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Response to Dr. Sarna: We have a mission; communal life must be about meaning

August 9, 2009

As a Jewish community volunteer and part-time critic, I often vacillate between hopefulness and concern. From the volunteer perspective, I experience moments of enrichment that sustain my belief that Jewish differences can be made and the promise of the Jewish people can be kept. As a critic, I find myself compelled to question not the merit of our Jewish communal efforts, but the quality of our Jewish communal experiences?

But while I may question many things, never have I questioned the mission of the Jewish people. Perhaps because it is too complex a question, and I am too simple to even ponder the answer? Perhaps because the mission is so inherent in what we learn from our faith and understand from our history that our mission as a people cannot be defined, it must be experienced?

It is that question, however, that Dr. Jonathan Sarna asked in his recent essay “Communal Life After the Recession” in London’s The Jewish Chronicle.  In his thoughtful essay, Sarna examines the state of the Jewish Diaspora in these challenging times and ask key questions about what the future looks like. In an era where the Diaspora is now concentrated, and where the protection and rescue of persecuted Jews is no longer an urgent focus of the Jewish people, Sarna asks “[w]ill the Jewish community be able to identify a mission compelling enough for young Jews to become passionate about?” In response, he closes his essay asserting “the goal of formulating a new and compelling mission for our Jewish community need to be high on our collective agenda.”

To his merit, Dr. Sarna presents both an interesting question and thought-provoking response. However, I believe both mischaracterize the nature of the challenge facing the Jewish people at this time in our history.  Quite simply, I do not believe it is about mission – it is about meaning.

In reading Dr. Sarna’s essay I am reminded of another great Jewish thinker, one of an earlier generation – Leo Baeck. In his seminal book (and testament to late German Jewish philosophy), This People Israel, Baeck wrote that “[o]nly as a people of meaning could, and can this people Israel be.” He further wrote “[t]his people’s constitution is founded in God’s commandment; it is a people to that is disposed to God, on that in all its development, its wandering, in all of the ebb and flow of history, must remain within  relationship toward the One-Who-Is.”

To Baeck’s point, we already have a timeless mission – to be a people of meaning.  It is a mission framed by and within the context of our relationship with God and is reinforced by the Jewish embodiment and experience of humanity.  The unfolding experiences that reflect our mission may change, and even the tactics and strategies that we as a people may choose to express that it may change, but the mission itself does not change.

So rather than question what our mission as a people should be, we need to question how we make that mission more meaningful and more relevant to generations of Jews to come.  Perhaps a cause can help us derive meaning, and perhaps an entrepreneurial approach can help shape relevance, but we should not mistake either for a reconfigured mission of the Jewish people; they are each tactics to bridge a timeless covenant with a timely need.  Rather, our immutable mission dictates that our priority, regardless of the era and economic environment, must be to explore and encourage new experiences that provide meaning to the covenantal relationship between the Jewish people and G-d.  Our mission, which we have already chosen to accept, is to fulfill our destiny of meaning through individual experiences of meaning.  That is our priority, that must be our goal.

When reading Dr. Sarna’s essay I was reminded of one other phrase used by Howell Baum in his book The Organization of Hope.  In describing two communities in Baltimore (one of which was Jewish), Baum writes that “[c]reating a community of hope depends on building a bridge of transcendence from a community of memory.”  Those powerful words are a gentle reminder that it is not just mission and meaning that are important, but memory matters also.

So with appreciation to Dr. Sarna for raising the question of “where do we go from here,” I respond differently.  Let us not question what our mission is; let us celebrate it by encouraging ways to find meaning within it.  And moreover, let us use those experiences of meaning to build bridges of memory, communities of hopefulness and a people of Israel that can, as Baeck wrote… be.

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