Pho­to by Toa Hefti­ba on Unsplash

Fifty years ago, I, togeth­er with Richard Siegel z“l and Sharon Strass­feld, edit­ed the Jew­ish Cat­a­log: A Do-It-Your­self Kit. We hoped to show peo­ple how to shape their own Jew­ish lives with joy. We clear­ly hit a nerve. The Catalog’s time­ly and joy­ous spir­it was embraced by the Jew­ish com­mu­ni­ty and is still in print, hav­ing sold over 300,000 copies. 

Judaism Dis­rupt­ed: A Spir­i­tu­al Man­i­festo for the 21st Cen­tu­ry is my ninth book and has been the most orig­i­nal and most chal­leng­ing book to write yet. In it, I attempt to answer a dif­fer­ent ques­tion – not how to build a Jew­ish life but why. I wrote this book because I am wor­ried about Judaism and its future. A few weeks ago, I was at a gallery in SoHo where a pan­el of artists talked about the inter­sec­tion of art and Jew­ish life. Each of the pan­elists intro­duced them­selves, one after anoth­er describ­ing them­selves as good, bad, or mediocre Jews. It was clear that all of them believed that a good Jew goes to syn­a­gogue, keeps kosher, and believes in God, which most of them did not. This dis­cus­sion sum­ma­rized what I see as a cat­e­gor­i­cal mis­take, one that led me to write Judaism Dis­rupt­ed in the first place. Judaism’s pur­pose is not to help us become good Jews, it is to help us become good peo­ple. Judaism should be offer­ing wis­dom and prac­tices to help us take the most pre­cious gift we have been giv­en — our lives — and live with mean­ing and pur­pose. For these artists, and so many oth­ers, Judaism’s rit­u­als feel dis­con­nect­ed from any­thing that matters. 

We live in very dis­rup­tive times. Almost 2000 years ago, there was anoth­er such moment, when the Tem­ple in Jerusalem was destroyed by the Romans and the entire sac­ri­fi­cial sys­tem that was cen­tral to Jew­ish prac­tice abrupt­ly end­ed. The genius of the rab­binic lead­ers then was that they cre­at­ed a Judaism that was portable, that Jews could take with them wher­ev­er the winds of mis­for­tune would car­ry them. Judaism emerged in a new form. 

Today, we also need some­thing dif­fer­ent. In the open soci­ety in which we live (and thrive), we need a Judaism that is per­me­able. See­ing Judaism as per­me­able does not take away its dis­tinc­tive­ness but rather it opens the tra­di­tion to the world around us in new ways. Increas­ing­ly that world is not just neigh­bors or friends but peo­ple who are mem­bers of our fam­i­ly, be it through inter­mar­riage or com­mu­ni­ty ties. 

Will Judaism change as a result? Of course it will, as it always has. Instead of view­ing the out­side world with sus­pi­cion, we now must have con­fi­dence in our tra­di­tion to inter­act with the world and retain our iden­ti­ty at the same time.

What does it mean to be a Jew in the twen­ty-first cen­tu­ry? It means to be a men­sch, striv­ing to live with the aware­ness that we were strangers in Egypt and there­fore we need to take care of those on the mar­gins of soci­ety. Being a men­sch requires that when we inter­act with fam­i­ly and friends, we rec­og­nize both that we are made in the image of God, and that we are all imper­fect humans. 

Judaism asks us to become spir­i­tu­al men­schen as well as men­schen. What is the dif­fer­ence? Liv­ing with a spir­i­tu­al per­spec­tive means that we under­stand that the world is larg­er than any one of us and that we are con­nect­ed – to our plan­et, to God, or to the oneness/​wholeness that under­lies the universe. 

In the open soci­ety in which we live (and thrive), we need a Judaism that is permeable.

Judaism isn’t only being dis­rupt­ed by our times. It also dis­rupts us, chal­leng­ing us to con­tin­ue the unfold­ing cre­ation of the world. How? My book out­lines eleven core prin­ci­ples that can serve to help each of us to become a spir­i­tu­al men­sch. I sug­gest sim­ple prac­tices, some tra­di­tion­al and oth­ers brand new, to help us bring an aware­ness, a kavanah–inten­tion­al­i­ty – into our dai­ly exis­tence. They include the cul­ti­va­tion of inner qual­i­ties such as a grat­i­tude for the bless­ings we have, com­pas­sion for fel­low human beings in need, and find­ing a sense of sat­is­fac­tion rather than an end­less striv­ing for what we think we lack.

In addi­tion to ongo­ing dai­ly prac­tices, I explore the week­ly prac­tice of Shab­bat, which enables us to take a break from our dai­ly rou­tine to rest and reflect. I delve into year­ly Jew­ish hol­i­days, which invite us to reflect on issues in our lives, for exam­ple, the mean­ing of free­dom on Passover, the process of teshu­vah–com­pas­sion, for­give­ness and change – dur­ing the High Hol­i­days, and the chal­lenge of sav­ing our plan­et on Sukkot.

Among the influ­ences that have shaped my Jew­ish life, per­haps the most sig­nif­i­cant is Hasidism, the eigh­teenth cen­tu­ry pietis­tic move­ment which teach­es that holi­ness is not just found dur­ing prayer or study­ing Torah, but is found every­where in the world. Any inter­ac­tion can be a moment of holi­ness, of heal­ing, of lov­ing con­nec­tion. For more than 3000 years, the Jew­ish peo­ple have engaged in a dis­cus­sion of how to live a life of mean­ing. Over time, the mean­ing behind many rit­u­als and prac­tices has been lost and oth­er old tra­di­tions are no longer appro­pri­ate to our time. It is up to us to con­tin­ue to unroll the Torah scroll to find new mean­ings for the con­tem­po­rary moment.

In my last chap­ter, Final Words,” I write:

The last com­mand­ment, #613, is that each per­son should write a Torah scroll. These days this com­mand­ment is often ful­filled by pay­ing a scribe to write one let­ter in a new Torah scroll on your behalf. 

For me, a metaphor­i­cal under­stand­ing of this, the last com­mand­ment, is appro­pri­ate. In fact, we all write a Torah scroll — it is the sto­ry of our lives. We write it by our deeds and mis­deeds. It is filled with hopes and dis­ap­point­ments. It is prob­a­bly the only com­mand­ment that every Jew ful­fills even if we do it with­out aware­ness. We leave the Torah we have writ­ten to fam­i­ly and friends to read and remem­ber when we are gone. They pro­vide com­fort and ongo­ing con­nec­tion to those who are no longer alive. These Torahs will be repeat­ed as long as mem­o­ries endure. 

Rab­bi Michael Strass­feld was one of the edi­tors of The Jew­ish Cat­a­log (1973) a guide to do-it-your­self Judaism that sold over 300,000 copies. He authored The Jew­ish Hol­i­days (1985), co-authored A Night of Ques­tions: A Passover Hag­gadah (1999) with his wife Rab­bi Joy Levitt, and authored A Book of Life: Embrac­ing Judaism as a Spir­i­tu­al Prac­tice (2002).