Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Judaism as Burden

“The heaviest of burdens is therefore simultaneously an image of life’s most intense fulfillment. The heavier the burden, the closer our lives come to the earth, the more real and truthful they become.”
-Milan Kundera, The Unbearable Lightness of Being, 1984

“Before the beginning of the nineteenth century all Jews regarded Judaism as a privilege; since then most Jews have come to regard it as a burden.”
-Mordecai Kaplan, Judaism as a Civilization, 1934

    How does Kundera’s notion of “the heaviest of burdens” as “an image of life’s most intense fulfillment” influence our reading of the opening line of Mordecai Kaplan’s Judaism as a Civilization (above)? How can Jewish educators transform the feeling of burden that Kaplan describes, with its negative connotations, into the burden that Kundera describes? 

     Kundera’s burden is one that connects the bearer with the earth, with reality, and with truth. It is the burden that leads to fulfillment and happiness. The heavier the burden the greater the reward. 

     Kaplan’s burden is one that keeps the bearer bent, buckled and ultimately broken. It's a burden that oppresses, defeats, and distracts. 

    I believe that the burden of Judaism can be Kundera's burden rather than Kaplan's burden.  For starters, to speak of Jewish commitment is to speak of a life that is grounded in Judaism. To speak of Jewish commitment is to speak on one’s ability to take a stand with both feet planted firmly on Jewish soil. Judaism is a burden that should ground us, thrust us into reality, and make us feel like our actions and decisions have weight and impact. 

    When Moses approached the burning bush and found his life’s destiny he was told, “remove your sandals from your feet, for the place on which you are standing is holy ground” (Exodus 3:5). Just as the bowler hat floating in midair is a central image for Kundera’s novel so too should be the bare foot planted firmly on the earth a metaphor for Jewish commitment. Jewish education that seeks to instill a sense of commitment must accustom students to “taking a stand” for what they believe in and a willingness to get their feet and hands dirty.

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