Deep Judaism: A Primer
Could Deep Judaism be the key to better self-development and relationships?
NOTE: This essay is for JOOL’s premium subscribers. The first half is available for free; the second half is accessible to those who have a premium subscription.
When J.K. Rowling was writing the final Harry Potter book, she checked into the Balmoral Hotel to escape the everyday distractions at her home.
During the NBA playoffs, LeBron James has become notorious for “going dark” on social media — refraining from checking or posting to his accounts.
When Bill Gates wanted to come up with his next big idea, he went into seclusion for one-week “think week” retreats, from which family, friends, and Microsoft employees were uninvited.
The common thread in these stories from arguably the most successful people in each of their fields is that Rowling, James, and Gates consciously put themselves in an environment of distraction-free concentration — what Georgetown University professor Cal Newport calls “Deep Work” — so they could push their abilities to the limit.
In his bestselling book, Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World, Newport says that Deep Work is the key to quickly mastering hard things, and to produce at an elite level in terms of quality and speed.
One thing led to the next, and it got me thinking:
Could there be such a thing as Deep Judaism?
And, if so, could Deep Judaism be the key to, say, quickly becoming happier (i.e. more fulfilled), and to developing yourself at an elite level, both personally (i.e. self-development) and interpersonally (e.g. relationships, community)?
Growing up in a Reform Jewish household on the outskirts of Los Angeles, I understood Judaism to be a chore. Temple was boring-but-obligatory a few times each year; my Bar Mitzvah was more of a celebratory performance than a profound experience; and confirmation was a fun excuse to see my friends, who didn’t go to my same high school, on Tuesday evenings. As I grew older, I sought spirituality in reggae music, Eastern philosophy, meditation, and sports — basically anything but Judaism.
Since moving to Israel in 2013, I’ve become especially proud to be Jewish, but I didn’t think Judaism had something to offer me until recently. This is because, for essentially all of my life, I had been practicing Shallow Judaism.
A Jewish teacher once said that part of Judaism’s “problem” is that it’s often taught at an elementary level and never graduates to a higher and deeper level of thinking for many.1 So our world views and experiences become more sophisticated, but our Judaism stays elementary. And this is where we lose people — both Jews and non-Jews — or at least don’t entice them in lasting, meaningful, impactful, and transcendent ways.
“If you were to take the narrow view of many demographic surveys on Jews and their dedication to Judaism, I might not even make it on the map,” Ariella Siegel wrote in The Jerusalem Post. “However, if you ask the people I know, I am one of the biggest lovers of Jews and Judaism there is. I love how deep Judaism gets, how it creates moments and opportunities to express a variety of emotions and space to go through life’s cycles.”2
My Deep Judaism journey began just a few months ago, and I’m finding that our ancient tradition speaks to me innumerably, even while I remain a social-capitalist, scientifically oriented, modern, and secular. More pointedly, I’ve started to become a better son, brother, friend, and citizen (both of Israel and of the world) by becoming a “practicing Jew” — that is, when I began my Deep Judaism journey.
I’m also finding that Shallow Judaism is like shallow work, which Newport defines as “non-cognitive, logistical, or minor duties performed in a state of distraction.” That is, nothing of real value can be achieved via shallow work. As an extension, I would say that nothing of real value can be achieved from Shallow Judaism. No wonder so many of today’s Jews across the world don’t see Judaism as a “value add” in their day-to-day lives — they probably haven’t gone deep enough!
Deep Judaism: An Introduction
Instead of attempting a formal definition of Deep Judaism, it would be better to employ Austrian-British philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein’s concept of a “family resemblance” within “a complicated network of similarities overlapping and criss-crossing.”3
Everything that has to do with family resemblance is much easier to identify than to define, but even the identification itself is no simple matter. Therefore, referring to the definition of Deep Judaism, it can be said that Deep Judaism denotes, in general, whatever those who define themselves as Jews create in common, and which recurs and affects their interpretation of the world and their mutual relationships as Jews.
Rabbi Daniel Bortz, known as the Millennial Rabbi, is an avid student of what he calls “Brazilian Jiu [Jew] Jitsu.” His tongue-in-cheek play on words is actually a profound comment on mixing traditions within spirituality. He doesn’t find the martial art to be out of line at all with his deep Judaism; instead, he finds it deeply nourishing and complementary to his religion.
“I want to show them there is no box,” Rabbi Bortz said. “Yes, there is structure to Judaism, there are things we follow, like kosher and Shabbat, but to me, these are all vehicles for greater meaning. And within that structure, there is so much room for creativity. Anything we do we can learn a lesson from it. Everything you do you can connect to God or elevate the experience.”
During his own time at the pulpit, Rabbi David Wolpe said he’s proud to have advanced the message that “not everything in the Jewish tradition has to be taken literally and absolutely, and it can still be deep and life-changing.”4
Do you know how the Chinese translate the word Judaism? This is how they write it: 挑筋教. The translation reads: “religion of the removed sinew.”5 (According to the Torah: “… the children of Israel may not consume the sinew that was displaced, which lies upon the ‘spoon’ of the thigh, since he struck the ‘spoon’ of Yaakov’s thigh on the displaced sinew.”)
Interesting, instead of calling us “the people of the book” or “the nation that left Egypt,” the Chinese define us otherwise, and remind us of something very deep: Judaism survives not only because of beliefs, ideas, or philosophies, but rather because of what we do, including what we eat.
Take the Israeli philosopher Yirmiyahu Yovel’s broad and charitable definition of a Jew: “to be personally preoccupied with the question of Jewishness — this is a natural and sufficient sign that a person is a Jew.”6 The implication here is one of action, of doing.
Zack Bodner, CEO of the JCC in Palo Alto, California, wrote an entire book about why doing Jewish — not just being Jewish — is imperative for the future of Judaism. In his book, Why Do Jewish?, Bodner says that he does Jewish “because it provides a compelling worldview” and because Judaism’s values “are timeless guardrails for how to live a good life” and because “our heritage is rich and filled with wonderful wisdom that makes me proud and speaks to me” and because “it makes me feel connected to a larger family” and because “it gives my life meaning.”
“I believe Judaism has something unique to say about the meaning of life,” Bodner wrote. “There are three big questions we must answer in life. The first is, ‘Who am I?’ The second is, ‘Why am I here?’ And the third is, ‘What is my task?’ Judaism answers these three questions for me. And at the end of the day, living a meaningful, purpose-driven life is what it’s all about, isn’t it?”
Future of Jewish is an audience-supported publication that ponders Judaism. To receive new content and support our mission to make Judaism one of the worlds’s bright spots, consider becoming a premium subscriber.
Why Deep Judaism?
Trends in how business organizations operate today appear to improve employee relations, but decrease employee productivity in reality. For example, instant messaging softwares like Slack and always-on email expectations are designed to increase response times and the sharing of ideas. At the same time, they fragment and ultimately minimize our attention spans, effectively rewiring our brains, which inhibits us from performing Deep Work.
I would argue this paradox of trends in today’s workplace is similar to what we’re seeing in today’s world of Judaism. Many Jewish organizations and Jews themselves, nowadays, operate to augment connections with the greater world which, in reality, obstructs the point of Judaism.
Intrinsically, Judaism was designed to be different than the rest of the world as we knew it. In religious terms, for example, Judaism encourages living with God, whereas many other religions encourage living for God. In non-religious terms, the Jewish calendar honors nature — for instance, during shmita (the sabbath year, once every seven years) the land is left to lie fallow and all agricultural activity, including plowing, planting, pruning and harvesting, is forbidden.
“Judaism asks us to envisage an altogether different possibility,” Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks wrote in his book, A Letter in the Scroll.
The great Israeli statesman, Shimon Peres, echoed Rabbi Sacks’ sentiment, saying that the Jews’ greatest gift to the world is “dissatisfaction.” We believe whatever exists can persistently be made better. As the infamous joke goes: “What does the waiter at the Jewish deli ask? ‘Is anything alright?’”
This, to me, is at the core of why Deep Judaism matters:
To continuously improve yourself, your life, and the lives around you.
To increase the total amount of such improvements.
To feel deeper satisfaction throughout the process.
Understandably, these reasons might seem too amorphous for your liking, which brings me to the biblical advice na’aseh v’nishma — “We will do and we will hear.”
I interpret this advice to mean, “Do first, understand later,” because during biblical times, the Jewish People promised first to observe the laws of the Torah, and only afterward to study these laws. Hence why Judaism is often said to be a culture of deed rather than of intention. That is, start by doing, and by doing, you will understand the value of your deeds, sort of like the legendary Hebrew essayist Aham Ha’am once said:
“There is in the spirit of our people, something special, even if we do not know what it is, that makes it swerve from the smooth path of other nations.”
With that said, the goal of embarking on your Deep Judaism journey is not to make you feel or think or live more Jewishly. Instead, it is for you to profoundly put more of yourself through the prism of Judaism, and from there to determine if it makes sense or feels right to you.
In doing so, I believe you will find more of the following, as defined by American Jewish University professor Dr. Ron Wolfson:
Meaning – an understanding of life’s significance
Purpose – an imperative to do what you are put on Earth to do during your life
Belonging – a community of people who will be there for you and with you
Blessing – a feeling of deep satisfaction and gratitude, a calendar and life cycle of opportunities to celebrate the gifts of life7
On a communal level, as a Jewish People, I would contend that Deep Judaism is vital for our future, much like Deep Work is vital for a company’s future.
In his book, Cal Newport wrote: “Shallow work keeps you from getting fired. Deep work is what gets you promoted.” So I would say:
Shallow Judaism keeps Jews surviving. Deep Judaism is what gets us thriving.