A recent survey found that fully 62% of American Jews feel that being Jewish is merely an accident of birth. For so many of us, Judaism isn’t where we look for answers to life’s big questions.
And that’s a shame, because Judaism is chock-full of wisdom and insights for creating a meaningful, joyous life. But so many Jews, myself included, stopped advancing their Jewish education when they were children and never examined the depth of Jewish wisdom through adult eyes.
Here are five signs that it might be time to take a fresh look at Judaism as an adult.
1. You think Judaism is all about guilt.
Judaism gets a bad rap when it comes to guilt. Many Jews think our religion is one long guilt trip, replete with beating ourselves up and feeling shame. Perhaps it’s because Yom Kippur is one of the most-observed holidays among Jews that we mistakenly think Judaism is focused primarily on blame and fault.
Unlike some religions which regard people as innately sinful and bad, the Torah explains we each are created betzelem Elokim, in the image of the Divine (Genesis 1:26). We each contain a pure soul that reflects our celestial origins. Our essential core is good. What we do with this divine spark is up to us, but Judaism gives us infinite opportunities to grow and develop and to reinforce our connection with the Almighty. The Torah is our playbook, giving us tasks and guidelines that enable us to reach beyond ourselves, become more refine and connect to God.
When we make mistakes and come up short – which is guaranteed to happen – instead of fostering feelings of guilt, Judaism encourages us to pause, restock, and figure out how to do better. As King Solomon said, “The righteous person falls seven times, and gets up” (Proverbs 24:16). Recognize the mistake, get on track and move on.
2. You feel that Judaism doesn’t speak to you personally.
A friend recently told me that her strongest feelings about being Jewish stemmed from the Holocaust and pride in the modern day state of Israel. Both of these issues are crucially important to the identity of modern Jews, but I asked her, “Do you relate to Judaism personally? Does being Jewish affect your day-to-life? Your relationship with God?”
These questions elicited a confused shrug.
Judaism is replete with meaningful mitzvahs that have the power to transform us, turning us into more spiritual beings. Each time we enjoy a delicious Shabbat dinner, we’re not only taking our place in a chain of countless generations of Jews who have done the same, we’re deepening our connection with the Divine. When we give tzedakah, perform acts of kindness, celebrate Jewish holidays, and put Jewish teachings into practice we are connecting to eternal truths and spiritual principles that stem from a transcendent, Infinite dimension that brings out our inner potential, elevating us and the world.
Being Jewish isn’t only about Jewish history; it’s a vehicle for transforming our very souls as well.
3. You think there are no female Jewish role models.
I grew up hearing this and it took me years to learn that in fact many of Judaism’s central role models are women. In our darkest time during slavery in Egypt, it was women who kept the Jewish people going, never losing hope that days would get better and would triumph, and refusing to give in to despair. Later, when the Jews sinned at Mount Sinai by building an idol to worship, it was Jewish women who remained steadfast in their belief in God, and refused to take part. In every generation, Jewish women have sustained us, strengthening the Jewish body and nurturing the Jewish soul.
Indeed, our tradition teems with women who inspire and shape our religion. We model our behavior towards guests on the hospitality of our matriarch Sarah, and we model the way we pray on a Jewish woman in the Torah named Chana. Each Purim we read the story of Queen Esther who saved the Jewish people. On Shavuot, we recall Ruth, the ultimate model of choosing Judaism and accepting the Torah. On Chanukah, we celebrate two Jewish heroines, Judith and Chana, and each year we recall the military victory wrought by Yael. From their ancient times to now, Jewish women have been a key part of our history, nurturing and guiding and inspiring us all.
4. You believe that Judaism has little to say about life’s pressing issues.
Growing up, I thought that the Talmud was archaic and irrelevant. So I wasn’t sure what to expect when I sent my kids to a Jewish school and they took Talmud. Well, it didn’t take long for my son to put what he was learning into practice. One day he found a $5 bill on the sidewalk and picked it up, exclaiming “I know what to do with this!” He’d been learning the Talmudic chapter on how to treat lost property and was thrilled to put the Jewish laws to use, asking neighbors if they’d lost any money and not resting until he’d found the bill’s rightful owner.
The Talmud is an encyclopedic work that addresses every topic under the sun –sharing its timeless wisdom on issues such as property rights, environmentalism, the ethical treatment of animals, settling disputes, treating people with respect, behavior in times of peace and conflict, and countless other real-world dilemmas.
From ancient insights from King Solomon to modern day thinkers, Judaism is teeming with knowledge that addresses myriad issues we face every day.
But only if we make an effort to learn it.
5. You think the synagogue is where Judaism takes place.
When I was a child, just about everything we did that was Jewish was performed in the synagogue, from praying and eating kosher foods to socializing with other Jews and learning things about our religion. Very few of those activities had a place in our regular, day-to-day life. It was only once I learned more about Judaism that I realized that for thousands of years the Jewish home has been the center of Jewish life.
My first glimpse of this was during my first visit to Israel when I arranged to have Shabbat lunch with a local Orthodox Jewish family. I arrived at their house and was surprised to find the mom sitting quietly studying Torah until her guests arrived. I’d never seen anyone study Jewish texts outside of a synagogue class before. Shabbat lunch was leisurely: slowly, over sumptuous food, we sang Shabbat songs, discussed religious topics, listened to the family’s children talk about the week’s Torah portion, and chatted. Hours later, when lunch was finally over, it knew that was the sort of home I longed to build: a place where Jewish holidays and Shabbat are celebrated, a place where guests are welcomed and where Jewish values permeate the very air.
In Hebrew, the Jewish home is referred to as a Mikdash Me’at – a mini Temple that each of us has the power to create. It’s a place where we instill Jewish values in the next generation, where we teach and learn, and where we watch with pride as Judaism is lived and performed.