(And finally, continued from here, the rest of my thoughts about that Shabbat talk from a week and a half ago.)
The speaker's conclusion: These two areas, education and outreach, must become a priority if liberal Judaism (meaning, Conservative, Reform, Reconstructionist, and all other non-Orthodox streams) is to flourish. If we fail at these tasks, we'll disappear. I agree, to an extent. Yes, Hebrew literacy is necessary. But learning for its own sake won't keep us alive; for that, we need parents and communities to teach and model a love of Judaism. Many liberal families do this very, very well, even if their kids don't learn Talmud; conversely, many Orthodox kids are crushed by the weight of study and traditions that leave no room for sunlight or exploring one's own individuality. No single approach is without its problems.
Still, suggested the rabbi, whether Jewish knowledge proves helpful later in life, or you discover you hate it, you can't rebel against if you don't first know it. And the ability to rebel is a good thing—better than complacency based on ignorance. True, but this is a risky approach. Some (like me) become so alienated by having Jewish education forced down their throats by rote that they stay away for decades. Perhaps I would have felt differently if my parents had been religiously enthused—but they were disillusioned as well, so we went through the motions of observance without any passion. Identifying with a religion that none of my role models could get excited about made me feel like a hypocrite, and I know I'm not the only one with this problem. Yes, in the non-Orthodox world these days there are new independent minyanim and vibrant communities (like my synagogue) to re-kindle that excitement—but we're still a minority.
This is not to say that non-Orthodox men and women don't live great Jewish lives through mitzvot, tikkun olam, etc., but we tend not to do so out of a sense of religious obligation. Which led to the speaker's other main point. For the Orthodox, mitzvot are a matter of requirement. The rest of us, he postulated, tend to see Judaism as a choice. We identify more strongly with the greater community than with the smaller subset of our religious group. We're afraid we'll lose touch with the world if, for example, we avoid the computer on Shabbat. We choose to follow the rules that are relevant to our own lives.
I have mixed feelings about this point, too. Judaism is a religion of interpretation and balance. I feel obligated to follow some of the rules, but also to respect my role as a person living in the the world today. Lekh lekha, "go to yourself," can also mean "go to the truest part of yourself." I am a woman of the 21st century; to follow halakha without taking that into consideration is also a kind of disrespect of myself and by extension, of God, in Whose image I'm created. That said, I do feel this tension—it's hard to figure out where choice ends and obligation begins. The liberal Jewish community needs to discover a better way to do that dance or else we'll continue to confuse and alienate those who try to join us.