Earlier this month in The New York Times, Reza Aslan continued an ongoing argument against Bill Maher’s blanket condemnation of Islam, and also criticized those who insist that Muslim extremists are simply practicing Islam wrong. His op-ed says we need to recognize the complexity of any religion’s relationship with the good or bad behavior of its adherents.
He then goes a step further, saying, “It is a fallacy to believe that people of faith derive their values primarily from their Scriptures. The opposite is true. People of faith insert their values into their Scriptures, reading them through the lens of their own cultural, ethnic, nationalistic and even political perspectives.”
When I lead Torah study weekly at Temple Beth Emeth in Brooklyn, NY, I teach that our Torah remains vital and relevant because we bring our own experiences and ideas to it, combining the text with our lives to find new ways to think about both. While I think Aslan might be overstating his case a bit, it is quite true that interpretations of our sacred texts evolve with the times, as do our religious practice and our sense of which passages speak most to us, based on the perspectives we bring to the text. It has always been so.
At our Torah study, then, more than once, this question has arisen: How do we know that we’re not using the Torah, or the Bible, to just tell us what we want to hear? To put a finer point on it, how do we know that we’re not using the Torah simply to justify our own bad behavior?
It’s a tough question. One classic example of the Bible being used to support injustice is when pre-Civil War slaveholders used it to justify slavery. Today we find slavery abhorrent (though it continues to exist), and recognize that it is wrong even though the Christian and Jewish Bibles, as well as the Quran, are uncritical of it. A different, current example is the use of the Bible, usually Leviticus 18:22, to condemn homosexuality. I and many others believe this is using the Bible to support injustice. (A fascinating alternate interpretation of that verse is in the article “Pit`hu Li Sha`arei Tzedeq” by Rabbi David Greenstein.)
In Pirkei Avot, we read that Ben Bag-Bag said of the Torah, “Turn it and turn it again, for everything is in it.” That means we can find everything in there—good and evil, and justification for both.
So how do we know that we aren’t supporting injustice when we use the Torah to help us make choices? My answer is that we might not always be able to be sure, but we have to do the best we can. Here’s how to do that: Study the Torah, study the Bible, study whatever your sacred scriptures are, and study them some more. Do it with other people. Study what people before us have thought about it. Bring your own best sense of right and wrong. Pay attention to when you’re supporting something that causes harm to people—that’s a sign of injustice. Wrestle with the text and argue about it, and listen to what others think. Don’t expect black and white answers, and don’t settle for them. Don’t be so sure you’re right. Expect it to be hard.
And have faith. Faith in ourselves, in our study companions, and in our scriptures, faith that we’ll find a way for ourselves, and that we can bring more good into the world.
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Every year, I do my best to engage with the process of teshuvah (repentance) during the High Holidays. A few weeks ago, I made resolutions, asked for and received forgiveness, cast away my sins, felt spiritually renewed…and then the craziness of the year began, as it does each year: right now, my partner and I are settling into our new apartment and unpacking boxes. I am starting new jobs while getting acquainted with a new city. Despite my best intentions, I’ve lost sight of the higher self with whom I am trying to align. Like many of us, I am overwhelmed with the business of life at this time of year.
At the end of this week, we enter the month of Marcheshvan, most notable for its lack of holidays. And last week, at the end of Sukkot, Jewish communities around the world began to add the words to the Amidah that we will say until Passover: mashiv ha’ruach u’morid ha’gashem (“the One who causes the winds to blow and the rains to fall”).
Why do we say this as we enter Marcheshvan?
According to the 12th century commentator, Rashi (in his comment on Lev 25:21) the ancient Israelites would “sow…in Marcheshvan, and reap in Nisan.” Planting seeds at this time could be precarious: Marcheshvan’s ancient name, Bul, suggests it was capable of bringing both floods, and raindrops (from Mar-). The story of Noah’s flood that we read this week expresses our anxiety that the small and fragile seeds we plant, whether physical or spiritual, will be washed away by disaster. In our own lives, the intentions we sow need a special kind of nourishment.
A Hasidic teaching from the Alter Rebbe explains that water, the essential ingredient for life, is an expression of Divine love. Rain is life-giving, and the slow downpour of water sustains the world – whereas a flood of water overwhelms us and is destructive. After the holiday season and the intimate moments with God it hopefully brought, we ready ourselves for the long period until Hannukah by praying that God hold back the flood, showering us instead with the divine “rain” we need in order to continue to nourish the seeds of the highest intentions that we sowed during the High Holidays.
As we emerge from the aseret y’mei ha’t’shuvah (“the 10 days of repentance”), we pray for the capacity to integrate the insights we received during this time into the everyday. During the onslaught of the ordinary, it is all too easy to succumb to old habits. But as we enter Marcheshvan we are invited to consider how to more mindfully re-enter the day-to-day business of our own lives. This month gives us the space we need to bring the resolutions we made during the “high” of these holidays into our everyday functioning. And during this time, along with our ancestors, we ask for the blessing of steady rains to nourish the seeds we have planted.
Whether it is recommitting to a regular spiritual practice, to deepening our learning, or to nourishing our creativity, only we know what nourishment and love will help the seeds of our intentions break open and take root in the ground of our daily lives. Through careful tending, when the time arrives to stop praying for rain at the beginning of Passover, we will be able to reap the fruits of our labor and truly taste our freedom.
“Why do bad things happen to good people” is the most fundamental question of theology. Just about everyone has given it some thought in his lifetime. It’s a simple question, and its outlines are more or less like this: If God is indeed omniscient (all-knowing) and omnipotent (all-powerful), and if He is just and righteous as well, why does He permit upright and honest individuals to suffer. It would seem to be a contradiction in terms, and this apparent contradiction has brought many to the brink of despair … and beyond.
The issue actually presents itself at the very outset of the Torah, which we are just beginning to read anew this Shabbat. We are told that two sons are born to Adam and Eve. One of them, whose name is Abel, is presented as a fine, God-fearing man, while God is extremely displeased with his brother Cain and as a result the latter becomes angry and sullen. To make a long story short, Cain ends up killing his brother with no apparent provocation.
Why did God let him do it? The Torah says explicitly that God knew something malevolent was brewing. Immediately before the murder, God says to Cain “sin crouches at the door.” So God is right there at the scene of the crime, and he is totally aware of what is going on. Yet He deliberately refrains from stepping in to prevent the homicide from taking place!
Let’s backtrack for a moment. Put aside the question of why. The fact is that God did not save Abel from his brother’s onslaught. The Torah is telling us straight out that God does not see His role as one of intervening to prevent crime or to protect the righteous. If we use the argument of “why do bad things happen to good people” as a basis to challenge religious faith, we are seriously mistaken, for it turns out that “bad things happen to good people” is actually a fundamental of biblical religion! To put it differently, this tragic story of fratricide is right here at the beginning of the Torah to nip in the bud any potential misunderstanding: God is right here, but He is not here to stop us from harming each other.
And why not? – Well, right after God says to Cain that “sin crouches at the door,” He adds that “it endeavors to gain mastery over you, but you may yet overcome it.” There is a mighty struggle going on with us, and apparently, allowing this struggle to run its course is more important to God than ensuring that human events always turn out justly. This struggle is the source of evil – when we fail to overcome temptation – it is also the very source of all good. It is of the very essence of the meaning of being human. God created us to grapple with the evil inclination and to choose good, and that entails the possibility of us choosing evil. We are given free will to make bad decisions, and it is exactly that option that makes good decisions good. If God were to prevent all evil – thereby stymieing free will – good would lose all meaning. Life would be emptied of its primary significance.
God has created an unredeemed world, and it is for us to redeem. He has put within us an imperfect character and it is for us to perfect. God will not do it for us. That would fly in the face of the entire Divine plan. It is man’s job.
So when bad things happen to good people, don’t ask “where was God?” God was most certainly there. The question to be asked is rather, “where was man?” God was there, providing us with the opportunity to better ourselves through choosing good. It was one of us who dropped the ball.
Just before Sukkot began, news came out of a prominent Conservative rabbi who came out to his congregation as gay. His dignified letter to his community spread far beyond: to the wider Jewish community, and even to the mainstream press. The responses varied—some musing on the historicity of such announcements, some dwelling on the difficulty and complexity of his situation—and a few very ugly attacks (I decided not to link to any of them—they can be found if you wish to search for them).
This past week, with the advent of Sukkot, we turn away from dwelling solely on what we have done wrong, and hope that our amends have been accepted. Although we won’t know until Hoshana Rabbah (at the end of Sukkot) whether our apologies have been accepted, we still sit in joy in our sukkot. We invite in the ushpizin—the kabbalistic archetypes of Jewish values of chesed (loving kindness), gevurah (power), tiferet (beauty), nezah (endurance), hod (glory), yesod (foundation), and malchut (majesty), symbolized by various Jewish ancestors who embodied those traits.
The very first of those—Abraham and Sarah—represent chesed, and we are reminded of the midrash of their tent, which stood open on four sides, so that all would feel welcome. We think of the midrash about the four minim—the myrtle, the willow, the palm and the etrog (citron), which we bind and hold together on sukkot because every part of the Jewish community is necessary for any of us to achieve redemption.
We still have not fully achieved that divine trait of chesed in the Jewish community. We have not yet fully been able to welcome all—our tent is not yet open on four sides – but we are getting there, slowly. This past year has seen a seismic shift in American attitudes -and laws- towards marriage equality, and the Jewish community has been a part of that. It’s a small step towards a more comprehensive need to accept one another, not just in marriage, but that there should be no one who fears for their job if they come out—regardless of what profession they are in; no one should fear to be who they are, ever.
The responses that we have seen last week show how far we have to go, and how much work is yet to do, but there is also hope. We are rolling up our sleeves to roll up the sides of our tent. We sit in our fragile huts , looking up at the stars.
I recently had the privilege of serving on a Beit Din (Rabbinic Court) for an individual who was converting to Judaism. It was, as I have found all prior instances, a powerful and deeply moving experience. Listening to this individual explain his Jewish journey and the reasons he wanted to convert nearly moved me to tears. His story affirmed, for me, all the spiritual and social good Judaism can provide at its best. As his face beamed with pride as he emerged from the mikveh, I knew that he had made a decision that would bring him immense meaning and joy.
But there was one aspect of my conversation with the individual that troubled me. Part of the Beit Din process involves asking the conversion candidate a variety of questions, both about his past and his present. While he answered most questions capably and with passion, there was one question I asked him for which he lacked much of an answer: “who is God to you?” I was curious to learn more about his theology and wanted to know what metaphor of God he most resonated with. Not only was he unable to verbalize anything concrete, but he also seemed to suggest that this hadn’t been a point of emphasis in his conversion course. I am both not surprised and deeply disappointed.
The Jewish community has just emerged from our annual crash course in theology. It is impossible to read the High Holy Days Mahzor and not think about God. The primary metaphor of Rosh Hashanah is of God as sovereign sitting in judgment over our deeds from the past year, while the primary metaphor of Yom Kippur is of us asking God to exercise mercy and restraint in judging us. Perhaps the fundamental challenge I face in leading High Holy Days services is both offering the metaphor of God in judgment, for those with whom it resonates, and critiquing that metaphor, for those with whom it is deeply alienating. (Full disclosure: as a process theologian, I reject both metaphors and prefer a partnership model.) I spend a good deal of my English speaking roles during the service explaining the liturgy and offering alternative ways to understand the liturgy that speak to different views of God.
But regardless of which approach of God one embraces, I think it is fundamental that one embrace (even temporarily) a view. To ignore theology, on the High Holy Days, dilutes (though does not eliminate) the efficacy of our experience. If God is irrelevant, then the only reasons to come to services on the High Holy Days are: 1) cultural/social (“because that’s what Jews do on the High Holy Days”) or 2) purely personal (i.e. a self-improvement contemplative practice). oth of these goals are worthwhile in and of themselves, but the process is incomplete without God. That’s why I am saddened when I read posts that take God out of the High Holy Days, and why I cannot be a Rabbi In Favor Of Atheism. Grappling with God (along with Torah and Israel) is an essential component of what makes us Jews; we cannot abdicate this struggle. To be clear, there is no single approach to understanding God that I am advocating; only that one commit oneself to having a view about who or what God is to them and letting that view inform the way he or she engages with the world around us.
So I challenged the conversion candidate to keep thinking about God. I gave him a few different metaphors for God to consider and urged him to keep thinking about it, to keep struggling with trying to articulate who or what God is for him. I advised him that this journey never really ends, and that he might find himself holding radically different views as his life circumstances change. And I encouraged him that the struggle is worth it and will add richness and depth to his new Jewish identity.
I wasn’t at The People’s Climate March in New York on Sunday. I wanted to be, but I was, instead, writing a sermon for the holidays about… you guessed it…. the woeful state of the environment.
And thinking… about the Garden of Eden, when Adam and Eve took things into their own hands— literally and figuratively. And the more I ponder it, the less I think the story has anything much to do with fruit (yes, I know it wasn’t an apple), or a serpent, or temptation, or Adam’s and Eve’s innocence of foolishness. Nor the idea that they wanted to be god-like. Quite the contrary.
I think it’s about their deciding that they were just fine without listening to or being grateful to God, thank you very much. They asserted their independence—but not because they had to evolve emotionally so we wouldn’t be stuck forever in the garden (to me, a pretty scary thought, since I tend to picture the glassy-eyed beings from H. G. Well’s The Time Machine). But because they decided that they knew better. So they were unceremoniously booted out of paradise, and ever since, we have been abusing the bounty and blessings of what once was perfectly balanced creation. So yes, perhaps the sins of the fathers are passed down to the thousandth generation.
We have gloried (in pride? or in shame?) in our efforts to make the most of the consequences of the expulsion. We thrill at the results of our labors (which were, as you will recall, punishment for the sin in the Garden).
Now, as the unhappy fruits of our self-serving labors are ripening fast, the stakes are higher than ever. And we, as a nation, like Adam and Eve, when they were found out… are hiding and making excuses. And we turn our faces away from all who suffer because of our behavior. Not just the endangered wild plants and animals—but all life all over the world—and for all who are yet to be born.
And all because we, the created, have decided that we know better than our Creator.
We’re choking on that “apple” still.
And now, on Rosh Hashanah, which our sages tell us is the day of the creation of humankind, what do we say again and again? “Hashiveinu Adonai, elecha, v’nashuvah, chadesh yameinu k’kedem” —“Return us to you, Adonai, and we will return, renew our days as in days of old.”
Perhaps this year—and maybe always—we can read his verse as a call to return to the essential teaching of the Garden. To remember that we need to regain humility and stand in awe of our Creator and all creation. That everything we have is a blessing and a gift and that we are obligated to care for and sustain it. In this way, as partners with our Creator, we can renew all creation as in days of old—for ourselves and all living things—l’olam va’ed—for all time.
As we cross from 5774 to 5775, the Akeida (the Binding of Isaac, which is traditionally read on Rosh Hashanah) tells us to look both ways so we can perceive the fullness of our reality.
As he looked up, Abraham saw the place from afar (Genesis 22:4)—three days before, God commanded Abraham to offer his son as a burnt offering on a mountain. Even though he is still far away, the moment Abraham sees the mountain he begins to anticipate his grief. He doesn’t raise his eyes again for a long time.
We all know what this feels like. This past summer, many of us stopped looking up as well. We “saw from afar” news of rockets falling on Israel and on Gaza, the murder of another black child—this time in Ferguson—the Ebola outbreak in Nigeria, Robin Williams’ suicide, and the spreading threat of ISIS. We were flooded with images of beheadings, pleas from helpless parents for the release of their captive children.
And to avoid the pain, we learned to look down. And in looking down, we missed everything else.
Did you hear – just this month – about teachers at an elementary school in Cudahy California, who got together to donate 154 sick days to a Carol Clark, a sixth grade teacher who was diagnosed with breast cancer? Or about the zoo in Victoria that released five endangered species, including Tasmanian devils, back into the wild after their populations grew back to a healthy size? Or about the UN report that the ozone layer is recovering?
As Abraham looked up, he saw a ram (Genesis 22:13)—in Rashi’s commentary on the Akeidah, he quotes a midrash that the ayil, the ram, is one of the ten things in existence before the creation of the world. According to this midrash, the ram was always there and Abraham just never saw it. With his eyes cast to the ground, Abraham has forgotten something central about the very nature of the world around him.
And with his gaze lowered, Abraham nearly kills his son Isaac (and some say, the news of what Abraham has gone off to do actually kills Sarah). In the moment he raises the knife above his head, Abraham has come to imagine that nothing else is possible. But when he lifts his eyes, he sees a new possibility, a new way of being in the world.
Like Abraham, we learn to expect disappointment and loss, rather than to notice the unexpected wonders that surround us. In order to protect ourselves, we learn to lower our gaze. We get into the habit of looking down at the brokenness and shadows in our world, jobs and relationships. And like Abraham, we cannot perceive reality until we start to look up and see that something else is possible. The Akeida comes to us this year to teach us to look both ways before crossing.
How do we do this?
Before bed each night, my partner and I share with each other five things that we are grateful for. Some people keep a gratitude journal. There’s even a Facebook meme going around of sharing what you’re grateful for, and tagging other people to do the same. There are so many ways to strengthen our instinct to look up, and get better at noticing what is going right.
On Rosh Hashanah, we celebrate yom harat ha’olam, the birth and renewal of our world. As we cross into 5775, we aren’t merely surviving anymore. We aren’t just trying to hold back the knife, or protect ourselves from what is going wrong. We can and must work on flourishing—lifting our eyes to find a saving ram, connecting to the nourishment of our food, feeling the love of an old friend.
Before you cross into the new year, take on a practice that will help you break the habit of just looking down, and help you to look up and see what is good in this world.
Nine months ago I opened the front door of my apartment in Alon Shvut and took a 20-minute walk that began to change my life. My wife asked me to reconsider—it might be dangerous, she said—but I went anyway. My heart beat just a little bit faster than usual as I walked through the Arab fields and vineyards that surround my home in the Judean Hills.
Just a few days earlier I had sat in my living room with a Protestant pastor from the US who had come to the Holy Land in order to meet Palestinians, meet Israeli settlers, and then introduce them to each other. He listened to my story of biblical Zionism and of passionate connection to the rebuilding of Jewish life in the biblical heartland. He heard of my identification with our forefather Abraham, with Isaac and Jacob and with the whole panorama of Jewish history—and then he invited me to a little gathering on a Palestinian farm plot at where Palestinians and Israeli settlers might be able to begin to get to know each other.
Never before had I met a Palestinian as an equal, never before had I socialized with one or broken bread with one. I knew nothing about them. We live so close to each other, and yet we are so far apart.
For us the Palestinians are the consummate other. The other that you ignore, that you never see. The other that you would never give a ride to, the other that you would never invite into your home. The other from whom you are completely distant, the other of whom you are thoroughly suspicious.
For 3 hours or more I chatted with them and ate with them. I looked into their faces from up close, and saw—despite my prejudices—human faces. And I heard stories that were so different from my stories, stories that created strange unfamiliar narratives from the same building blocks as my own narrative, but which I could not reject out of hand. The stories I heard—of deep connection to the land, of exile, of suffering, of humiliation, of loved one lost in the conflict—were authentic and they were real. Never before had I heard such stories. And they affected me deeply.
One Palestinian man—who turned out to be a very close neighbor, except that a very high chain link fence separates between our homes—told me of the fear evoked in the hearts of his children when they saw a settler with a big kipa and long beard like mine. I didn’t get it, until he explained that the kipa and beard were often accompanied by a rifle. And then I began to understand. I blurted out to him, “You say that you are afraid of us? No, we are afraid of you!”
As it began to get dark and there were about 25 or 30 of us left, we sat around in a circle and heard the life story of Ali Abu Awwad, former militant turned nonviolent peace activist. He spoke of nocturnal raids by the Israeli military, of rights denied, of prison. And I knew it was true. I had suppressed my memories of participating in those raids and guarding those prisoners decades ago as a young soldier—and it all came back to me, flooding my consciousness.
Ali’s reality made its way into my heart … and I will never be the same. His truth has not made mine any less true, rather it has shown my truth to be only part of the complex web of the reality in which we live. My life has become so much more complicated as I hold within my consciousness two conflicting truths that are both valid. Loose ends are dangling within me. I have become much more fragmented yet much more whole. As I embrace more and more partial truths, my horizons expand in the direction of the Infinite One, within Whom all truths find their proper place.
These days leading up to Rosh Hashanah are days of teshuva—soul searching and penitence. May my teshuva this year—the most intense and the most paradigm-shattering I have ever experienced—be acceptable before God.
Postscript – The events described above gave birth to Roots/Shorashim/Judur – The Israeli Palestinian Initiative for Grassroots Understanding, Nonviolence and Transformation. For more information, go to www.friendsofroots.net
I always forget, in between trips, how stunningly beautiful Israel is. When I return, it is like opening a favorite book, one which I’ve read many times, but always return to, looking for my favorite characters, the details of the scenery, the magical, incredible, plot that is its history, the opportunity to feel the Divine in a place, and see it, face-to-face.
As I write this, I am flying home from Israel, and I can’t help but reflect on how this trip has been different for me than previous time spent here. This time, I was here to help staff the Americans for Peace Now study tour. I had offered to my friend and chevruta (study partner), who had made aliyah some years ago, to accompany us on the day that we went to Hebron – you can see what he wrote here. His words reflect those of many people who accompanied us: it is a powerful, and powerfully disturbing, part of our trip.
As one walks down the eerily deserted Shuhada street, formerly a central artery of the city and a road on which only Jews are now permitted for nearly all its length, one sees hundreds of shuttered shops, homes belonging to Palestinians that they cannot enter except by hopping from rooftops, soldiers protecting the 700 settlers in the midst of a city of 250,000 Palestinians. Perhaps the lingering power of the day comes from the opportunity to meet with Bayit Yehudi’s MK Orit Struck, whose defense of this arrangement seems strangely out of tune for a religious person. Her political goals of continuing to annex Palestinian land, her disinterest in the difficulties and pain that this causes Palestinians, and her long-term hope for a religious government are difficult to reconcile with the Judaism that I love for its attendance to justice. Perhaps it is the realization that Hebron is not the only place that this happens: it is simply the place where –if one chooses to go and see it, which most would rather not, and do not – it is the most visible, it is the most shocking.
In last week’s Torah portion, Ki Tavo, we read (Dvarim 27: 17), “Cursed be he who moves his neighbor’s boundary.”
Although this oath (which appears as a mitzvah -commandment- first, not long ago in chapter 19), usually referred to as Hasagat gvul, was expanded by the rabbis to refer to any kind of economic competition, its simple meaning of stealing land by stealthily rearranging the way the borders of the land are marked, as Rashi points out, not one sin, but two. It is, first, a way that the powerful exploit those with less power who cannot defend themselves, but it is also a sneaky sort of sin, something one does “under cover of night,” while “no one is watching,” but which in reality also has to be tacitly allowed by the community in which it happens.
But it shouldn’t be this way. This week’s Torah portion reminds us (Dvarim 29:28), “The hidden things belong to God, but the revealed things apply to us and to our children forever….” Rashi comments that this means that those who do wrong in secret will be punished by God, but when the community knows about it, it is up to us to police it and we are accountable.
Whether in Tel Aviv or Haifa or Jerusalem, everywhere you look, you can see innovation and beauty and creativity. Israel is a developing society, and one which can give so much to the world. But it also suffers from a small group of extremists who are pushing the government to act in ways that are detrimental to its own health.
The opening verses of this week’s Torah portion (Dvarim 29: 9-11) states, “Today you all stand before (lifnei) God …all of Israel …to enter into a covenant with God…” The Kedushat Levi (Rabbi Levi Yitzchak of Berditchev) connects the use of the word “lifnei” (“before”) in our Torah portion to the use of the word “panim” (“face”) referring to a discussion in the Talmud (Rosh Hashana 16a) of the prayer service for Rosh Hashana, the Jewish new year, which we will celebrate in fewer than two weeks. He explains that the term “panim” refers to when we are in tune with God – that panim means we turn our faces toward right action, and in turn God turns Her face toward us – as opposed to God looking away from us when She is displeased with our actions.
Rosh Hashanah, aside from being the new year, is also a holiday of judgment: it is the day on which the nations – including Israel- come before God to be judged. So, says the Kedushat Levi, our goal for Rosh Hashanah, should be that we reestablish ourselves in a face-to-face relationship with God, to do right so that the Divine “face” will turn towards us.
I don’t know what the answer is, but it is clear that the ongoing settlement project, in Hebron and elsewhere, is one that is turns us away from God’s face. Aside from the role it plays in preventing a two-state solution, it is, indisputably, a violation of our own laws and ethics. I pray that this new year, we will find a way to create honest fences, and be good neighbors.
In the great story of humanity there has always been the forces that compel us to assimilate amongst each other and those that urge us to maintain our differences. When we collapse the contours that are the map of the human family into one straight path our journey becomes simple and uncomplicated. Yet, what do we give up when we venture down the path of assimilation?
When we turn our attention to the Jewish community we find these polarizing forces very much at work. This dilemma has presented itself at numerous junctures in history. Whenever the larger environment was hospitable to Jews, the tension between blending in and maintaining community surfaced.
I would argue that the answer to this question lies between the extremes. In the 19th century European Jewry gave rise to multiple approaches to emancipation. One approach asserted that with a more tolerant society the time has come to withdraw to the most particularistic parts of our selves.
Alternatively, in the first platform of the Reform movement composed in 1885, it was declared: “We recognize in the Mosaic legislation a system of training the Jewish people… and today we accept as binding only its moral laws… but reject all such as are not adapted to the views and habits of modern civilization.” Similarly, the early members of Reform hopefully declared that their era was “the modern era of universal culture of heart and intellect.”
On one hand, we encounter the forces that would have us all live in complete isolation from the world and on the other hand a movement whose foundation is an embrace of assimilation. Like in so many instances the solution rests in grappling with the liminal space in between the parts.
The answer cannot be assimilation. The four millennia-long journey of the Jewish people has produced ideas worth perpetuating along with a people that can carry forward those ideas. Jews are not a people of monuments but rather a people of ideas. Our greatest contribution to the progressive development of humanity does not exist in architecture but in the shaping of the moral intellect. The very beginning of our people finds itself in a call to “go forth.” The map of Jewish experience is shaped by experiences of exile and return, of reaching the promised land only to find ourselves shortly thereafter sitting by the waters of Babylon.
The birthright of the Jewish people is the very ability to live with ideas, to grapple with ideas, to test and retest the contours of moral reasoning. It is the challenge to “go forth” and to discover a touch of the Divine in the spaces we live in and the bodies we exist within.
Yet, this need to perpetuate and grow the legacy must be counter-balanced with engagement. No community exists absent other communities. What are we afraid of? Are we afraid that a tradition that survived the tumult of nearly four thousand years will wither in the face of dialogue? Do we lack that much self-confidence in the vitality of this great experiment initiated by Abraham, continued by Moses and then the Sages and thinkers of every era? A Judaism that exists only for itself fails to exist to its full potential.
When one looks at the results of the 2013 Pew Forum study on the American Jewish community one finds, broadly speaking, two growing and competing trends in the American Jewish landscape. There is an ever-increasing rate of disaffiliation. The “universal culture of heart and intellect” that the early Reformers described has no apparent need for a particularistic identity.
The other trend is a growing rate of Ultra-Orthodoxy. This is the Orthodoxy that argues the answer to modernity is to retreat. In 2012 CitiField was filled with 50,000 members of the haredi community pledging their resistance to the Internet.
These are disturbing trends. What will be left of those who occupy the space in between the parts? What will be left of those who exist firmly planted in the ideas and traditions of Judaism while extending a hand to the world beyond our borders? I am neither a sociologist nor a prophet so the answer to that question will be revealed only by time. What I can do is declare that retreat is not the solution. That liminal space is the birthright of the next generation and all future generations of the Jewish people.