I waited my whole life to turn 40 because of the Talmud’s promise of wisdom. I was tired of being a flawed man of promise, an imperfect composite of seriousness and some silliness, insight, and ignorance. I wanted to live life in the illuminated spaces, immunized against folly and resistant to error. I waited for wisdom to cover me like a shield, to finally provide me with as much guidance in my own life as I tried to provide others in theirs.
Only, it didn’t come. As I turn 41 next week, I look back at the year that passed and remain amazed (ashamed?) that so many of my inbred flaws remain so tightly fastened to me. Wisdom has not pried them loose.
What went wrong? If the pinnacle of wisdom is the discernment that life must be dedicated to a cause higher than oneself, then I have fallen short because I have not transcended a desire for recognition. To be sure, I devote my life to healing shattered hearts and mending broken spirits. But, as Harry Truman said, "It is amazing what you can accomplish if you do not care who gets the credit." Alas, I still care, even if it is much less than before.
But perhaps the meaning of the Rabbinic saying that with 40 comes wisdom is that it comes in one giant nugget, one great truth, which is life-changing. For me, it was the knowledge of what it is that I truly want to be. Like most people, I am the aggregate of many disparate parts. But 40 revealed to me my innermost desire, my irreducible essence, and it is this: the desire to serve as an exponent of Jewish values. I now know that whatever credit I want for my work, I want Judaism to get even more. A baton of continuity was been handed to me as a member of my people and I wish to ensure that the light of Judaism burns more brightly because I once held its torch.
The time for spreading Jewish values to a global audience is now, the epoch of Judaism as a great light is finally upon us. And we must all join in spreading its radiance.
Last week Pat Robertson surprised the American electorate by endorsing Rudy Giuliani for president. How could America’s best-known evangelical leader back a candidate who is pro-choice and pro-gay rights? For three decades, opposition to abortion and gay marriage has constituted the predominant American religious definition of moral values, to the exclusion of nearly everything else. But here is the foremost evangelical leader acknowledging that morality is so much more.
For the past two years I discussed the subject of humility with Rev. Robertson for a book he was writing. Robertson is a great defender of Israel, a sincere friend of the Jewish people, and a formidable Bible scholar. I made the case to him that the emphasis on these two issues was harming America. The divorce rate is at 50 percent. Exploitation of women for commercial interests is central to the culture. And an unbridled lust for money was making America into a nation of shallow materialists. But all of this was being ignored as we focused on gays and embryos.
But the endorsement of Giuliani bespeaks an American weariness of these over-hashed issues and a thirst for a more holistic set of values. But now that the repudiation of evangelical morality has left a gaping hole, who and what are to fill the vacuum?
Enter the world’s oldest monotheistic faith and the earth’s most family-oriented community.
In all history, there have been only two individuals who have believed that Judaism had something profound to say to the mainstream, non-Jewish world. The first was Paul of Tarsus. The second was the Lubavitcher rebbe. Paul somehow believed that pagans would warm to the Jewish message of one God and the spiritual demands of a faith-based life. But in order to make that message more palatable, Paul made what we Jews consider unacceptable accommodations, namely, deifying Christ and de-emphasizing ritual and acts in favor of faith.
The Lubavitcher rebbe, by contrast, was the first Jewish personality with a worldwide following to talk about bringing unadulterated biblical values to a mainstream non-Jewish audience. The rebbe hammered the point repeatedly during his internationally televised speeches. Yet it remains the one aspect of his visionary program that Chabad, after his death, has all but ignored. Indeed, last weekend’s International Conference of Chabad’s Worldwide emissaries, which offered panels on subject as diverse as campus activities to life insurance policies, did not provide for a single discussion on bringing Judaism to mainstream, non-Jewish culture.
And yet, there is no more effective method of inspiring Jews to re-embrace their tradition than to demonstrate its mainstream, universal application to a world that is sorely in need of healing.
America needs new values. Judaism can provide them. We should begin with a program to make the Jewish Sabbath a mainstream American tradition. Nothing could benefit the American polity more than a single day a week in which phones, electronics, and — above all — the TV are turned off. Husbands and wives would start communicating. Parents and children would start playing. Men and women would start reading. And fragmented communities would start coalescing. We know how do to everything in America except get along, and it is becoming clear that the loving glue that had people gravitating toward one another is now being undone by the dangerous antimatter of mindless electronic escapism and a penchant for impulse purchases. Let the Sabbath be the new social glue that counteracts the obsession with movie theaters and shopping malls.
I can see a national campaign of newspaper advertisements and classes in synagogues and JCCs around the country, offered specifically for non-Jews, to discover the treasure that is the Jewish Sabbath. I can see books and articles encouraging families all across America to invite five friends over for a weekly Friday night meal that encourages both hospitality and serious conversations, a renaissance of salons of the past. And through the shared experience of a holy day, we might all just become wiser and more enlightened.
Rabbi Shmuley Boteach’s book "The Broken American Male" is about to released by St. Martin’s Press. He has just launched "The Jewish Values Network."