By Jon Woocher, President
There’s great risk in trying to characterize the historical moment one is living in. I should know. In the early and mid 1980s I wrote about the ascendancy of an American Jewish “civil religion,” anchored in the Jewish federation system and celebrating values of Jewish solidarity and survivalism. Within a few years it had become evident that this civil religion was in fact beginning to decline in its reach and influence. Personalism, not communalism, was the growing force in Jewish life – as in American religious life in general. 1980s Robert Bellah (Habits of the Heart), not 1960s Robert Bellah (“Civil Religion in America”), was speaking more directly to the moment, and would continue to do so for several decades.
So it is with some trepidation that I suggest that the present moment in American Jewish life is marked by a growing focus on a new defining theme. Nonetheless, I believe the evidence is accumulating that this is precisely the case. That theme is the potential for Jewish teaching and practice, in both traditional and emergent forms, to enrich our lives and improve the world. At Lippman Kanfer Foundation for Living Torah, we call this “applying Jewish wisdom.” The idea that Jewish wisdom can positively impact our lives seems an unremarkable, almost tautological, claim, and calling it “new” would certainly surprise many who have made this claim for centuries. Yet, for many decades in recent Jewish history it was a claim put forward at best tepidly as much of the Jewish world focused on ensuring the physical survival of the Jewish people, the successful assimilation of Jews into those societies where they were welcomed, and efforts to shore up Jewish identity by emphasizing distinctive Jewish rituals and organizational affiliation.
Today, though, we see Jewish wisdom in a variety of forms being put to work deliberately and self-consciously to address a host of human needs and aspirations. From helping parents to pass on healthy values to their children to tackling the challenges of ecological sustainability and social injustice, Jewish wisdom is now being studied, interpreted, re-packaged, and enacted in a diverse array of programs and settings. Communities inspired by Jewish wisdom are multiplying, not only in traditional religious forms, but in new configurations with specific foci on Jewish learning, spiritual practice, social action, and cultural creativity. What all of these endeavors share is a commitment to using Jewish wisdom as a pathway to human flourishing.
At Lippman Kanfer Foundation for Living Torah, we see this as a moment of incredible opportunity. The drive to make Jewish teaching and practice a vibrant resource for answering life’s most important questions, both those that are profound and those that are quotidian, has the potential to engage Jews and others in ways that a narrow, “survivalist” agenda no longer can. To fulfill that potential, however, requires that we see what is happening as the work of a nascent movement, one that spans conventional boundaries of sector or denomination. There is a connection, we would argue, between those delving into Mussar to learn how to strengthen character and those tapping into Judaism’s nature connections to promote a new ecological consciousness, between those studying Talmudic texts asking how these texts are relevant to our lives and those inspired by Jewish values to tackle some of society’s most intractable problems like hunger and homelessness. Although the foci of activity differ, the endeavors, we contend, are complementary, and all part of a larger effort to deploy Jewish wisdom as a vehicle for living better, more meaningful, more purposeful, more fulfilling lives and for shaping a better, more just, more peaceful, more nurturing world.
This is not a fully formed movement. Indeed whether it will ever become such is not certain. But the steps toward bringing it towards greater maturity are not mysterious. They involve thickening the networks among participants, developing shared language, defining and refining a common purpose, and each component of the movement determining its unique role in relation to the other components and to the whole. This will not happen overnight; it cannot be engineered or forced. But, it can be supported where and when it is happening, and this our foundation is committed to do.
One way to do so is by highlighting the diverse examples and exemplars of applying Jewish wisdom that dot the Jewish landscape in growing numbers. It’s for this reason that we have decided to create the Lippman Kanfer Prize for Applied Jewish Wisdom. By showcasing those who are applying Jewish wisdom in many ways and multiple settings we hope to inspire additional institutions to take up this work. We hope as well to encourage those already engaged in this work to discover one another, to recognize opportunities for synergy and reciprocal learning, and – yes – perhaps to build a bit of movement consciousness.
Jewish wisdom can make our lives and the world better. This is the moment to act on this proposition and make it the watchword of the next great movement in Jewish life.