Judaism’s Three Rs for the 21st Century

Today's spiritual focus must be to cultivate collective human potential amidst increasing diversity and galloping social, political and environmental change.

Decades of educators used the Three Rs as a teaching slogan. Think what we may of “reading, writing, and arithmetic,” the Three Rs are a catchy enough line that most of us recognize it. The environmental movement has its own Three Rs (“reduce, reuse, recycle”), as does the cognitive psychology of forming good habits (“reminder, routine, reward”).

So, does Judaism have a Three Rs?

The question isn’t theoretical. Good catch lines articulate values, titrate complex ideas to their essential core, jog the memory and inspire action. Maybe that’s why this question about a Three Rs of Judaism has been asked before – by a Jewish educator, no less – though his answer needs work.

Hyman Enelow (1877-1934), the rabbi of New York’s Temple Emanuel, wrote a 1920 book provokingly entitled The Adequacy of Judaism. In it, he imagined Judaism’s Three Rs to be “Righteousness” (moral behavior), “Reality” (a worldview neither romantic nor fanciful) and “Reform” (repentance, not the Reform movement).

I’m all for righteousness, reality, and reform – just as I’m all for reading, writing and arithmetic – but neither of these Three Rs fits 21st-century realities. As for the schoolhouse Three Rs, today most educators know that reading, writing, and arithmetic make poor preparation for a modern information economy without analytics, creative problem solving and emotional intelligence. From grade school to trade school to law school, education is changing accordingly before our eyes.

Similarly, Enelow’s Three Rs of Judaism don’t cut it for today’s spiritual marketplace. Jews and non-Jews seek lives of righteousness, reality, and reform without Judaism, and I know many Jews whose Judaism leads them far from righteousness, reality and reform. Enelow’s model fails today for a second reason: it assumes clear social and political norms. Such was 1920s thinking: “Normal” is right and abnormal needs “reform.” That idea inspired “normal schools” (which pushed women wanting careers into “women’s work” of teaching), and “reform schools” (which didn’t work).

Enelow’s model is history. Today social norms are relativized. Societal bonds are decentralized to subgroups united by information available ever faster and cheaply. When people can and often do define their own righteousness, reality, and reform, a Judaism that proclaims doing so is unlikely to navigate deftly in today’s spiritual marketplace.

Rather, today’s spiritual focus must be to cultivate collective human potential amidst increasing diversity and galloping social, political and environmental change. I’m interested in a Judaism that can best serve this 21st-century goal. In short, Enelow’s century-old Three Rs need an update.

In seeking this update, my bias is a Judaism both far seeing and backwards compatible – rooted in the past, and maybe the far past if more recent history is unhelpful. Our forebears have much to teach us about navigating social change amidst adversity while aspiring to live a good life.

So I turn to this week’s Torah portion (Eikev), which asks the question about navigating adversity en route to the good life: “Why did God make our ancestors wander the desert for 40 years en route to the Promised Land?” Moses’ answer: to “test [our ancestors] by hardships to learn what was in [their] hearts” (Deut. 8:2). This notion falls flat for anyone – and there are lots of any ones – who can’t or won’t embrace a divinity that “sends” “tests.”

So our forebears, ever respectful of Moses, imagined other reasons. This itself is a Big Deal: even for our spiritual forebears whom we might imagine being an authority on all things Jewish, there was no one singular understanding of truth. Not even Moses – perhaps not even God – were infallible. The Jewish story is a ceaseless re-telling in a constant search for new meaning and understanding: “normal” has at best short shelf life, and Enelow was wrong.

Looking at how our ancestors re-understood wandering for 40 years, a different Three Rs for a future-leaning, vibrant Judaism emerges that speaks to living a good life amidst adversity and change.

The 13th century Da’at Zekenim wrote that the purpose of wandering the desert for 40 years was to cultivate Resilience, an inner quality more about means than ends. The challenge taught that we don’t need gold and silver to thrive. Rather, we can cultivate more lasting tools – inner resources and social bonds – to live a good life, free of the need for fixity and material comforts easily lost.

The Sforno (Ovadia ben Yaakov, 1475-1550) wrote that the purpose of wandering the desert for 40 years was to cultivate Resourcefulness, an inner quality focusing on ultimate ends. He probably agreed with the Da’at Zekenim that wandering the desert cultivated Resilience, but for the purpose of meeting goals in the world. Resourcefulness can so transform desires of the mind into works of the hand that our ancestors, living well amidst adversity, could transcend earthly bonds and rise even higher than the angels.

Maimonides (1138-1204), in his Guide for the Perplexed, wrote that the purpose of wandering the desert for 40 years was to cultivate Respect – both inner respect and respect among people’s. While Maimonides probably would have agreed about Resilience and Resourcefulness (he wrote, “ease destroys bravery, while trouble and care for food create strength”), to him the social impact was paramount. In prevailing over adversity and also leading a good life, we cultivate a self-respect imbued with holiness and also merit respect by others. Both individually and collectively, our example can become a beacon for others, and we must live to merit being that example.

Resilience, Resourcefulness, and Respect – these are my Three Rs for Judaism. Together they seek to serve human flourishing, cultivating inner qualities while also achieving external goals, honoring legacy while forging the future, serving causes greater than ourselves, and shining so that others can learn to shine. They require no “normal” and, indeed, they expect none. What they ask, rather, is radical integrity – experiencing rather than recoiling from life’s adversity, calling our weakness and growing edges what they are, applying our best efforts, and understanding who we are as part of a greater whole – of a people and a larger human family that both need all we can give, be and become.

Resilience, Resourcefulness, and Respect. Like the three-legged stool of learning, prayer and acts of loving kindness on which the world is imagined to stand (M. Avot 1:2), maybe these new Three Rs can help us renew Judaism for today and tomorrow, wherever we may wander, whatever the future may hold.

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