They have a saying in Texas: “Keep Austin Weird!” I propose that our Jewish slogan should be: “Keep Judaism Weird!” By weird, I don’t mean that Judaism should be strange or absurd. I mean that in this complex world, we should keep our unique commitments as Jews and that uniqueness within the Jewish people itself.
Judaism should not be popular, watered-down and easy. Judaism operates by conscience and authenticity, not by conformity and acceptance. If the religion is demanding, complex and unique, it survives and thrives. If it requires commitment to something broader, it progresses. If it is kept individualistic and relative, and not packaged and universal, it maintains authenticity.
The Jewish people have always been small and unique. We have a special message for the world, different from the messages offered by other religions or peoples. We were created to be anti-conformists and to agitate from the margins of society. Still, over time, many Jews and elements of Jewish culture have been accepted by society, assimilated and even “normalized.” This may seem positive given our tragic history; however, this normalization destroys the uniqueness of our message. Today, we must embrace our “weirdness” and move away from the “normal.”
A century ago, Jews, understandably, longed to be normal. Consider Chaim Nachman Bialik’s dream: “We will be a normal state only when we have the first Hebrew prostitute, the first Hebrew thief and the first Hebrew policeman.” In a world of oppression, we longed to be normal and to have that typical lifestyle that so many others seemed to have.
But now, times are different and we have our homeland as well as security in the diaspora, and we must move back from “normal” to “weird.” Now we are blessed with a more complete freedom of choice and we must seize this opportunity. University of Michigan political scientist Ronald Ingleheart, among other researchers, reported that the freedom to make choices is the factor most highly correlated with happiness around the world. Our choice, as committed, positive, forward-looking Jews, is composed not only of what we inherit but also of what we create. We should continue to persuade others to be a part of our movements, and encourage them when they choose their own movement, organization, ideology, genre or niche. With this choice, we inspire and promote intellectual, spiritual and relational uniqueness. We must recommit ourselves to remain alive and evolving, a process that Nietzsche called “the transvaluation of values.”
Today there are all kinds of Jews “doing Jewish” in unique ways: They are radical musicians, social entrepreneurs, artists, spiritualists, farmers, educators, chefs, philanthropists, campers, activists, travelers, filmmakers and writers. This talent pool expresses itself in totally different ways from just a decade ago, as Jews move away from the “normal” Judaism that bored previous generations. These new models of Judaism often make parents and grandparents uneasy, because many only know “normal” Judaism and are uneasy with change.
Let’s move from our obsession with the new marketing of Judaism and move to new ideas and initiatives. Let’s move from hierarchical and centralized decision-making to empowered and inspired grassroots Judaism. There is a unique confidence today among our young people. A new Financial Times survey revealed that three out of every four millennial leaders believe they can make a significant difference. The worldwide youth movement that began in the 1960s created tumult but also enormous progress in civil rights and many other areas. Just think what a new youth movement can do with Judaism.
A great lesson that should be in all of our hearts is that one cannot create change from a distance. The great Rabbi Akiva taught his son, Rabbi Joshua, that he should never sit and study at the highest point in town (Pesachim 112a). The lesson was that we must never become removed from the people. Today, staying connected with our communities is easier than ever as we are all digitally connected, but these light touches are not the same as real presence. Inspired Judaism is all about presence, and we must remain cognizant of this. When we don’t encounter one another in person, we can miss each other’s uniqueness.
The rabbis taught that one is only able to learn Torah when one’s heart is drawn open. When, as Jews, we speak about our moral and spiritual visions, in our own unique ways, we are speaking “Torah.” Rabbi Zeir’s teaching that “Even the everyday talk of people in the land of Israel is Torah” can be extended to include “Jew talk” that shows commitment anywhere in the world. So let our unique Jewish activism and teaching open people’s hearts so that Torah may penetrate and improve the world.
Rabbi Shmuly Yanklowitz is executive director of the Valley Beit Midrash in Phoenix, the founder and president of the New York–based Uri L’Tzedek, the founder and CEO of Shamayim V’Aretz Institute and the author of four books on Jewish ethics and social justice.