Beliefs Jeffrey Salkin: Martini Judaism Opinion

Should religion be easy?

A mikveh, used for ritual conversion. Credit: Chameleon Eye, courtesy of Shutterstock.
A mikveh, used for ritual conversion. Credit: Chameleon Eye, courtesy of Shutterstock.

A mikveh, used for ritual conversion. Credit: Chameleon Eye, courtesy of Shutterstock.

If I wasn’t Jewish, I would want to become Jewish.

And I would want Rabbi Ammiel Hirsch of New York’s Stephen Wise Free Synagogue to help me.

Here’s why. Rabbi Hirsch’s conversion program is pretty demanding. Most programs take a few months to a year to complete; his takes eighteen months. When he decided to institute this new program, not everyone at the synagogue thought that it would fly.

They were wrong.

Fourteen students are currently in the program; two have completed it; another five are considering joining the program.

(By the way: Rabbi Hirsch’s program is far more rigorous than the “traditional” Jewish conversion process. According the Shulchan Arukh, the classic code of Jewish law, a candidate simply had to acknowledge that he or she was joining a persecuted religious faith; had to learn some “hard” commandments and some “easy” commandments, and then submit to circumcision and/or ritual immersion. Ah, but back then, the community would take care of the rest of the convert’s acculturation process.)

Is Rabbi Hirsch’s program counter-intuitive? Perhaps. “This is more stringent and a more significant commitment than we’ve seen in almost any community … not only in the Reform movement, but outside of the Reform movement,” said Rabbi Howard Jaffe, who co-chairs the Reform movement’s Joint Commission on Outreach.

Or, perhaps Rabbi Hirsch is on to something. Because there are many modern people people who actually want more out of their religious faith, not less — and they are willing to commit the time, energy, and resources to reach that sacred goal.

That is how Rabbi Sharon Brous, spiritual leader of Ikar in Los Angeles, sees it.  As she says in Rabbi Sidney Schwarz’s book, Jewish Megatrends: “Our communal instinct—toward ease and convenience—is a recipe for generational disengagement. The reality is that the young Jews we assume will never dedicate the time or energy needed to take themselves seriously as Jews— who will only go to Shabbat services if they promise to be short, sexy, and conveniently located— are the same young people who will dedicate many hours each week and significant amounts of money to their yoga practices. If a Jewish experience feels cheap and watered down, they won’t sit through it, and they certainly won’t come back.”

We see this reflected in the most recent Pew report on American religion. Evangelical churches are growing. Why? In his 1994 essay, “Why Strict Churches Are Strong,” economist Laurence Iannaccone says that the devout person joins those churches because they offer “a better religious product.” Because those churches are strict, they weed out members with weak commitments. The result? The person sitting next to you in the pew is really into it, and that creates a better experience for everyone.

Dean Kelley figured this out, more than forty years ago, in his book, Why The Conservative Churches Are Growing. He had assumed that growth-oriented churches would have to be non-demanding. Lo and behold, he discovered that the churches that are growing tended to be conservative churches — those that bear active witness to faith; that stress the primacy of worship; that make religious instruction primary; that make requirements.

Yes, we laugh at The Book of Mormon (can you imagine how Jews and, uh, other religious groups, would react to similar lampoons of their faith)? Laugh all you want to, but the Church of Latter Day Saints is one of the world’s fastest-growing religions.

Because the Mormons are all about commitment. Recently, a Jewish high school teacher bemoaned the summer plight of her student, a young Mormon. His summer job was doing volunteer work for his church. She thought that it was a terrible to spend the summer. Especially because he wasn’t getting paid.

“I think it’s great,” I replied. “Imagine what American Judaism would look like if we had thousands of Jewish kids doing precisely that — working, and giving back to the Jewish community.” She admitted that I was right (and there are many Jewish kids who are doing precisely that).

It’s about mission (which doesn’t require you to be a missionary). It’s like exercise. You want to be transformed? It means that you are going to have to break a sweat.

The Talmud teaches: “If someone tells you, ‘I labored in Torah study, but did not find it — do not believe him. If he tells you, ‘I have not labored in Torah study, yet I did find it,’ do not believe him. However, if one says, ‘I have toiled ,and have found it’ — believe him.’”

If American Judaism is going to survive, it will need this kind of religious rigor — and not just from the Orthodox. Gil Troy invites American Jews to “become Jewishly ambitious, to stop approaching Judaism as another item to be sampled in the smorgasbord of life. It means triggering a values revival throughout the Jewish world, using Judaism as a framework for meaning and virtue, as a bulwark against the me-me-me, my-my-my- more-more-more secular world. It means positioning Judaism as an alternative to modern society, not a slave to the latest trends.”

I am betting that we can do it.

In fact, we must. The very future of American Judaism is at stake.







About the author

Jeffrey Salkin

Rabbi Jeffrey K. Salkin is the spiritual leader of Temple Solel in Hollywood, Fla., and the author of numerous books on Jewish spirituality and ethics, published by Jewish Lights Publishing and Jewish Publication Society.


Click here to post a comment

  • As a Christian it’s quite hard to follow the two basic commandments that our Lord Jesus laid out for us, can’t imagine following 613 rules/laws/rituals laid out in OT for the followers of Judaism.

  • The two great commandments that Jesus gave his followers are:

    “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind’; and,
    ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.'”

  • That quote comes from what you would call the “Old Testament” Jesus did not make it up. We say that in every single service.

    Many of the commandments apply to the Templ and do not apply today

  • Susan,

    Joe may be referencing the Gospels: Matthew, Mark and Luke.
    “Love your neighbor as yourself.”


  • The difference being the rules to love thy neighbor and love God are the only two within the Jewish faith where you don’t get a circumstantial opt-out.

    Some Christians look for excuses around them. Usually by declaring that being a judgmental d-bag is really part of love of God, therefore is greater than loving thy neighbor. (Or at least those are the excuses many Christians have given me)

    What most Christians do not get about Judaism is there is always an escape clause for various rules/laws/rituals in the OT if there is a greater moral stake involved. Talmudic commentary is full of them. The “big picture” being more important than most of the admittedly arbitrary rules. Things such as coming to someone’s aid, personal survival, upholding a greater good, comes before avoiding pig products or using lights on Sabbath. Or at least that is the interpretation for most of the Jewish faith. There are some groups which disregard such thinking.

  • Larry, I would add that Christians think they know about Judaism because they have read what they call the “Old Testament”, but Judaism is a rabbinic religion. Most Christians know nothing about anything Jews have written or thought after the “Old Testament,” but if you don’t you know nothing about Judaism.

  • Opheliart, that’s exactly Susan’s point. Jesus and the Gospels’ quote of “Love your neighbor as yourself” is itself a quote from Leviticus 19:18.

  • Jesus was quoting what Jewish sages like Hillel were saying before the Gospels were written.

    “Love the Lord with all your heart and all your soul…” comes from Deuteronomy 6:4-9, not from Jesus.