This past Friday, Rabbi Roy Walter of Houston’s Congregation Emanu El delivered a resounding sermon on what he thinks is today’s “most serious threat to Judaism.” In response to this question made by an 11th grade student, Rabbi Walter did not answer with intermarriage, or other typical scapegoats. Rather, he hearkened back to a statement made by Dennis Prager years earlier, who said:
There are really only two kinds of Jews: serious Jews, and non-serious Jews. Those categories have nothing to do with Orthodox, Conservative, or Reform; it’s a non-denominational issue. Serious Jews and non serious Jews. Those are the two categories that count.
Rabbi Walter continued, “The most serious threat to Judaism, in my opinion, is non-serious Jews.” His statement is big and worth fleshing out.
Who are these “non-serious” Jews that to which Rabbi Walter is referring? As he explains, being “serious” doesn’t mean you attend an Orthodox synagogue or keep kosher. What qualifies you to be a “serious Jew” is to be someone “who lives with Judaism at the center of their life,” who has Judaism at “their core of their life, it is a center, a base,” and to be someone for whom “making and keeping Judaism alive both in [his/her] personal life and in the life of the community is a priority.” The “non-serious Jew,” on the other hand, might see Judaism as merely “gastronomic,” defined by the occasional use of Yiddish or his child’s attendance at Sunday school, even if there is a “disconnect” from what they learn there and at home.
With Rabbi Walter’s delineation between the “serious” and the “non-serious,” he poses an important question: what do we do about this growing group of “non-serious” Jews – the unengaged and unaffiliated Jews in our midst? How do we share this urgency that “serious” Jews have concerning Judaism, its future, and in fulfilling obligations of doing what is right, mitzvot? How do we bridge the gap and remove the divide between these two groups, as JOI’s associate executive director Paul Golin recently asked? Rabbi Walter urges “serious Jews” to become proselytizers – not to people of other faiths, but to the “non-serious Jews.” He wants us to “open the tent,” as we say at JOI, and show the “the joy there is in being a serious Jew,” show that people can be just as serious a Jew whether they are Reform or Orthodox.
We at JOI have highlighted Rabbi Walter’s proposal because we know that there is much to be gained from a life as a “serious” Jew. The more we can share the joy of being involved in the Jewish community, the more appealing Jewish life can be to those who aren’t yet engaged. Let us join Rabbi Walter in his urging to invite all Jews to the table, regardless of background, to show the value of engaging in Jewish life. We need to continue to create connections and help “non serious Jews” think about how they can incorporate the “serious” into their Judaism.
To listen to the presentation, go to the Congregation Emanu El homepage and click on Rabbi Walter’s sermon “Serious Jews.”