Judaism is designed to be a person’s operating system, the platform on which other areas of one’s life function. But for many Jews, religious practice sits on a shelf alongside theater subscriptions, gym memberships, and soccer practice, relegated to one of many offerings from which we can pick and choose.
For Jewish educators like myself, this mindset poses particular challenges, forcing us to adopt the tactics of public relations agencies to induce Jews to participate in Jewish life. Why can’t these opportunities speak for themselves? Why do people have to be convinced to take a Hebrew class, attend Shabbat services, or drop in on a lecture?
Partly, of course, it’s an issue of time. Lots of people might want more Jewishness in their lives, but work, family, and other commitments end up taking precedence. Even in the best-case scenario, when people do show up for Hebrew school, committee meetings, or worship services, many are unable to leave their consumerist addictions at the door.
They may sincerely want to achieve something — learn a new skill, be inspired by a rabbi’s talk, or approve next year’s budget — yet they instinctively rely on “experts” to package Judaism for them. The cult of achievement seeps into everything. Leaders steeped in the ethos of corporate America expect flawless execution at meetings. Parents pushing their kids on the fast track are never satisfied with the rate of their children’s Hebrew acquisition.
What if, instead of being just one more place to look for “more” and “better,” Jewish life could be an escape from this compulsion? What if, instead of being just one more place to “get it done,” Jewish life could be the place Jews awoke to gratitude for what they have in each moment?
The ancient Jewish practice of shmita, the biblically mandated sabbatical year of rest and release that begins in September 2014, offers one way to roll back this trend.
At its core, shmita is a chance to show contemporary Jews that ancient Jewish texts have the potential to serve as a sophisticated map for many areas of their lives, not just occasional events in particular buildings. But it is also a way to induce individual Jews to take more responsibility both for their personal consumption habits and shaping the contours of their spiritual lives.
Traditionally, shmita was a time when farmers did not cultivate their lands, debts were forgiven, and slaves were set free. In a contemporary context, when most of us are neither farmers nor slaves, we can see this year not only as a chance to restore balance and share more equitably, but to release ourselves from the mentality that sees everything in the world — from natural resources to Jewish communal ones — as one more set of things to be consumed. Anyone looking to revive their communities, spend more time with family and friends, or even live more simply can take inspiration from the concept of shmita.
Hazon, a national Jewish organization promoting sustainability, is part of a coalition of eco-minded Jewish projects planning a series of initiatives in anticipation of the next shmita year. Taking our cues from the transition town movement, a social experiment that focuses on economic localization and sustainable agriculture, the Shmita Project seeks to revive the ancient teachings of the sabbatical cycle and apply them to our times. Bringing these principles alive is our next best shot to counter the consumerist impulse from within the Jewish tradition, all the while supporting the environment, our communities, and ourselves.
Jewish texts explain that during the shmita year, land owners would take down their fences so that the poor and animals could take freely from the crops. Today we might consider which resources from our “fields” we can offer to others. We could literally feed the hungry, or give of ourselves in other ways, through volunteering, pro bono work, or other collaborative community projects.
Shmita also calls upon us to release debts and take time off from work. Today, communities might consider setting up a “degrowth” plan in recognition of the fact that we are living beyond the capacities of the ecosystem. The Worldwatch Institute cites studies in Europe that indicate cutting back from a work week of more than 50 hours actually would create jobs.
My hope is that such efforts will result not only in people taking a closer look at how economic sustainability might work in their communities, but also in individuals taking greater responsibility for personal consumption habits and relieving themselves of the expectation that others will perform Jewish practice on their behalf. Rather than criticizing the failings of our institutional leaders, we can take active roles in revitalizing Jewish life — and local economic and environmental systems — as co-creators. In turn, we can begin to discharge the consumerist tendency from our communal life.
Parshat Behar, the Torah portion that contains the injunction to observe shmita, falls this year on May 3-4. It will be a wonderful opportunity to share shmita educational and experiential offerings in your local synagogue, school, community center, community garden.
Imagine the Jewish community digging into these ancient texts about shmita and renewing them for modern times. Imagine disaffected Jews igniting change through community organizing inspired by Torah.
How will you integrate shmita principles into your personal and communal life by September 2014? Join us on the journey.