Useful Judaism

I was once interviewed by an author who was writing a book about Jewish practice. She had heard me use the term “useful Judaism,” and wanted to hear more about what that meant to me. Her first question during the interview was, “Why should we bother being Jewish at all?” My response was that “useful Judaism” is the key. It’s just what it sounds like… a way of being, a way of thinking, a way of doing that is “useful” in helping us lead more productive, healthy lives. Judaism is a guide toward peace, contentment, and fulfillment for ourselves as well as being a manual for guiding others toward the same… if we pay attention.

I thought that was a pretty good answer, but then the interviewer asked me a really challenging question. She asked, “If I can learn to live a more peaceful, content, fulfilling life by reading a Dr. Suess book, then why should I be Jewish?”

Hmm. Harder question. But the answer begins with the Jewish calendar.

Let’s take a look at what we receive by following our calendar. Every week with Shabbat we are given the offering of a full day to rest and recharge from the labors of the week and to create a Holy space for our minds and bodies. With Pesach we clean out even the darkest corners of our homes as we remember our people’s and and other peoples’ fights for freedom, and we clean out the darkest corners of ourselves too as we guide ourselves toward betterment. By counting the Omer we spiritually renew and mature as we prepare to receive the Torah again and again on Shavuot. With Rosh Hashanah, we think of new beginnings and with Yom Kippur we think of forgiveness. Sukkot arrives, and we are reminded to be grateful for our homes and our food sources, and to re-commit to helping those with not enough. During Simchat Torah we remember that learning should never end, each Chanukkah we consider the light we bring into the world and ponder whether miracles are really possible, and Tu Bishvat re-energizes our commitment to the earth.

If we are paying attention, it is difficult to avoid the themes that can lead to more peace, lower blood pressure, lower heart rate, and less stress… renewal, forgiveness, gratitude for what we have, the importance of being lifelong learners, and reminders to be sources of light in the world.

So, what does all this have to to with “useful Judaism” or Dr. Seuss?

It’s all about cycles. We have the cyclical reading of Torah, we have the repetition of the prayer service, and… we have the cycle of the calendar. When paying attention to the gift of the Jewish cycles, one can never “forget” the themes of renewal, gratitude, and forgiveness, but we can easily stop reading Dr. Seuss. A book with a lesson can provide a moment or even many days of clarity, but we all know how those lessons learned seem to fade in the busy-ness of life. So, Judaism has a calendar so packed with holidays and Holy Days that we are always either recovering from or preparing for another one. In Judaism, we are on a lifelong, cyclical, spiritual ride that inches us ever so slightly with each turn toward a more complete existence, not just in the world to come but in the here and now. The cycles of Judaism ensure that we reacquaint ourselves with those themes day after day, week after week, and year after year. We are never far away from another opportunity to improve ourselves, our outlooks, our relationships, and our world.

So let’s keep a close eye on our Jewish calendar. Let’s take those Shabbat naps, crunch our matzoh, count the omer, build the sukkah, renew our souls, and forgive other souls. And let’s remember that observing all of those acts isn’t about believing or not believing in God, nor are they exercises in and of themselves for us to be “good Jews.” The calendar is a handbook for “useful Judaism,” pointing us in the direction of our best selves. God doesn’t have to have anything to do with it to make it all worth while.

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One thought on “Useful Judaism

  1. Thanks for this Diane. You really made me think about how cycles are at the core of Judaism – the monthly and yearly cycles are tied to the physical world (the lunar and solar cycles), but the weekly cycle and therefore Shabbat resides outside the physical world.


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