Be of glad heart, those who seek God… (Psalms 105:3)
Life is too short, or too long, for me to allow myself the luxury of living it so badly. (Paulo Coelho)
Over the past few months, I’ve been thinking about the religious complexion of Anglo-Jewry and why so few of us seem to engage seriously with Jewish ideas and observance. Of course, many are very generous to Jewish causes, identify strongly with Israel and ‘drop in’ on various festival and life-cycle observances, and all of us enjoy the odd Jewish gastronomic experience. Yet it is fair to say that despite feelingly proudly Jewish, for most of us, this does not translate into observance or an interest in learning more about Judaism and its approach to life.
This is not a new phenomenon and many explanations have been offered for it. A popular suggestion is that most Jews simply know very little about Judaism and what it has to say about the world. Although the recent proliferation of Jewish educational opportunities has improved things considerably, I think that the actual cause of disinterest in Judaism runs rather deeper.
I’ve realised that many of us perceive the prospect of increased involvement with Jewish life as an impediment to achieving our most important life-goals. As someone who loves Judaism with a passion and has the great privilege of living as a ‘professional’ Jew, this is a difficult thing to admit, but I’m convinced it’s true. For those who have thought about it, greater identification with the Jewish world through observance of Jewish law and Torah study is considered stifling – a life-option that prevents, rather than facilitates, personal fulfilment.
Torah study is considered a dreary endeavour, focused on antiquated ideas and rules; Jewish law a ‘dead hand’ preoccupied with minutiae that have no relevance to the modern world . For example, a common view of Shabbat observance is that it consists of a group of random and irritating restrictions, producing a frustrating experience far removed from one’s aspirations for a day off from work. Scrupulous kashrut observance imposes on one’s social and professional life, not to mention one’s vacation options, and religious life appears to revolve around attendance at synagogue services that even those familiar with liturgical Hebrew would find it a struggle to sit through. And I admit that there are members of the religious world who reinforce this view; we have all come across those who seem judgemental and unsophisticated and, sadly, some who are obviously rather unhappy and unfulfilled.
Yet I think that this perception is a distortion of what properly understood and sensitively deployed Judaism can enable us to achieve. Far from frustrating one’s objectives, serious engagement with Jewish learning and observance offers a powerful opportunity for the realisation of the ideals to which all of us aspire. While these obviously vary from person to person, they likely include: raising balanced and well-mannered children, developing appropriate values and priorities, sensitivity to the lives and needs of others, social justice and improving the lot of the less-fortunate, contributing to one’s society and to the betterment of humanity, and gaining a sense of the purpose of life and what lies beyond it. Most importantly, it will certainly include the attempt to attain self-knowledge and to grapple with achieving a sense of personal mission, which empower one to make a unique contribution to the world. And while happiness and self-fulfilment are not the explicit goals of Judaism, it is correct to say that when its project is properly implemented, contentment and a sense of meaning are a natural consequence. As King David said, ‘be glad of heart, those who seek God’.
But to achieve this, I suggest a different approach to Judaism and its potential is needed – this demands treating it not as an obligation, but as an art-form. To master it requires commitment, patience and the investment of time and resources; in common with all worthwhile art-forms, Judaism enables its connoisseurs to understand the mind of its (Divine) creator and be profoundly transformed by the encounter.
In this new series of articles, I will attempt to explain this alternative approach to Judaism and to demonstrate how its majestic ideals can enhance and elevate every aspect of life. I have entitled them ‘The Art of Judaism’ to reflect this goal. Do join me on what I hope will be an interesting journey.
 I am grateful to Rabbi Dr. Steven Gaffin for agreeing to the use of this series-title: several years ago he and I dreamt up the idea of referring to Judaism as an art-form.