Amongst the speakers were some who complained that the conference and the community were guilty of ignoring or denigrating particular points of view. Probably the most passionate were the secular humanists who argued that Jews who didn’t believe in God did not get a fair deal.
Some of the audience agreed. Some disagreed. Some found it amusing. To me, it was tragically sad.
How, I said to myself, can you have Judaism without God? Do the secularists see no mystique, no spirituality, no transcendence in the world and in Jewish experience?
We all have moments of grave doubt, but should you elevate doubt into a dogma, and denial into an art form? If you are uncertain about God, is that a reason to walk away?
There is a story that a young man was asked by the Gerer Rebbe whether he had learnt any Torah.
“Just a little,” said the youth.
“That is all that anyone has ever learnt of Torah,” was the Rebbe’s response.
I ask, How much has anyone ever understood about God? And the response is the same: “Just a little” is all that anyone has ever discovered about God. But that is no reason to say you can have a world, or Judaism, without God. Hard as it is to understand life with God, it is harder still without Him.
What the secular humanist argument symbolises to me is the danger of people trying to reduce Judaism, to see how much they can drop and still think they can have Judaism.
Some try to have Judaism without God; others Judaism without Hebrew, without prayer, without Shabbat, without kashrut, without study, without tzedakah, without Jewish marriage, without Jewish children.
The question is – can you amputate one limb after another and still think the body will survive?
Sometimes in my sermons I speak of the dreams I have. But sometimes I have a recurrent nightmare. It is years hence.
There is still a synagogue, but it has been empty for decades. Cobwebs and dust are everywhere strewn around are old prayer books. Their pages are disintegrating. Here and there is an old tallit, thrown in a corner. The fabric is threadbare. There are no Jews. They disappeared long ago. They waged a war of attrition against Judaism, and Judaism lost. One element of Judaism after another they undermined, weakened and discarded, and Judaism shrivelled and died. There was no one to say Kaddish, except maybe God.
True, there were those who dearly loved their Judaism and cherished its every nuance, but they were too few and too weak. To save Judaism was too difficult.
That is my nightmare. How true to life is it? Is Judaism really in mortal danger?
If you look at the Jewish position in some other countries you feel a sense of dismal pessimism. In community after community all over the Diaspora there are frightening rates of intermarriage, thirty, forty, fifty, sixty per cent.
In place after place Jewish numbers are declining. The smattering of Jewish education that most children get is merely a joke. Jews prefer the follies and frivolities, the moral confusion and materialistic mayhem of the secular environment to the inspiration of Isaiah and the meaningfulness of Maimonides.
Australia is better off, but for how long? The immigrant generation is ageing and dying. Soon we will have a generation without background, Jews without memories. Whoever thinks Judaism can survive that is a fool.
But now let me tell you a story from close to home, from the Great Synagogue office. It is a true story, and fortunately it happens with increasing frequency.
The phone rings and someone wants to speak to a Rabbi. “Rabbi,” the voice says, “My name is so-and-so. I’m Jewish, but I have never been very religious. I think I want to find out more about my religion. Can I come and talk to you?”
This is the antidote to my nightmare. There are Jews who are reducing their Judaism to vanishing point. There are also Jews who are finding their roots and building on them.
How large a proportion of the Jewish community the new seekers are I cannot tell. But this I do know. Their instinct is uncanny. What they begin doing is adding to their lives precisely those elements of Judaism which others subtract.
They add Shabbat. No longer is it for them just one more day without personality or sanctity. It becomes the pause that refreshes. They rightly recognise that by sanctifying time, by giving the week a peak and pinnacle, their whole existence is transformed.
They add kashrut, making every mealtime a moment of Jewish identity. The most mundane activity becomes elevated into a service of God. Keeping kosher brings moral fibre and discipline into their life. They don’t say, “It’s too expensive, it’s too difficult, my mother never did it.” They say, “It’s worth the effort!”
They learn Hebrew, the key to the treasury of Jewish wisdom. They get to know the siddur, and use it with increasing confidence. They read and study and attend shiurim, because they have found that Jewish literacy is the secret of Jewish survival.
They know that they will never marry out, because a united Jewish marriage and home is the setting for a full Jewish life.
They never dream of saying they never want to have children; children are continuity, both for ourselves and for our people.
They may well decide to find their destiny in Israel, the God-given homeland where the dream of the ages comes true.
These are the positive Jews, the Baalei Teshuvah. The negative Jews call them meshugga froom. I shake my head in sadness. It is the negative Jews who frighten me, the meshugga unfroom.
Yet it’s not a Jewish civil war that the two groups are waging. The negative Jews who want to reduce Judaism and lop off limbs from the Jewish body do not mean to be the enemies of Judaism or of anybody. They simply do not realise how critical the moment is. Despite their whittling down of Judaism, they still think Judaism will muddle through.
But muddling through doesn’t work any more, if it ever did. In lands like Australia it never used to matter very much whether Jews were full Jews; there were sufficient intensely Jewish communities elsewhere. But that was decades ago. Now we are the tenth largest community in the Jewish world. There is such weakness elsewhere that we cannot play games any more. The times call for determination and dedication to Judaism, adding to our Jewish commitment and not continually subtracting from it.
How do you add to your Judaism, especially if your background is weak?
A person becomes an artist by painting, a musician by playing, an athlete by running. It takes effort, dedication and training. You become a better Jew by performing commandments, integrating them into your system one by one. You cannot be a Jew at heart without putting your heart into Judaism.
Every new beginning, however hesitant, you make with a mitzvah, is a grain that God nourishes with His blessing. It grows and matures and brings a harvest of satisfaction. We can’t muddle through any longer. Judaism won’t survive without our effort. Let us resolve, “Today I begin to grow as Jew!”
May God bless our efforts, and make them thrive!
This article first appeared in print in September 1995, Tishri 5756.