One of the starkest differences between observant Jewish organizations and non-observant ones is what they focus on as the important factors in their Jewishness. Orthodox organizations tend to invoke Torah and important Jewish rituals while non-observant organizations use more nebulous feel-good slogans revolving around tzedakah or tikun olam(is there a more misused term in Judaism?). As this article notes:
“Fear O Israel, the Lord is our God, the Lord is One.”
No, it's not a typo. The Shema, which starts “Hear O Israel,” is the central credo of the Jewish people. It states that there is only one God -- and as a result, only one set of divinely authored ethics and imperatives.
According to the Torah, the Jews were given the daunting task of bringing God-based universal ethics to the world. However, given the number of Jews who are uncomfortable with such a mandate and with religious imperatives in general, I now worry that our prayer could read “Fear O Israel.”
I have this worry because a great number of non-Orthodox Jews -- I am not Orthodox -- are afraid to mention the core concepts of our remarkable religion. We fear that by talking too much or even about any Judaism, even among ourselves, we’ll sound too Christian, too much like our religious oppressors of centuries past, or like Orthodox Jews.
I’ve collected the mission statements of the largest 17 Jewish federations in North America, and not one mentions “God,” “Torah” or “Judaism.” Nor do the mission statements of the B’nai B’rith Youth Organization, Hillel, the National Council of Jewish Women, The Wexner Heritage Foundation, the American Jewish Committee, the Anti-Defamation League, Hadassah and the Jewish National Fund. Of all the organizations I looked into, only United Jewish Communities mentions but one of the three words, Torah, in its mission statement.
Some surely will be quick to say that the above organizations were not created to convey religious concepts. That is precisely my point: How can we say these organizations are Jewish and at the same time don’t need to mention God, Torah or Judaism?
They are not afraid to use other religious terms -- many of them mention “tzedakah” (charity), “klal yisroel” (Jewish peoplehood) and “tikkun olam” (repair the world). Why are those words appropriate and not the others I’ve mentioned?
Many Jewish organizations apparently feel the need to embrace terms that are universal in nature and avoid terms that are more particularistic. Tzedakah, tikkun olam and klal yisroel are considered universal and inclusive terms.
It's easy to see why more specific religious references are ignored. With all the fractures in the Jewish nation today, there is very little that unites all Jews across the religious spectrum. In fact, there's only one thing: a rejection of JC as the saviour of mankind and of Mohammed as an authentic prophet. Other than that, there is little that Eric Yoffe, the head of the Reformers, and the Neturei Karta have in common.
As a result, secular Jewish organizations have to be careful. Mention Torah and you'll get people who think it's a archaic document feeling excluded. Mention God and the atheists will freak out. Charity? Can't argue with that. And as I noted, tikun olam is so misused and twisted that only frum people who know what it actually means get offended, and who cares about offending us?
The Jews are a nation by virtue of the Torah. Any Jewish group which strays from that principle not only sees a precipitous drop in its level of observance but also in all the feel-good activities that secular groups would normally see as positive behaviours. There's no arguing, for example, about who gives more charity per capita: Orthodox Jews give far more than the non-religious.
Catering to a lowest common denominator doesn't inspire people or make them feel more committed. It validates their lack of enthusaism by telling them it's just fine. It's not what will bring a strong future to our people.