Author Archives: Rabbi Irwin Kula

Rabbi Irwin Kula

About Rabbi Irwin Kula

Rabbi Irwin Kula is the President of CLAL, the National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership, a leadership training institute, think tank, and resource center. He is also the host of Simple Wisdom.

History And Memory

Provided by CLAL: The National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership, a multi-denominational think tank and resource center.

"My father was a wandering Aramean. He went down to Egypt…the Egyptians dealt harshly with us.…We cried out to the Lord….The Lord freed us by a mighty hand…brought us to this place and gave us this land" (Deuteronomy 26:5-9).

This passage was recited by Israelites when they brought the first fruits to the sanctuary. It is an excellent example of the interplay of ritual and recital in the service of memory. The essentials of the Jewish story are all here in a formula so powerful that the rabbis of the second century used this passage to introduce the discussion of the Exodus in the Passover Haggadah.

In the Haggadah, however, the rabbis omit the verse that describes God bringing the people into the land. It is understandable that the rabbis living with the loss of Temple and sovereignty over the land would want to de-emphasize focus on the land. By omitting the reference to the land and focusing on the Exodus itself, the harsh reality of destruction was mitigated.

This provides us with an insight into the functioning of people’s collective memory. A people needs to ask itself what to remember and what to forget. For any people, certain elements of the past–historical or mythic–become central and are transmitted (remembered) while other elements are forgotten.

At certain junctures in history–crisis, catastrophe, miracle–human groups, whether purposely or passively, fail to transmit what they know out of the past or reach back to recover forgotten elements with which there is a renewed sense of recognition.

In the second century, the rabbis, in response to catastrophe, chose not to transmit the memory of our story as was recited in the Temple liturgy. They actively chose both to remember and forget.

Having experienced unprecedented catastrophe and miracle in our century, it should not surprise us that we as a people are wrestling with which parts of our past to remember and which parts we need to forget. Perhaps we ought to reinsert the verse, "And God brought us to this place and gave us this land!"

Through The Wilderness

The following article is reprinted with permission from CLAL: The National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership.

The Book of Numbers, Bmidbar, describes the Israelites’ 40-year journey through the desert on their way to the Promised Land. Why devote an entire book to the desert experience?

Bmidbar represents an important stage in the journey of the people from slavery to freedom. The wilderness, far beyond its geographic or historic reality, enters the Jewish experience as a central metaphor for understanding who we are and what we must do.

By devoting an entire book to the wilderness experience, the Torah provides an important insight into the real achievement of freedom. Leaving Egypt in a moment of pure triumph is far easier than wrestling with the burdens of establishing a functioning community. Bmidbar shows us a people dealing with the mundane frustrations of gathering food, pitching tents, establishing new rules and customs, as well as defining its leadership.

Despite the problems and murmurings described in Bmidbar, this slave people raises a new generation of freeborn children. Here is a deeper understanding of the Exodus–the maturity of a people meeting the daily challenges of life in freedom with responsibility.

The true goal of the Exodus was to take Egypt out of the Israelites. The experience of the seemingly endless journey transformed a people–crushed, frightened, subservient and dependent — into a people with initiative, self-respect, anger at oppression and even militancy. The Israelites at the Jordan are a very different people from the one that left Egypt. They are ready to fight their own battles. They are a community committed to one another and to the covenant that binds them together.

Bmidbar reminds us that wherever we live, there is a better place, a world more attractive, a promised land, but the way to that land is through the wilderness. There is no way to get there except by joining together and marching day after day.

The Role Of The Tabernacle

Provided by CLAL: The National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership, a multi-denominational think tank and resource center.

This parashah describes the building of the Tabernacle. What is the purpose of the Tabernacle? If the whole earth is filled with God’s presence, if God is accessible from any place, why build one special place?

There are two midrashim that offer contrasting perspectives on the mishkan (Tabernacle). The first teaches, "There once was a king who married a beloved daughter to a foreign prince. Following the wedding, the couple prepared to leave for the prince’s land. The king said to the prince: I cannot bear my daughter leaving, but neither can I keep you here. Do me one favor. In your home prepare a small area for me where I might be with you.

“So God said to Moses, ‘I have given you the Torah. I cannot part with it; neither can I take it from you. Please, wherever Israel goes, let them make me one place where I might be close to you.’" According to this midrash, the mishkan is for God. The mishkan is a place of love, intimacy and deep connection among God, Israel and Torah.

In contrast, another midrash notes that after the Golden Calf, God said, "Since you have allowed evil into your midst, I cannot dwell with you, but neither can I completely abandon you. Therefore, make me one small area where I can dwell in your midst." Here, the mishkan is necessary because the people are sinful. If the community were "perfect," it would not need a mishkan at all!

Each midrash presents a different focus on the mishkan. The former sees it as a sign of God’s love and Israel’s spiritual ascendancy, the latter as an outgrowth of Israel’s failure. The former sees the mishkan as an intrinsically sacred place for lovers, the latter sees it as instrumentally sacred, functioning to make us better people.

Can these midrashim serve as a model for building the modern mishkan? Which role is more consistent with the role of the synagogue in our day?

Political And Religious Power

Provided by CLAL: The National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership, a multi-denominational think tank and resource center.

Moses, who had grown up in Pharaoh’s palace, chances on a horrifying scene of injustice, an Egyptian beating a Hebrew. Moses does not act impulsively, but rather looks about, to see if there is someone else to save the Hebrew slave. Seeing no one, Moses feels compelled to intervene and kills the Egyptian.

Moses Killing an Egyptian

The tradition has difficulties reconciling the image of Moses as the teacher of Torah with Moses as a man of force. This is reflected in the following discussion. One rabbi tells us, “Moses struck the Egyptian with his fist and killed him.” But the other sage explains, “Moses overpowered his enemy by uttering God’s name.”

These two different interpretations reflect a debate with profound contemporary implications: Should the Jew respond to enemies with physical force or rely upon God to save the Jewish people from destruction?

Dependency Upon God

For 1800 years, rabbinic Judaism in the face of exile and political powerlessness developed a rich and creative culture of learning, piety and prayer. Covenantal consciousness was nurtured primarily by a sense of dependency upon God and patient waiting for the “appointed time,” when God would redeem us from the suffering condition of exile. To assume power was to rebel against God–we were, so to speak, to use God’s name.

The political renewal of the Jewish people in this century challenges this understanding. The existence of the State of Israel and the radical shift from political powerlessness to power prevents Judaism from being exclusively described as a culture of learning and prayer. We now must bring covenantal consciousness beyond the circumscribed borders of home and synagogue into the realm of power and politics.

The rabbis cited above saw Moses as either using force or using God’s name. Our challenge is to integrate the two–to be passionately concerned about the moral/covenantal quality of our army and our politics–to develop a sense of covenantal holiness in an unprecedented moment of Jewish power.

Obey God or Question God?

Provided by CLAL: The National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership, a multi-denominational think tank and resource center.

Abraham’s challenge to God regarding the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah and Abraham’s submission to God’s command to sacrifice Isaac provide a profound insight into the nature of the covenant. In the first story, Abraham questions, argues, and convinces God to back down from an extreme position. The radical assumption underlying Abraham’s protest is that God must follow a standard of justice comprehensible to Abraham. This suggests that human judgment over and against God is valid and that the human partner plays an active role in determining what is right and wrong.

Yet the same bold, challenging Abraham demonstrates absolute submission before God’s terrifying command to sacrifice his son, though this surely violates his sense of justice. Only after Abraham has proven he will obey this command is a ram provided in Isaac’s place. This story suggests that there is no alternative to the acceptance of God’s will and that the human role in the covenant is submission.

The Torah’s inclusion of both stories teaches that the Jewish way cannot be reduced to either perspective. By itself, the deeply autonomous thrust of the Sodom and Gomorrah story would lead to a Judaism in which the human conscience would eliminate anything that offended it. God, Torah, the tradition would become synonymous with whatever human beings want. Every person would decide what is right and wrong.

But reducing the Jewish way to the deeply submissive thrust of the Akedah (Binding of Isaac) would lead to a fanaticism in which no act, no matter how repugnant, could be ruled out–a mindless obedience enslaving the human being and destroying his/her dignity.

The genius of the covenantal way is that these two powerful principles, autonomy and heteronomy, are yoked together and held in creative tension. Both challenging and submitting to God and the tradition are authentic covenantal responses to the dilemmas of Jewish life. The covenantal question addressed to each generation and even each person is when to act in which way.