Identifying Our Value Propositions
I was talking to an Orthodox friend who has a very influential position in the Jewish educational world. He was, quite understandably, bemoaning the incidence of intermarriage among the Modern Orthodox. It used to be a stigma, he explained. No one is sitting shiva anymore. In our increasingly tolerant world, it is not the same as it used to be. He, of course, is right. My generation (Orthodox Baby Boomers), largely avoided intermarriage and other life choices not on the derech (Halachic path), in part because of the stigma. The reality today is that we are more tolerant of the life choices people make, and that is a good thing, but at what expense? The loss of our heritage?
The cold hard truth is that avoiding social communal stigma is not enough of a reason to be Torah observant. If we truly are the children of Avraham, then we carry his legacy of chesed, and by that I mean we find the good in all. We are merciful, loving all brothers and sisters of the world, in spite of their life decisions.
The backdrop to this whole conversation is something I’ve been fixated on for about a week. It’s an idea so obvious that it’s largely overlooked. That is the question of what is the value proposition for Modern Orthodoxy?
What do I mean by value proposition, you ask? God gave us rules, so who are we to question God and his rules, right?! I hear that. (Actually, that’s a voice going off in my head). My internal dialogue retorts that not challenging God on this point is precisely the problem. We have free will, and that means we must use it. We must question authority; doing otherwise is to not exercise the very free will we have been given. With apologies to the philosophy majors, that as far as we’re going on this.
“These are the rules” is not a value proposition. Neither is declaring that this is our legacy, and nor should we follow the rules because so many have died al kiddush Hashem (to honor God, as martyrs). Purported propositions, like insulating ourselves from the problems of the world by living differently or needing an intact religious society to maintain a strong State of Israel, lack a logical connection.
As the universe would have it, I happened to come across a talk about millennials by Simon Sinek on YouTube just last week. I then had occasion to revisit his classic piece on “Start with Why“. He uses a concept he calls the “gold circle” to illustrate how leaders inspire. Most leaders operate from the perspective of what we need to do, followed by how we need to do it. Great leaders, Sinek observes, begin with why.
Whether you call it a unique selling point (USP) or a differentiating value proposition, the key take-away here is that people don’t buy what you do, they buy why you are doing it.
Which leads me back to Avraham Avinu — Abraham, the father of our people. What was his value proposition? In the religious world, he is recognized as the most successful leader of all time having been the father of Judaism, Christianity and Islam.
He taught that one could achieve a better life and receive blessings and protection by living a life infused with chesed (loving kindness). That’s the magen (shield, protection) of Avraham we reference three times a day in the amidah prayer. We should not be afraid to say this; our life and civilization as we know it depends on this.
David Strulowitz, WHP Alum (Chicago 06) is a partner in a wealth management and planning firm and a tax attorney. He has written extensively on financial, estate and tax planning matters and is co-author of the book The Intelligent Guide to Your Financial Future (2005). He is co-chairman of the building campaign for the Ida Crown Jewish Academy, a co-educational modern Orthodox Jewish High School. He also leads a weekly Jewish spirituality study group and has lectured extensively on Jewish spirituality topics at synagogues of various denominations and through the Chicago-based Dawn Schuman Institute. He is a Trustee of the Ark, an organization committed to providing free social and medical services to help distressed members of our Chicagoland community. David can be reached at email@example.com.