Our Calling: Thoughts on Purpose, Meaning, Mission and the Future of (Conservative) Judaism

Parashat Vayikra
Rabbi Esther Hugenholtz

Our Purpose, Meaning and Mission

This week, a colleague shared an article with me from ‘New Voices – News and Views of Campus Jews’. In it is an enlightening, sobering and courageous interview with Rabbi Steven Wernick, CEO of the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism. I had the honor of meeting Rabbi Wernick at the USCJ Biennial and being heartened by the deep Torah he taught there, including Blues Brothers quotes about us being on a ‘Mission from God’ (no joke). And I am even more honored by Rabbi Wernick’s visit for my Installation this coming April.

So, the article gave me plenty of reasons to want to sit up straight and read it with a critical eye and an open heart. It is no secret that USCJ – one of the two movements with which we are affiliated – is experiencing challenges: Conservative Movement affiliation has plummeted to a mere 18% of America’s Jews. According to the Pew Report on Jewish demographics of 2013, 64% of those raised Conservative are lost to the Movement. Rabbi Wernick’s mission as the CEO is not an easy one: it takes courage to as the mantle of leadership during such times. His bravery shone through his honest words in the article where he reflected on the USCJ’s controversial decision to abandon KOACH, it’s campus presence for students, eliminating a ‘traditional egalitarian’ Jewish option for campus life, surrendering campus life to Orthodox Outreach groups like Chabad and Aish haTorah.  In the interview, Wernick articulates his vision: denominationalism should be secondary to an inclusive Jewish identity and Jewish path for sacred living and Conservative Judaism, straddling the worlds of modern egalitarianism and rootedness in tradition, should be primed to fulfill that unique mandate. In Rabbi Wernick’s own words, ‘we are in a paradigm shift.’

For a while now, the USCJ is engaged in a process of reflection and innovation to think of a strategy to turn its crisis around. Attending the Biennials of both USCJ and URJ placed me in a unique position to compare and contrast, at least superficially, how each denomination negotiates the challenges and blessings of being a Jew in a 21st century, assimilatory, increasingly secular context. As such, this is not just a question for the USCJ or URJ but a question for each and every one of us.

When institutions, organizations and even corporations in crisis are focused on reinventing themselves, it is tempting to look to the future and dismiss the past. There must be a gimmick, a rebranding campaign, a quick fix with which we can turn our difficulties around. I would argue, however, that while we should embrace innovation, we should actually look to ancient and timeless models that focus on purpose, meaning and mission.

As I was mulling over these thoughts in response to Rabbi Wernick’s interview, I came across another fascinating read: a study by the University of Berkeley on ‘purpose’ published in Berkeley’s ‘Greater Good Magazine – Science-based Insights for a Meaningful Life’. Titled ‘Can the Science of Purpose Help Explain White Supremacy’, this article discusses a sociological study that looks at the power as well as potential destructiveness of having a strong sense of purpose, especially if that sense of purpose is employed by a culture of hate. The author, Jeremy Adam Smith, cites the Auschwitz experiences of Austrian psychiatrist Viktor Frankl as a stark and ultimate example. Frankl famously said that what got him through his unfathomable trauma was realizing ‘that love is the ultimate and highest goal to which Man can aspire.’ Smith looks at toxic purpose that led to Neo-Nazis marching in Charlottesville and actually examines the psychologically-complex mechanism of purpose. Citing a key researcher on purpose called Susan Mangan, the article identifies what a sense of purpose is:

  • It’s an ultimate goal that shapes your short-term choices and behavior. 
  • It is personally meaningful, coming from within. In other words, no one is standing over you forcing you to pursue your goal; you are self-motivated. The goal imbues your life with importance and value.
  • Finally, a purpose in life goes beyond the self, leading you to want to make a difference in the world.

Apparently, having a sense of purpose isn’t only meaningful but also an indicator of improved health outcomes, including a lower risk of heart attacks and a prolonged life. Even though the article starts off with a grim analysis of destructive and toxic purpose, it reviews the evidence of the importance of purpose in our lives and pivots to a life-affirming message:

So, what is your purpose? What is the company you keep, and how do the people you know shape and sustain your purpose? Are they a source of strength? Do you know what makes their lives meaningful? Do you know what purposes you might hold in common with them? Could your shared purpose make the world a better place?”

We can look to evidence for purposeful living not only through evidence-based science but also through the wisdom of the Torah. If anything, what makes the men and women of our Torah so remarkable are the purpose-driven lives that they seek to lead. We encounter this sense of purpose in Moses’ life in a singular way through the opening of the Parashah. Whereas we associate the Book of Leviticus with the more meticulous, detail-oriented and let’s say, gory, aspects of our history, there’s something surprisingly contemporary and psychologically astute about the first two opening verses of Vayikra.

‘Vayikra el Moshe vayedaber Adonai elav’ – ‘And God called out to Moses and spoke to him.’

When I went to peruse Rashi’s commentary on this verse alone, I was astounded by how rich it is. Rashi posits that God’s calling – ‘likro’ – rather than the more common speaking – ‘lemor’ – is unique and denotes intimacy, meaning and purpose. Vayikra speaks to an internal process where God speaks to Moses individually before revealing more instructions to the Israelite community as a whole. Whereas lemor is the language of commandedness, likro is the language of the angels, of the deeply personal and spiritual experience that solidifies our inner lives and shapes our sense of purpose. In that light, I read God’s opening line to Moses as analogous to that of Abraham in Genesis chapter 12: ‘Lech lecha me’artzecha’ – ‘go into yourself, go forth from your land’. In both instances, Moses and Abraham have to discover their own sense of purpose before they can transmute that purpose into meaning and radiate that meaning into their shlichut, mission. When Moses has uncovered his purpose, he can communicate that – like any great leader – to his community. We find that in a few verses on: ‘Adam ki yakriv mikem korban l’Adonai’ – ‘when a person brings an offering from themselves’. If read in a paradigmatic way, it is irrelevant that this refers to the ancient sacrifices of livestock. What matters is ‘mikem’ – ‘from yourselves’.

We can only truly give and be animated meaningfully in our Judaism if we can tap into the the storehouses of purpose in our soul. Purpose, meaning and mission come, to cite the research, ‘from within…’ and yet ‘go beyond the self’.

A humble congregational rabbi like myself is not going to pretend to have the solutions for the challenges of contemporary Judaism, but I do concur wholeheartedly with Rabbi Wernick. We are in need in a paradigm shift. We can rely on the wisdom of our Torah. And each of us will have to heed the call to purposeful, self-motivated Jewish living as the ancients did before us so that we indeed can make our own lives and the world around us better, as the holy nation and kingdom of priests that we are called to be.

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