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Applying Lessons from English Class to Our Everyday Lives as Jews

December 27, 2018
Abby Adams

Charlotte, North Carolina, United States

“L’chaim!” is the phrase observant Jews hear as they toast their glasses Friday night for Shabbat. L’chaim translates as “to life” in Hebrew, the main language of the Jewish people. Today, Judaism, the world’s oldest monotheistic religion, consists of three main denominations: Orthodox, Conservative, and Reform. Reform, the most progressive of the three denominations, tends to be the most liberal of all sects of Judaism. It was born in 1842 in the United States by German immigrants, inspired by the French Revolution. Core tenets of Reform Judaism include belief in God, the choice to live life fully, moral commitment to תיקון עולם tikkun olam (repairing the world), belief in egalitarianism, and personal interpretation of the Torah. The American philosophy of Transcendentalism flourished at the same time period that Reform Judaism was created, ultimately resulting in the two sharing a plethora of common values. Transcendentalism is a belief system that acknowledges divinity of nature, inherent goodness in people, and importance of individualism. Any person who lives according to the tenets of Reform Judaism also unintentionally lives a Transcendental life.

The Jewish view on choosing to live your life to the fullest correlates almost identically to Transcendental values. In the Torah, Moses says, “ ‘I call heaven and earth to witness you today: I have put before you life and death, blessing and curse — therefore choose life!’ ” (Deuteronomy 30:19). Heaven and earth are both called to witness by metaphorically observing the actions and decisions people make. A person's surroundings are always aware of the way one chooses to live life. When the Torah mentions “life and death” it does not necessarily imply that a person is choosing between those two extremes. Rather, the person is choosing if they want to live life positively and meaningfully or vise versa. A correlation is shown between life as a blessing and death as a curse. The Torah explicates that life is valuable and everyone should get the most they can out of living. People should grow from their experiences and gain meaning from the outcomes. Henry David Thoreau, a preeminent Transcendentalist, explains that living is dear and he only wants “to live deep and suck out all the marrow of life” (Thoreau 59). Living deeply refers to using life to experience meaning. By finding meaning, people go through transformative and eye-opening discoveries about themselves and the world around them. Thoreau wants to suck out the marrow of life: the necessities. He further explains that all he needs to gain meaning from life is to live basically, and discover deep truth which only resides in the essential facets of life.

Understanding and preserving both physical and human nature are necessary in order to live both a Jewish and Transcendental life. In the Mishnah (part of the Talmud, a book of Jewish law) God creates the Garden of Eden and presents it in front of Adam saying “ ‘See my works, how fine and excellent they are! Now all that I created, for you I created. Think upon this, and do not corrupt and desolate my world; for if you corrupt it, there is no one to set it right after you’ ” (Ecclesiastes Rabbah 7:28). God indicates that he created the natural world for all forms of life to live in. He warns Adam (who symbolizes humanity) not to destroy the Earth, because later generations will be left to repair the mess. Perfection never follows corruption, although restoration is still possible through the work of humanity. When God creates the natural world, he warns humanity to not only preserve trees and plants, but to protect humanity from itself. The concept of repairing the world is a moral duty in Judaism known as תיקון עולם tikkun olam. Similarly, Transcendentalist Ralph Waldo Emerson states “[t]he problem of restoring to the world original and eternal beauty, is solved by the redemption of the soul. The ruin or the blank, that [people] see when [they] look at nature, is in [their] own eye” (Emerson 31). Emerson introduces that the world is in need of restoration. The only way to solve world issues is for individuals to actually go out and make positive change. Emerson means to literally repair the environment from the destruction of humanity, but also to fix and build a world that each individual wants to live in when he states “Build, therefore, your own world” (Emerson).

Egalitarianism is strongly represented in both Reform Judaism and Transcendentalism. Thoreau says that “ ‘[i]t is never too late to give up our prejudices’ ” (Thoreau). He tells that everyone can change their minds at any time. Specifically, during a critical era of slavery, Thoreau advocated for abolitionism: he wrote many times about the horrors of slavery and spoke out against various unfair slave laws. Thoreau reformed and changed the minds of people, while advocating for more equality between different races. Likewise, Reform Judaism is all about making promising change: built from reformed aspects of Jewish holy books and teachings. The sect is called “reform” and not “reformed” because it is constantly changing and evolving. Reform Jews tend to be liberal because the teachings they live by and the experiences they’ve had strongly back egalitarianism. In 1855, a collection of principles called “The Pittsburgh Platform” was created to establish ideals that Reform Jews live by. They “participate in the great task of modern times, to solve, on the basis of justice and righteousness, the problems presented by the contrasts and evils of the present organization of society” (The Pittsburgh Platform). In today’s world, many Reform Jews support immigrants and refugees because they have been in their positions before. Normally, when there are hotseat issues today involving inequality, Reform Jews advocate for all other marginalized groups.

Reform Jews are different than people from all other sects of Judaism because followers can interpret the holy books and teachings however it makes sense to them. Transcendentalists believe that everyone functions best when they are self-reliant and act individually. People who follow either of these ideologies share the common value of individualism. Emerson believes people “can only be reformed by showing [them] a new idea which commands [their] own” (Emerson). People need to have opportunities to be opened up to new ways of thinking so that they can decipher what each new idea means to them. Transcendentalism is fueled by individualism. In a Reform synagogue, there may be a group of 50 people saying the same prayer. That does not they are praying for the exact same things, or that the prayer means the same thing to them as it might mean to another person. For instance, in the prayer G’vurot, congregants have the choice of using either the words “hakol” or “meiteem”, which have different meanings. Reform Judaism is built upon individual autonomy, where people always have the choice to live by their own interpretation of their faith.

The fact that Transcendentalism and Reform Judaism emerged at similar times in history is not coincidental. Followers of both of these schools of thought supported the common cause of abolitionism back in the 19th century; today the ideologies share similar values that support obtaining equality for immigrants. They have always shared commonalities - choosing life, repairing the world, believing in equality, and living as individuals. If 1800s Transcendental writers were alive today, they would be toasting “l’chaim” too.

Works Cited

Emerson, Ralph Waldo. Nature and Other Essays. Dover, 2009. Emerson, Ralph Waldo. Self-Reliance and Other Essays. Dover, 1993.

Herman, Jane. “Blueprints for Green Living.” reformjudaism.org, https://reformjudaism.org/blueprints-green-living. Accessed 11 November 2018.

Riley, Shannon. “Thoreau’s Stance on Abolition.” transcendentalism.tamu.edu, https://transcendentalism.tamu.edu/thoreaus-stance-abolition. Accessed 11 November 2018.

Thoreau, Henry David. Walden; Or, Life In The Woods. Dover, 1995.

“The Pittsburgh Platform.” jewishvirtuallibrary.org, https://www.jewishvirtuallibrary.org/the-pittsburgh-platform. Accessed 11 November 2018.

“The Tenets of Reform Judaism.” jewishvirtuallibrary.org, https://www.jewishvirtuallibrary.org/the-tenets-of-reform-judaism. Accessed 11 November 2018.

Abby Adams is a BBG from Eastern Region: North Carolina Council and loves travelling!

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