Still Lapsed, After all these Months

In a particularly distressed moment, I made a remark in one of the comments sections, below, that:

“As for me, I think my association with Judaism is coming to an end. I’m interested in it as an intellectual and as an ethicist, but I don’t see it as a fruitful spiritual path – at least not as my exclusive spiritual path.”

And a lot of folks got concerned that I was surrendering to organized Judaism’s reaction to my book, or giving up, or taking my ball and going home after a little of what should have been expected resistance.

This is not the case. But my retreat from my statement may have also been wrong.

In all honesty, I remain a “lapsed Jew,” (who happens to read Torah and observe the Sabbath). I also happen to believe that an informed, educated, lapsed Judaism might also be the most true form of the religion, today. And this is a large part of why I wrote my book. I was looking for evidence in Judaism that the religion could serve, or was even meant, as more of a runway than an airplane. A means, and not an end in itself. Better yet, a vehicle. And it seemed that everyone was staring at the car and no one was getting inside, for fear it would take them to a new place. And those of us who were actually driving around in it were being called ‘lapsed.’

So I wrote my book, explaining that I saw Judaism as a process. And that we had to at least consider that this process (of ritual and text promoting iconoclasm, abstract monotheism and social justice) might have been lost as Judaism (for very understandable reasons) became more concerned with itself than its mission of protecting and promoting this process. I was writing for lapsed Jews like me, to give us the courage and ammunition to practice and argue for this new form of Judaism, whether or not it’s called Judaism at all. And to reassure us that we’re not abandoning something, we’re evolving something.

Certain factions in institutional Judaism saw in my arguments something they had been looking for: a way to convince lapsed Jews (particularly GenX ones) to come back to Judaism. And I saw in these factions a willing audience for my ideas. So I ended up putting myself on a book tour where I engaged mostly with these people, and wrote mostly for their magazines. These are pretty much the only people who wrote reviews of my book, scathing and closed-minded though they may have been. This is all fine.

But – fundamentalist attacks, boycotts, and censorship aside – my conversation became increasingly about Judaism for Judaism’s sake. My own focus began turning inward on the question of where and whether there were institutions offering the “kind of Judaism” I mean to practice, and whether the federations, philanthropies, or synagogues are to “blame” for Judaism’s situation. This was a detour, and was a lot less fun, and a lot less interesting to me. On the whole, and as a result, I started to find it easier to speak about spiritual issues with Catholics (lapsed Catholics, mostly) than Jews.

So, on returning home from a harrowing tour, I ended up saying something very similar to what I started out saying. I honestly believe that who I am, intellectually, spiritually, and ethically, has been greatly informed by Judaism. But I’m a Jew looking out, not a Jew looking in. And I feel more “Jewish” when I’m engaged in helping the world or making it more beautiful or loving than when I’m working on Judaism or hanging out in a synagogue.

In this sense, my “association with Judaism” – meaning my focus on Judaism for Judaism’s sake – must really come to an end, for my own good. I’m not interested in going to services, or in figuring out how to devise services that I *would* want to go to. I no longer want to think about what I can do for Judaism, but what Judaism can do for the world.

And that does mean interfaith support, social justice, the arts, literature, conversation, education, and thought.

I got an email that said, basically, my adversaries may be right – the process of inquiry that I’m advocating may take people away from Judaism. To which I say, yes and no. No – that’s not really what my adversaries are saying. But yes, if you ‘do’ Judaism right, and keep asking questions, it becomes more of a runway to something greater than itself.

Judaism was created – yes created – as a means to get people to a more conscious, loving, caring, ethical place. It is a process that I’ve used, and I do believe it was divinely inspired.

But if you do it really right, I’d argue, it kind of disappears. The process shows you how nothing is sacred. And, more importantly, that the ‘nothing’ you end up with is truly sacred.