Improving the self–whether through books, magazines, prayer, meditation, or study–has always been a Jewish enterprise and the rabbis were among history’s first “life coaches.” Today it is the same. I do not have one doubt that Judaism continues to offer a variety of ways we’ve already discovered and approaches yet to be revealed, which are meaningful, hopeful, and helpful for Jews and for people of all backgrounds
and faiths. That’s why it made sense, when I finally got the go-ahead from a publisher to write a book (a lifelong dream of mine), that I was told it would be placed in the “self-help” genre.
When I imagine the rabbis of the Talmudic era, I imagine the ones who bequeathed us a tradition of fearless, open questioning, who taught us to place life-giving value on struggle and to recognize the power, both individual and collective, that stems from facing challenges and uncertainty with courage, devotion, and trust in every person’s piece of the puzzle of existence.
Not only were the rabbis well-versed (literally) in inherited texts and traditions, but they were current on philosophy, science, medicine, other religions’ theological systems, culinary trends, culture, leisure, and love. They had to be in order to keep Judaism ancient and relevant, transcendent and de-rigueur, substantive and spirited with strong legs to walk on into the next chapters of Jewish life.
My experience has been that when we trust what we’ve inherited and grant equal trust to the people who hold that inheritance to locate what’s meaningful and helpful to them, they not only do so, but they also become contributors to and creators of traditions and wisdom. In 500 years, those contributions may be a big part of what people identify as “Jewish”.
This is also why it doesn’t worry me one bit when Jews find wisdom and help outside of Judaism. Thank goodness they do! The whole human project began with Adam and Eve, not with Abraham and Sarah. So nothing human, to borrow a bit from the Roman playwright Terence, should ever be alien, or forbidden, to us as Jews. If anything, “outside” sources can deepen, enliven, revivify, and expand just how powerfully connected we feel to our Jewishness. Where would Maimonides have been, and what would he have contributed to us, without Aristotle, without medicine? How might the teachings of Abraham Joshua Heschel have been different had he not linked arms and souls with Martin Luther King, Jr.?
No, I’m not one who frets when Jews find meaning in places beyond Judaism. I worry more about what frightens us so much when they do.
–Posted by Rabbi Jennifer Krause
Rabbi Jennifer Krause is the author of The Answer: Making Sense of Life, One
Question at a Time. For more information, please visit her website.