Have we lost our mission statement?


May. 19, 2008


[George W. Bush visits Israel]

Last week President Bush described Israel as a "a light unto the nations that preserves the legacy of Abraham and Isaac and Jacob."

It must have been confusing for an American president speaking to the Israeli Knesset and delivering, arguably, the most pro-Jewish and pro-Israel speech ever given by a leader of the free world, to realize that almost no one in his audience agreed with him.

The Arab MK's [Members of Knesset] presumably didn't.

And the Jews? They are mostly comprised today, in Israel especially, of secularists and Jewish exclusivists, those who believe that Israel should most resemble every other nation and those who believe that Jews should live mostly insular lives around other Jews. Few would agree with Bush that Israel and the Jews have a universal message of inspiration for mankind. It was the ancient prophets who spoke of the Jews as being "a light unto the nations," but that is something the Jews have only ever achieved by having their contributions to mankind co-opted by other religions and nations.

As Israel celebrates its 60th birthday, the condition of world Jewry remains challenging. For all its miraculous achievements, Israel is still a country facing a mortal threat from enemies like Iran who are sworn to its destruction. And for all the economic prosperity that Jews have created throughout the world and for all the money that has been sent in the way of Jewish outreach, it has not translated into a global Jewish renaissance. Assimilation continues to undermine a tiny people who have a low birthrate and a huge intermarriage rate.

Why is this happening? Because President Bush's vision is not our vision. We do not believe in a larger Jewish role in the world. In essence, painful as it may sound, our community stands primarily for self-preservation, survival, and little else. You hear it all the time, both in terms of speeches about Israel that always reflect on its struggle just to make it to its 70th birthday, and you hear it in all the outreach programs who speak of keeping uninterested and uneducated Jews in the fold. What you almost never hear is that the Jews have be strong not for their own survival, but to enrich the world with their message.

EXACTLY WHAT is that message? No one seems to know. What makes us Jews unique? Try this out. Ask any of your Jewish friends, from the most assimilated to the most committed, what are the core values that the Jews represent? I almost guarantee that they won't be able to tell you. They'll offer some platitudes about education, charity, family, and community. But once you point out that everyone today accepts and promotes these values as well, they'll be stumped.

This point was brought home to me by two incidents that occurred this week on my travels. I was in my old home of Oxford to debate a leading Christian thinker on whether Judaism can embrace a man as God. Just before the debate, I bumped into an American Hassidic rabbi who was visiting the university for the day. He politely asked if I would mind if he came to my lecture to heckle me.

"Why would you do that?," I asked. "Do you believe in Jesus?"

"Of course not," he said. "I want to come to heckle your oft-quoted message that Jews have to spread their light to the world. Our mission is to be good Jews, and just by living our lives we become an example to the world."

Oh really? Try parenting that way. Don't teach your kids not to run into the street in front of a car. Simply stop at the curb and try to model a good example. Any takers?

The second incident came a few days later as I walked the streets of Rome with a close Jewish friend who leans toward Buddhism, yet another well-educated and successful Jew who turned to India and the East for his spiritual needs. Around us were all the symbols of the Christian faith which claims to have superseded Judaism millennia ago in disseminating monotheism and the Bible. And walking by my side was. Where did Judaism fit in? Was there anything still for us to contribute? Why were we still here? Was there not some redemptive role that would make sense of our long history of suffering?

Now is the time for the Jewish community to finally find its place among the nations and begin to disseminate its unique values to the world. This urgent necessity cannot wait. It should begin by summoning the world's leading Jewish thinkers, activists, and philanthropists to discuss and lock down the core Jewish values that our community represents: what we're good at, what we specialize in, what we have carried with us through history, and what the world most requires. At the same conference, a program of implementation should be decided upon, with the necessary funding procured.

One idea could be the establishment of a Jewish institute whose sole purpose would be award scholarships to gifted communicators to be schooled in these unique values. After say two years, they could be given grants to write books, develop curriculums, TV shows, Internet sites, and public service announcements that would make an impact on the wider culture.

Another idea would be institutionalizing within the culture uniquely Jewish traditions that would immediately make the world a better place. The Sabbath is the most powerful example. We are arguably the only community that has an answer to the material clutter and the endless noise of the technological age. For 24 hours, every seven days, we rise above material acquisition and shut down all the noise. We don't buy objects, we don't watch TV, and we turn our IPods off. We instead listen to our children and create a warmer community.

A final idea would be the cultivation of uniquely Jewish holy men and wise women that could be marketed as global lights, just as the Dalai Lama does for millions of non-Buddhists. We already have one, Elie Wiesel, whom Bush quoted in his speech. But we need a lot more.

The same friend with whom I walked the streets of Rome sat down with me on Shabbat afternoon to study from the mishna tract, Ethics of the Fathers. He told me he was impressed with the quality and depth of the life-advice given by the ancient sages. A marketing expert, he then asked, "Since this is such good stuff, why don't we share these teachings with the whole world?" I had no good answer.



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