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Mira Sucharov: Toward a Values Declaration

by MIRA SUCHAROV , posted here July 16, 2012

I often hear the term “Jewish values” mentioned but I’m never really sure what it means. Does it refer to aspirations or descriptions? If aspirations, do they derive from Torah or from a universalist perspective of what it means to be a human being? If Jewish values are simply describing how Jewish people think and feel, does it refer to a top-down view of Jews as a culture, or a collective view of how Jewish individuals act, based on the observations of the speaker?

In this post-Passover/pre-Shavuot season, I think it’s worth engaging a widespread conversation on what Jewish values are. To that end, I’m going to try my hand at laying out a first-cut Values Declaration – based on my years of observing, thinking and writing on the topic. In this case, these are aspirational values, not necessarily always descriptive ones. Where we fall short in practice, we should strive to improve.

My hope is that this can serve to guide future discussions across various Jewish communities, particularly as 21st-century communities continue to grapple with themes of pluralism. How do we, as Jews with varying levels of formal observance and different sets of commitments to what it means to be a Jew in Canada, work together to set ethical standards for our community as a whole? My hope is that this will be a draft that people can weigh in on, redraft, rework and wrestle with.

1. Jewish literacy: I think it’s fair to say that a value of our community is ensuring that the next generation of our community is conversant in Jewish history, the Hebrew (if not Yiddish) language, the cycle of the Jewish calendar, Jewish culture (popular and historical) and Jewish prayer. This means that we need to shore up the ability of our institutions to deliver the kind of Jewish knowledge that will sustain a content-rich Jewish identity.

2. Kehilah (community): our many community events and fundraising efforts signal to each other and to our children that shoring up existing institutions and their enhancement of Jewish life is a priority. For me, this means not only supporting them, but working to make them better. I have written previously about my desire to work within my own shul to strengthen practices around inclusion, for example. In economist Albert O. Hirschman’s famous formulation, the question for some may be when to exercise loyalty and voice, and when to use exit as a way of bringing awareness around specific issues.

3. Israel: In many of our community activities, we certainly work to inculcate a connection to Israel. Where I think we could do better is to encourage a more nuanced understanding of Israeli culture, as well as the serious political situation in which Israel finds itself. Some people seem to view connection to Israel as implying that Israeli actions should not be criticized. In my mind, there remains much more to be discussed around this, including the question of how we can be meaningfully engaged if we don’t wrestle, out loud, with the question of Israel in our lives and with the impact of Israel’s actions on others.

4. Derech eretz: When someone acts unkindly, I sometimes hear the action criticized in terms of it not living up to Jewish values. Jewish tradition points to the imperative of derech eretz (literally “the way of the land,” but translated as goodness, kindness, appropriateness, civility). Thinking in terms of our daily effects on others helps us actualize the Torah’s Golden Rule of “love thy neighbor as thyself.” This, of course, should translate into an awareness both of how we treat each other interpersonally, within and across communities, as well as how our community may occasionally deliver messages about other communities. This also means we should continue to be aware of the kinds of messages our community-sponsored speakers deliver about others.

5. Tikkun olam (repairing the world): Where are there wrongs that need to be righted? Who is hungry? Who is lonely? Who is excluded? Who is suffering? What is at risk? Working to build up a sense of community feels hollow to me if we don’t see our actions as being connected both to embracing the stranger in our midst, as well as enacting a grander vision of repairing the tears in the world, including on our planet itself.

There is no doubt much more to be written on the topic. E-mail me at [email protected] with your thoughts (or, as always, write to  [email protected]), and let’s see how we can continue to hone the conversation on Jewish values.

Mira Sucharov is an associate professor of political science at Carleton University. She blogs at A version of this article was originally published in the Ottawa Jewish Bulletin.

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