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The Purpose Driven Jew

I wasn’t surprised to read in The New York Times that Rick Warren, mega-church pastor and best-selling author of “The Purpose Driven Life,” is advising Jewish religious leaders on how to draw more Jews into synagogue life. It’s very Jewish to apply and adapt the best of wider society to Judaism. That is what the early rabbinic sages did when they modeled the structure of the Passover seder upon the Roman banquet and symposium. Their model stuck, as so many of us will re-experience next week when we sit down to celebrate the holiday.


Warren has hit on something, though. I have found that when I translate what he teaches into a Jewish idiom, putting God and Torah back at the center of our experience as Jews, people really respond favorably. They really want to find answers for how to live a more meaningful life through Torah.

I can do the scientific-text critical thing with the best of them, but that is Torah for the academy, not the pews. For a small group of folks, such learning is spiritually satisfying. But, particularly in the Conservative movement, which was founded upon the scientific method of textual study, we all too often lose the essential point that God gave us Torah to inform how we can live better lives.

Shabbat is part of that better life, but most contemporary Jews never get a chance to really experience it. So if meditation, yoga, or cooking will open the doors of the synagogue to those who might not otherwise enter, I say go for it.


We have a lot of boring memories to overcome. But we will miss the boat if we do not also offer engaging classes and painless parallel parent/child education that builds Hebrew literacy, comprehension, and the tools of prayer competency as a way to open modern Jews to the power and transcendence of the traditional Sabbath liturgy. Sure I would be happy with folks being in the building, some for a study group, others for our family programs, others for the fellowship in the kitchen, while still others are engaged in the main worship service. Nine tenths of community is about showing up. But a purpose-driven community is about more than just showing up. It is about sharing values and living those values in and outside the sanctuary.

That’s what has been missing in most of our congregations; it is high time we honestly face that and do the hard work to get back on track by defining our core Torah-based values, like truth (emet) and kindness (hesed) to name just two, and start living them in and out of the synagogue.


We need to put the “purpose” back into our synagogues. That means instead of seeking growth for growth’s sake (i.e., for institutional solvency or sustainability) we need to seek to serve God and spread the word of living Torah. We need to reach out and engage other Jews because that is what God expects of us, whether in inviting a stranger for Shabbat dinner or lunch, being there for people in pain, or being God’s hands in the world to help those in need in our communities or in far away Darfur.

We could argue that Jews today, perhaps more than previous generations, want to know what Judaism can do for them, rather than what they can do for Judaism. Rebbe Nahman taught that one must meet someone where he (or she) is, not where you may want that person to be.


The brilliance of Warren’s approach, and why he has sold so many books, is that he shows how doing something for a higher purpose is doing something for oneself on the deepest and simplest level. That is what Judaism has always been about. The key is realizing that we Jews can have a purpose-driven life, as individuals and as members of congregational communities, by serving God through Torah. Now all that’s left is to go and learn.

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Esther Sternberg

posted April 5, 2006 at 9:45 pm

I totally agree with this concept. I always felt that Saturday “Shabbath” for me has more meaning and satisfaction if I do something that is pleasing to me. Something that I truly love and cannot do on any other day with the open mindness and the zest that I would do on the day that allows me to rest and love the day as I love life. I love to draw and paint, and I always feel that when I paint I am closer to G-d than if I just rest or go to temple and pray. When I paint I see the beauty of what G-d has created. Isn’t that what we suppose feel? The wonder and beauty of world that could not be created any other way. See it in a flower, see it in a leave of a tree, touch a tree and could you create such sculpture without G-d’s help.

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posted April 7, 2006 at 5:30 am

We could argue that Jews today, perhaps more than previous generations, want to know what Judaism can do for them, rather than what they can do for Judaism. Umm, does this make us the selfish generation? Is this also why Catholics are flocking to communion while shunning confession? Is this the antithesis of JFK’s great statement, “Ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country.” Yes, synagogues and congregations must be responsive, innovative, relevant, etc. But they must also challenge people to be better Jews (whatever that means), not to break down Judaism so that it’s as palatable as possible. G*d is about responsibility, not just fulfillment. We have to meet people where they are, but we also must challenge people to be all that they can be. Otherwise, we’re doomed as just another feel-good, selfish, irresponsible and uncommitted generation.

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Allen Ross

posted April 7, 2006 at 5:07 pm

The previous two postings may have missed the point that ‘pleasing myself’ or ‘what Judiasm can do for them’ is ONLY valid in the context of a purpose that is G*d centered, that involves Torah and involves community. Unfortunately, many mainstream churches [and perhaps synagogues?], miss the point that God and His word is the starting and ending point…the purpose for which we all exist. Rabbi Grossman, I greatly enjoy reading your perspective on this matter and all of your commentaries. Thank you.

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posted April 7, 2006 at 7:50 pm

I work as an office manager at a synagogue affiliated with the Conservative Movement. In the past 6 years, I have watched the community’s commitment to spirituality dwindle. This is not to say that our members are not good Jews – far be it from me to make that judgement – and it would be an incorrect thought anyway. THere are many people who will help with community activities to which they personally feel connected, such as bringing meals to the home-bound or helping friends. But, I sometimes feel like there is no one encouraging people for yirah ha’shamayim. It is for lower purposes (such as helping one particular person, rather than the community, which can be a starting place)and I think we, as messengers of Torah, need to reaffirm our own connection to G-d. I think the cliche goes: You can’t give what you ain’t got.

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posted April 10, 2006 at 6:30 pm

you also have to be willing to except people outside of the jewish religion. to think that jews are the only ones god loves and protects is not what he wants. to get past differances and help people to come to god is what realy matters. love well over come all even law. law was made because people could not understand pure love.

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gillian wood

posted April 13, 2006 at 4:53 pm

Thank-you for reminding us that everything we do should be for God. I consider myself a “radically open Christian” who honors anyone who tries to do God’s work. What we DO (for God) is so much more important than our words and rituals.

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Joseph D. Weinman McElwee

posted April 23, 2006 at 2:43 am

Rabbi – If you are ever in this area please drop by Temple Israel of Greater Miami. You will find there that what you are talking about, and more,is being explored, ingested,and lived daily by the congregation and our remarkable Rabbi, Mitch Chevitz. It is a magnificent, humbling thing to be part of. Thank you for your blog. May it be just one of many things you do that honors Hashem. Blessings!

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