On January 4, my family and I were privileged to attend the final Broadway performance of the revival of Pippin, one of Stephen Schwartz’s wonderful musicals. I had not seen it before. It’s the story of a well-educated young prince who, after university, embarks on a search for a meaningful life. He tries being a soldier and being king, and he tries living on a farm. None of it seems to work. He finally realizes that it is the mundane life on the farm with a woman he loves, and her young son, that is the meaningful life.
The day after we saw Pippin, David Brooks published a column discussing the modern search for meaning, and asserting that “Meaningfulness tries to replace moral systems with the emotional corona that surrounds acts of charity.” He says today’s seekers of meaning are looking only for a feeling they call meaning, and contrasts them with those who lived meaningful lives in the past, who “subscribed to moral systems — whether secular or religious — that recommended specific ways of being, and had specific structures of what is right and wrong, and had specific disciplines about how you might get better over time.”
Rabbi Geoff Mitelman responded last week on this blog, discussing the way Judaism’s moral system and meaningfulness go together. Rabbi Mitelman, like me, lives mostly in the religiously liberal Jewish world, and he mentions in his piece how important it is, for liberal Jews especially, for their religious practice to be meaningful to them.
I teach my congregants that, as practitioners of Reform Judaism, they are obligated to observe the ethical commandments of Jewish law, but are not obligated to follow the ceremonial or ritual commandments. However, it is incumbent on us to learn about the latter types of commandments, and take on those that we find add meaning and holiness to our lives.
The challenge of this is that some practices could potentially bring holiness and meaning to people’s lives, but do not do so the first time one tries them. It can take years of, well, practice, before a practice like meditation or communal worship feels meaningful. Some activities may feel initially awkward or difficult, and therefore may not feel meaningful immediately, like visiting the sick or paying shiva calls, or the hard work of social action (these would qualify as mandatory commandments for Reform Jews). If we are searching for meaning, it is worth our while to commit to a moral and ethical system, and to practices, that others have found meaningful, even if they don’t feel meaningful to us at first. We might seek out people who seem similar to us in temperament or spirituality, and engage with some of the practices that work for them. Then we need to trust that the meaning will eventually come.
In other words, searching for meaning in each experience may not be the most effective way to find meaning. Perhaps we need something that is discussed far less in most liberal Jewish circles than meaningfulness: faith. We need to have faith that some of the morals, ethics, and practices that have led to meaningfulness for others can do that for us too. We need to have faith that if it doesn’t feel meaningful today, it can someday, if we keep with it. Then, like Pippin, we may find that the meaning we’re searching for comes through our day-to-day work to improve the world, and through our rituals, routines, and relationships.
World leaders today have assembled to mourn the death of Nelson Mandela. As tributes are paid to Mandela’s towering legacy and monumental impact in ending apartheid in South Africa, I can’t help but feel the absence of any Mandela-like leader today within the Jewish community.
This is not to say that we lack impressive Jewish leaders today. To the contrary, there are a number of individuals, rabbis and non-rabbis alike, who do extraordinary work at the local level—at synagogues, JCCs, and local NGOs. But we don’t seem to have a leader, or series of leaders, who can rally apathetic masses to support moral causes at a systemic level. We lack the towering leadership of a Heschel, a Soloveitchik, a Wise, a Kaplan. And my question today is: do we need one?
On the one hand, from the perspective of community organizing or democracy building, the answer ought to be no. Real change, from this paradigm, starts from the ground up, at the local level. Leaders are effective when they know what the local issues are and can engage relationally with those in their communities. I, for one, think this model has an incredible amount to offer, and indeed carries the best prospects for the future of an engaged and committed American Jewry.
But, on the other hand, I feel a sense of absence by the lack of national moral leadership. I can only begin to imagine how it might have felt to stand with Heschel and King during the Civil Rights Movement. I recall fondly–though I was only a few years out of diapers–the successful efforts of the Jewish community to free Soviet Jews in the 1980s. And, more recently, Jewish leaders were at the forefront of the Save Darfur effort. But who and where are the Jewish leaders rallying national support for social or economic justice today? From raising the minimum wage to enacting a cap and trade program to stem climate change, I can’t think of a single figure or group of figures who are at the forefront of these efforts, who are working to catalyze the public at a national level and have the moral resonance and strategic savvy to make such change plausible.
So my question to you today, as we fittingly pay tribute to the legacy of Mandela, is whether we still need Jewish national moral leadership to bring about the change our tradition calls us to pursue. What do you think?