Curing Jewish Ignorance

Too many Jews are turning their back on something they don’t even know. I was one of them.

“Whoever does not visit the sick is as if he spilled blood.” – Rabbi Akiva (Nedarim 40a, B. Talmud)

Our fellow Jews are sick. They don’t admit it. They don’t even know it. Yet the malady is grave. “The most destructive, painful, most contagious disease of all,” Rabbi Noah Weinberg, the founder of Aish HaTorah, said, “is ignorance. Ignorance perverts people and leads to wasted, counterproductive lives. Ignorance causes untold suffering – mistreatment of children, marital strife and suffering in a dead-end job.”

Who are these ignorant Jews? The highly educated, socially conscious, comedy-loving, Holocaust-honoring 1.2 million American Jews who identify themselves as Jews of no religion, according to the Pew survey. This group has been steadily growing for four decades and now includes one-third of all adult Jews born after 1980. Four-fifths of this group marry non-Jews. Only 8 percent raise their kids to be Jewish. The majority of them feel little or no attachment to Israel.

I call them ignorant because they’ve turned their back on something they don’t even know. Many have never been exposed to Judaism at all; others have experienced a diluted, dumbed-down version, and understandably found it uninspiring. I don’t blame them for consequently writing off the whole religion, but it’s like writing off sushi after trying a rubbery tuna roll from 7-Eleven.

I know about this because I was one of them. For years, I was proud to be Jewish, but I thought Judaism had nothing to offer me. I had received two messages from my parents:

1) Be Jewish to preserve the Jewish people.

2) Be Jewish because your grandfather died in the Holocaust. My mother is a child survivor of Theresienstadt, with lifelong health problems occasioned by her treatment there. Her father was murdered at Dachau, and most of her extended family was killed at Auschwitz. My father is a Chilean Jew who had to fight his way out of several scrapes with anti-Semites. We never owned a German car. We rejoiced when Israeli commandos rescued the hostages at Entebbe on July 4, 1976.

I sought spirituality everywhere but my own backyard.

And yet, Judaism was understood to be a chore. Temple was boring but obligatory a few times a year. My bar mitzvah was more of a performance than a meaningful experience. As I grew older, I sought spirituality in Eastern philosophy, meditation, endurance sports, jam bands, transcendental poetry and science fiction — everywhere but my own backyard.

Eventually I found my way back, thanks to a confluence of events. My grandmother died. I stumbled into the right shul. I got a taste of deep Judaism, and a constellation of secular myths exploded around me. I found that our ancient tradition spoke to me in innumerable ways, even while I remained scientifically oriented and modern. More to the point, I became a better husband, father, son, brother, friend and citizen when I became a practicing Jew.

As I learned from Arthur Kurzweil, there is a rope that connects every Jew to God. Sometimes these ropes break. When a broken rope gets retied, however, the distance between the Jew and God becomes shorter. Interestingly, I often feel I have more in common with practitioners of other faiths than I do with devoutly secular Jews who cringe at “God talk.” Among the former, there exist an amazing 1.2 million American non-Jews who identify themselves as people with Jewish affinity. They do so mostly because they share religious values with us, and because Jesus was Jewish. I find this support comforting – evidence of the great freedom we enjoy in America to practice our own religion. Ironically, it may be this very lack of persecution that leads so many of our brothers and sisters to devalue their own religious heritage, and eventually to abandon it altogether.

“Whoever does not visit the sick is as if he spilled blood,” said Rabbi Akiva. He spoke these words after visiting a sick man whom no other Sage would visit. He saw that the man lacked basic necessities, attended to him personally and saved his life. We bear the same obligation toward those who are spiritually sick today.

We who are connected to God through the rope of Judaism have a sacred duty to help the unconnected retie the knot. If they get a taste of quality Judaism, and still leave it behind, OK, they’ve made an informed choice. The vast majority of these folks, however, have no idea what they’re missing.

Our fellow Jews suffer from tragic levels of ignorance. They’ve never experienced a Carlebach service, they’ve never excavated layers of text with a great teacher, and they’ve never seen a relationship improve through mussar work. They simply don’t know that inspiring Judaism exists.

I think it’s fantastic that Jewish institutions are creating fun, welcoming, inspiring events to greet the curious when they show up. The group I’m talking about, however, will not show up. Chocolate fountain Shabbats and comedy club Yom Kippurs will not get them through the door.

The connected have to do the connecting, starting with our closest friends.

So we need to knock on their doors. Call it crowd-sourced outreach. The connected have to do the connecting, starting with our closest friends. We have to invite our secular pals to our Shabbat dinners. When they come, we have to make it warm and festive, modeling the benefits we’ve gained from Torah Judaism. I’d like to give special props to my dear friends Rabbi Shlomo “Schwartzie” Schwartz and his wife, Olivia, who have hosted such Shabbats for 60 people at a time for 30 years.

If you’ve got a special ability to connect the unconnected, please use it. My own plan is ambitious, but God blessed me with a little miracle in 2005 when I became the Accidental Talmudist. As a result of that miracle, I have a huge opportunity to visit the sick, and I am seizing it. I share a mission with dedicated organizations like Chabad and Aish, who are putting vast libraries of Judaism online. The problem with the Internet, however, is that people only consume what they’re looking for, sparing little time for material that doesn’t draw them. Even the things they do like can only hold their attention for a few minutes at a time.

Television, however, is different. People stumble onto shows all the time as they search for something to watch, and if they’re intrigued, they’ll stay for half an hour. That’s a huge opportunity to give Jews and potential Jews a taste of deep Judaism. Currently, there is quite a bit of Jewish culture on TV, but the only Judaism available is Jews for Jesus and Kabbalah Centre. That’s why I’m creating a fast-paced reality show in which I meet the most dynamic, inspiring, humorous teachers of Jewish wisdom, and challenge them to address the thorniest questions in modern life – the kind of show that would’ve caught my attention when I was sick.

The key is to take our Judaism to the Jews who need it most. The reward for this mitzvah is enormous. Every morning we read in our siddur that a person who visits the sick enjoys the fruit of the mitzvah in this world, and the principal remains intact for him in the World to Come (Shabbat 127a, Babylonian Talmud). The reward in the next world is necessarily mysterious. The reward in this world, however, is clear: a healthier community and a stronger tribe.

This article originally appeared in the Jewish Journal.

Get the best of Accidental Talmudist in your inbox: sign up for our monthly newsletter.

Share to

You Might Also Like

Sign Me Up

Sign me up!

Our newsletter goes out about twice a month, with links to our most popular posts and episodes.