Orthodox Jews really done with finding meaning and relevance in Jewish life? Or could we benefit from a perspective that doesn’t take anything for granted, but instead starts from scratch and builds compelling reasons to identify with, care about, and practice Judaism – reasons that might appeal to those who struggle with faith? Bodner himself, after discounting the utility of his book for the Orthodox community, immediately follows with, “And for those in that community who are indeed searching, they might find answers here.”
Reading the book from an Orthodox perspective despite the author’s disclaimer, I naturally saw his ideas through that lens. I was primarily looking for answers that could “work” within an Orthodox community, and I found some. I also found important questions worth the attention of a wide spectrum of Jewish individuals and communities.
Despite the title, the questions Bodner raises go beyond the “whys” of doing Jewish; in fact, the book is divided into three parts, one of which shares the same title as the book – meaning the “whys” occupy only that small slice. (Really, the actual slice is even smaller, contained in a subsection titled subtly differently, “Why I Do Jewish” – alluding, whether intentionally or not, to the fact that each of us will ultimately have to answer the book’s stated central question for ourselves.)
Instead, he spends a great deal of time discussing how we might address challenges to maintaining Jewish commitment in the face of a changing world – such as diminished financial sustainability of our big institutions (and their attendant ability, or lack thereof, to support individual Jewish engagement), increasing discomfort with Jewish particularism, and increased polarization and divisiveness over Israeli policies. Bodner’s anecdotes and statistics make a compelling case that these challenges are serious, and I would add that the Orthodox world (and our children) cannot pretend to be immune or that the issues will simply disappear.
The answers and solutions, of course, will differ for different communities. Among other suggestions on a communal plane, Bodner makes a push for “radical inclusivity,” an ideal that directly opposes traditional conversion laws, matrilineal descent, opposition to intermarriage, etc. On the other hand, he immediately acknowledges the inherent difficulty of a community embracing such an ideal without losing its identity (“Should we have no boundaries and barriers?”) and I found it fascinating to see a thoughtful, committed Jew who is very different from me attempt to balance Jewish identity and inclusivity in ways that do and don’t resonate with me. I can get behind Bodner’s desire to “celebrate the fact” of diversity among Jews and make Jews of every color and culture feel welcome in our institutions, while his views on which “beliefs and actions…are out of bounds for being considered Jewish” may not quite line up with mine – but it is enriching and even unifying to see that, despite our different outcomes, we ultimately share many underlying values and struggles.
On the individual plane, too, Bodner was correct in his prediction that some of his ideas would not sit well with members of the Orthodox community; for instance, he advocates for a great deal of personal choice and innovation in how each Jew might relate to various elements of Jewish identity, including basic faith. (He says he does believe in G-d, but does not include such belief among Jewish essentials.) However, I noted with interest how some of his specific suggestions could lead some with a completely secular starting point to engage with traditional Jewish learning and even ritual.
This potential comes across most clearly in his third section, “How to Do Jewish.” Bodner advocates for seven avenues of doing Jewish that form the acronym TACHLIS. The T is for Tikkun Olam, “repairing the world,” understood in general terms of social action – a well-established focal point of non-Orthodox Jewish engagement (though he chooses a quote from Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, an Orthodox leader, to highlight the significance of this value). Bodner does not, however, begin and end there as others might: “Tikkun Olam can be the first path for Jews to do Jewish. It can be the first portal of entry for someone embarking on a Jewish journey.” Tikkun Olam is an accessible first step because it “doesn’t really require any outward manifestations of Judaism,” but Bodner advocates for placing one’s social action projects in a Jewish context – not as an end in itself, but as a means to developing deeper engagement. With “H” for “Holidays and Rituals,” the reader is encouraged to make use of the Jewish calendar in a loose sense and to innovate new ways to engage with these markers of time and concepts. Bodner then, however, urges readers “to know the basics. If you don’t know the basics, it’s hard to innovate off of them.” In a similar manner, Bodner first quotes Vanessa Ochs about keeping “Judaism alive through inventing new rituals,” then notes that “Sometimes, it’s not even reinventing a ritual so much as infusing new meaning into traditional rituals,” and further, “Sometimes it’s doing what we are commanded to do as Jews, since part of what it means to be a Jew is to live a life of commandedness.”
From an entry point that looks secular on the outside but can be framed as Jewish, to attaching internalized subjective meaning to things that are externally obviously Jewish, to appreciating an internalized sense of being commanded to engage in personal rituals – and later, to “L” for “Learning” and even “S” for “Shabbat and Spirituality” – the author’s proposals may indeed lead his secular readers to deeper engagement with tradition, though certainly not in a traditional sense. And although many of his answers in the dedicated “Why (I) do Jewish” section seem too subjective and/or vague to convince skeptics (Judaism’s “compelling worldview,” “values,” and “wonderful wisdom that makes me proud and speaks to me”), the TACHLIS section offers more of a “what’s in it for me” approach that may go further, as when he talks about how it might benefit a person psychologically and otherwise to connect with a community, engage in ritual, and tune in to spirituality.
Overall, the book is an engaging, easy yet thoughtful read. I cringed at the lobster (and bacon) but was gratified to be able to see past that to things we have in common as well. Why Do Jewish provides a meaningful window into what drives Jewish engagement that looks very different from mine and to the important values we do share, such as commitment to a robust Jewish future and the need to inspire our children to build it.