Finding Your Own Way in Judaism
A few nights ago, my husband and I went to see the Jerusalem production of Soul Doctor: Journey of a Rockstar Rabbi. Soul Doctor is a Broadway musical that tells the life story of Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach. You may or may not be familiar with Shlomo Carlebach. He’s a huge name in certain Jewish circles. Reb Shlomo, as he’s called among those most familiar with his work, passed away in 1994. In his lifetime, he composed thousands of melodies, including tunes for communal prayers that are sung until today.
In the production of Soul Doctor I saw in Jerusalem, I recognized a universal theme.
Shlomo Carlebach was born into a rabbinic family. He studied in some of the most prestigious yeshivot in North America, having emigrated from Europe at the start of WWII. He was considered a top yeshiva student who could have had a stellar career in the Torah world.
But he had another calling. Instead of becoming a full-time Torah scholar, Shlomo Carlebach chose a career in what has been called “musical outreach”. He spent decades working to touch the souls of uneducated or disenfranchised Jews, to bring them closer to their spiritual selves, through music and Jewish storytelling. For those who want to learn more, I recommend Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach: Life, Mission, and Legacy by Natan Ophir. It’s a 500-page biography about the life of Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach.
For now, I want to focus on the theme that jumped out at me from the production. Reb Shlomo choose a Jewish path that was very different from that of his father and grandfathers before him. Raised as an Orthodox Jew, he was known to set aside some of the observances of Orthodox Judaism in order to better relate to, and reach, those Jewish souls he felt compelled to bring closer to Judaism and to God.
When we were first married, my husband was a rabbi in a large modern Orthodox congregation where there were multiple families with three and four generations affiliated. So valued was this, that the synagogue displayed formal family portraits of those families who were all members of the same congregation.
I would argue that this is not the norm. I think my own experience is more typical. My grandparents were immigrants to the US. They came, as young children, with their parents in the early 1900s. By the time I was old enough to understand anything about Judaism, they had thrown off nearly all traditional Jewish observances. Despite the fact that my paternal grandparents were traditional Eastern European Jews, known to be supporters of a Hasidic rabbi in America, my childhood was virtually void of Jewish learning, practice and culture. Whatever Jewish knowledge I managed to pick up as a child was strictly coincidental. I was never explicitly taught anything Jewish.
Like Reb Shlomo, I had to find my own way in Judaism. It was a process that took decades and, to be honest, is still evolving. If I thought I knew what kind of Jew I wanted to be in America after studying Judaism for two decades, those ideas evolved when I came to live in Israel. I had to find a new path. Or at least refine the path I was on.
All around me, I see people who are finding their own way in Judaism. People who weren’t born Jewish choosing Judaism and maintaining warm relationship with their non-Jewish parents. People who were born into THIS kind of Jewish family choosing to raise their own families with THAT flavor of Judaism. Siblings who are completely secular having siblings who serve in leadership positions in their Reconstructionist congregations. Mothers covering their hair one way have daughters covering their hair a completely different way, or not covering at all. Jews raised in secular Jewish families in North America becoming religious as adults and moving to Israel in order to keep growing as Jews. Orthodox parents whose children feel more at home in a Reform congregation.
The list goes on and on.
Shivim Panim L'Torah is a rabbinic teaching that expresses the notion that there are 70 faces to the Torah. Not everybody approaches God in the same way. There are many different ways to be a spiritually engaged, growing Jew.
There’s a cookbook I saw once called Come for Cholent: The Jewish Stew Cookbook by Kay Kantor Pomerantz. The entire cookbook, and its companion volume Come for Cholent… Again, is devoted to variations of recipes for the traditional Shabbat stew.
People vary. Just like we might each prefer a different cholent recipe, God gave each of us different gifts, different inclinations, different practices that nurture our souls. Judaism is sufficiently broad that every Jew should be able to find the Jewish song that sings to their soul. The important thing is to have a desire to find one’s own way.
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