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No Holds Barred: Non-Jews as the saviors of Judaism
By SHMULEY BOTEACH
The time has come to disseminate Jewish values and spirituality to all of Earth’s inhabitants.
Let’s confront a painful truth. Judaism has failed. Despite billions of dollars spent over the past 40 years to bring Jews closer to their tradition, we have barely moved the needle on the 50 percent assimilation and intermarriage rate. Israel has the worst reputation of any country with the possible exception of Iran and North Korea. The facts are indisputable but the question remains why. Is it because the Jewish religion is inherently impotent and Israel really is harsh, or rather that our model of promoting both is fatally flawed.
The real failure is Jewish insularity and isolation. Judaism for Jews is too narrow, too particular to really inspire. The vast majority of the world’s Jews want to live mainstream and fully integrated lives. But every form of Jewish outreach – from Reform to Orthodox – is designed to bring them back to the Jewish community. News alert. They left 200 years ago during the great emancipation and they aren’t coming back.
There is, therefore, only one solution: Judaism for non- Jews. A global movement to disseminate Jewish values and spirituality to all Earth’s inhabitants, making no distinction between Jew and gentile.
Two thousand years ago a still mysterious man named Saul of Tarsus saw that the ideas and values behind Judaism were so breathtaking that they could change the world, if only they could be stripped of their ritual demands and be mixed with a human deity who was more accessible than Judaism’s invisible God. Thus, from the foundations of Jewish spirituality Christianity, and later Islam, was born. The time has come for the original progenitors of the ideas to offer the world the original source, not by converting non-Jews to Judaism but by reviving an ancient “associate” status that allows them to live lives deeply influenced by Jewish spiritually and values while retaining their own identity.
In ancient times there was a middle ground between Jew and non-Jew - Judaizers – a vast movement that existed in ancient Rome before the birth of Christianity. The American religious sociologist Rodney Stark explains in One True God, Historical Consequences of Monotheism that “Jews constituted 10 percent of the Roman world, and attracted many pagan God-fearers to their synagogues... Jews in general and the synagogue in particular were attractive even to non-Jews. The simplicity of Jewish theology (belief in the one God), the ethical standards (the Ten Commandments) and the many festivals exercised a certain fascination among many in the Greco-Roman world. Some even made a full conversion to Judaism. Others remained in a kind of ‘associate’ status – what Luke in Acts refers to as ‘God-fearers’ – perhaps unwilling to take upon themselves the peculiarities of Judaism. It is very likely that many of the non-Jews who embraced Christianity were first exposed to the Jewish scriptures and Judaism through their association with the urban Diaspora synagogues in the Roman Empire.”
I HAVE no interest in converting non-Jews to Judaism. That would betray the core Jewish belief that all humanity are equally God’s children as well as the Jewish insistence on enrichment through diversity. Rather, becoming a Judaizer would involve bringing Jewish values and spirituality to an existing religious or cultural identity, much like Westerners who have brought meditation or yoga into their lives.
For the past six years I have been working on a book, to be published shortly, on a new understanding of Jesus as prophet rather than deity, based exclusively on the New Testament. The real story of Jesus as teacher of traditional Jewish spirituality to his disciples lies explicitly in the text. I have lectured Christian audiences about rediscovering the uniquely Jewish Jesus as a way of deepening their spiritual understanding of Christianity and stripping it of any acquired pagan coating. The response has been overwhelming.
In every part of the world, there is a growing spiritual crisis. Religion is either not addressing the spiritual needs of the people or inspiring extremes. In Europe the ability of Christianity to influence societal values has been so compromised that last week in Spain I debated a megaselling author from France who wrote a book titled Forty Reasons Not to Have Children. The pedophile-priest scandal has a choke hold on Catholicism, and in the US evangelical Christianity is extremely successful but obsessed with issues like gay marriage and abortion that utterly ignore the crisis of materialism and an increasingly narcissistic populace.
Becoming a Judaizer would entail a seven-step program of living:
1. Observe Friday night as family night (see www.fridayisfamily.com) by tuning out all electronic interference and focusing on children, friends and community.
2. Eat kosher food (20 percent of Americans already look for kosher symbols for cleanliness and purity) and separate milk from meat as a symbol of the affirmation of life and its negation from all forms of corrosion and death.
3. Celebrate the themes of the Jewish festivals. Passover Seders, emphasizing the human capacity to rise above material enslavement (President Barack Obama already hosts his own annual Seder), transcending a reliance on material comforts by returning to the essentials of nature on Succot, lighting lamps on Hanukka as a symbol of the human capacity to illuminate a dark earth and heal a painful life, and reorienting ourselves to the essential laws of ethics and morality on Shavuot.
4. Studying Judaism’s great texts, from the Torah portion of the week to selections of the Talmud, to the epistles of Maimonides, to kabbalistic and hassidic works.
5. Observing the marriage laws, including the monthly act of sexual separation thereby creating an erotic barrier that enhances lust and pleasure (see my book Kosher Sex).
6. Appreciation of, and respect for, the feminine, including codes of alluring modesty for women, and domesticity and marital commitment for men, all necessary in an age where teens like Miley Cyrus are already pole-dancing and stars like George Clooney can’t commit.
7. A commitment to acts of communal kindness, such as regular visits to hospitals and homes for the elderly and giving 10 percent of one’s income to charity.
ALTHOUGH INFORMAL, the campaign has already begun. In the US, the most sought-after speaker for Jewish organizations is Mayor Cory Booker of Newark, who served as president of my L’Chaim Society at the University of Oxford, where we studied thousands of hours of Jewish and African-American texts together. He is now electrifying the nation with speeches, heavily based on Jewish values and wisdom, about living an inspired life of communal devotion. Likewise, Madonna, Ashton Kutcher and the Kabbala Center have done much to highlight Israel, Jewish spirituality and kosher living.
But this campaign needs the investment of global organizations like the World Jewish Congress, the Jewish Agency and even Birthright Israel, which might create a program for non-Jewish youth to visit Israel.
Having non-Jews become excited about Judaism is the most effective way to address assimilation, because Jews would now be blending into a culture that embraces and honors their tradition. There would be no escape. Similarly, having tens of millions of people – from Russia to China to Brazil – who look to Judaism for spiritual sustenance would create unshakable support for a Jewish homeland whence that spirituality stems.
A few weeks ago at our Sabbath table, we made the rounds of guests toasting L’chaim. Michael Jackson’s former manager Francesco Cascio raised his glass and said, “I am not Jewish and have no plans to be. But I live my life according to Jewish values and spirituality.” I believe millions more the world over wish to do the same.
The writer heads This World: The Values Network, an organization dedicated to promoting universal Jewish values to heal America. He has just published a book on spiritual spirituality for non- Jews called Renewal: A Guide to the Values-Filled Life. Follow him on Twitter @RabbiShmuley.