11/05/2013 03:38 pm ET Updated Jan 23, 2014

Why Study an Ancient Religion?

It is easy, in the time we live, to harbor the misguided feeling that anything that has not occurred in the last 24 (or maybe 48) hours is nearly irrelevant. Constantly craving the new, we are all pulled by an invisible string to answer, in the most satisfying way, 'what have you done lately?' Keeping me balanced, in large part, is a millennia-old religion.

Unlike the Facebook and Twitter generation, Judaism exhibits the opposite tendency. If something was not said or thought about two thousand years ago or more, it is probably a blip best ignored. Understandably, many growing up as free and equal Jewish citizens of some Western country or other worry that to even consider such a worldview means forgetting about all of the issues most pressing to them today. They could not be more wrong.

Not only was Kohelet (Ecclesiastes) right that "there is nothing new under the sun," (1:9) but most, if not all, of the pressing issues of our day have in fact been the focus of discussion somewhere in the Jewish canon. This is because countless generations of Jews have poured themselves into the Jewish canon, leaving behind a living religious tradition for the next generation to pour their distinctive worries and fears into. How can there be nothing new under the sun, and at the same time be enough uniqueness for every generation to produce new outlooks on ancient wisdom?

In answer, consider just the most obvious examples from the 20th century: the Holocaust and the creation of the State of Israel. While Jews have experienced the tragic lows and ecstatic highs that these two events symbolize, it is also true that Jews have not had to contend with the bitter annihilation of nearly a third of our global population or the supreme risks of political sovereignty for nearly two thousands years. Delving into the sources will, however, uncover a panoply of responses to both the destruction of the Temple and the sovereignty that first century Jews had over a similarly small plot of land in the Middle East. In other words, we have experienced it all before, but the people experiencing these events (namely, us) are different in outlook than our forebears.

Turning from the global to the local, I can think of no better example for how Judaism can provide a richness of meaning in a world so lacking it than by viewing Shabbat as a countermeasure to the technology-soaked lives we lead. The idea of unplugging and spending face-to-face time (not FaceTime) with other people, where we are all fully present, and the screens are stored away, seems like a solution to a uniquely 21st century problem. And yet it is one of the oldest defining traits of Judaism.

As a living religion, Judaism needs the breath of fresh air that each new student and teacher brings to it. It is only by abandoning Judaism that it stands to become a relic to be studied as history. I believe that there is much left to learn from Judaism, and to infuse into the Judaism of the future. As Franz Rosensweig imagined it, a multifaceted Judaism is the center, and our lives, in all of their complexity, are the periphery.

"Seen from the periphery, the centre does not appear invariably the same. In fact, the centre of the circle looks different from each point of the periphery. There are many ways that lead from the outside in."

We must maintain an active dialogue between the sources of our tradition and the world that we live in. The stronger those lines of communication, the more likely that the Judaism we live will appear to be a valuable way to lead one's life today, rather than a relic of a forgotten past.

I study Judaism for just that reason, hoping that I can gain more insight into how to lead a good life, drawing on the wisdom of countless Jewish thinkers in their own struggle to do the same.