Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Post-Denominational Outreach

I recently read Dr. Jonathan Sarna's outreach book, A Time to Every Purpose, and I saw something brilliant there that I have not seen in any other outreach book. Dr. Sarna is a leading scholar of American Jewish history and a professor at Brandeis. This book is written as letters to his daughter but that is clearly just a literary device for letters intended for uncommitted Jews.

The main theme of the book is that the holidays throughout the year raise significant theological and existential issues. As each holiday passes, Dr. Sarna writes a letter that discusses the relevant subjects. While that is interesting, it's not the brilliant part. Neither is the general content, which I found fairly standard, albeit with a few insights here and there. That is to be expected from a beginner's book.

Click here to read moreThe brilliant part is that the book does not proselytize. Yes, an outreach book that doesn't proselytize! At first I found it jarring, maybe even offensive. But then I realized that, as a college professor, he is around young people all the time and he really gets it. He understands what young people today are all about. The entire book consists not of him telling readers what to think, but of him putting the onus on the reader -- study more and make your own decisions. He never tells any of them that they should become Orthodox, although he does recommend becoming more observant so that they understand Jewish life better.

He recognizes that his readers will likely reject authority automatically so instead he encourages people to learn more and reach their own conclusions. What's the worst that can happen? They'll become more knowledgeable, but not Orthodox, Jews? That's pretty much a success story, given his audience. And it is likely that those who study more will realize that they need to become part of the Orthodox community because that is where they will find a critical mass of knowledgeable, observant Jews.

This also helps him tackle some of the difficult theological issues without actually addressing them. He simply says, "Some say this and some say that. Study it yourself and make your own decision." It's brilliant. It pushes off the difficult issues until people are more familiar with the basics and are already sufficiently committed to Judaism to retain a Jewish identity. This is a very different approach to outreach than I am used to, one that is quite intriguing and, at the very least, a good tool to keep in your back pocket.

However, Sarna's tactic does get hard to swallow when he says "Not being a Bible scholar myself..." (p. 3). He isn't, but as the son of a world-famous Bible scholar writing to the granddaughter of one, it comes across as a little disingenuous.

Twitter Delicious Facebook Digg Favorites More