Rabbis Without Borders
Rabbis Without Borders is a dynamic forum for exploring contemporary issues in the Jewish world and beyond. Written by rabbis of different denominations, viewpoints, and parts of the country, Rabbis Without Borders is a project of Clal – The National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership.
This past week my wife and I were blessed to welcome our fourth child into this world. There are so many thoughts and emotions that the miracle of new life has stirred within me. Many are too personal for this space; some will be shared at her official Hebrew naming later this summer. But I want to share some thoughts with you because I think they address both a predominant theme of the Rabbis Without Borders blog and the types of subjects I most often discuss in my missives in this space: what a robust, fully-formed Judaism might look like. So here goes.
Welcome home. There are so many things I want to express to you. So many hopes and dreams I have for you. So much I want to teach you, discover with you, and learn from you.
Today, in this public venue, I want to share a vision I have for you: a vision for the type of Judaism I hope you get to experience and embrace throughout your life. It is a vision for a holistic Judaism: one that embraces what I will call “internal” Judaism and “external” Judaism, because, to me, both dimensions are critical for a fully-realized Jewish future.
First, the internal. I yearn for you to develop a rich, spiritually penetrating prayer life. To find not only fluency within Jewish liturgy but contemporary resonance that connects with your neshama, your soul. I hope that you will come to a theology that doesn’t hide from reality but also isn’t so thin that it is devoid of support and comfort in times of struggle. I want you to learn not only how to perform rituals but what those rituals are intended to signify. I want you to go beyond a childish caricature of Jewish holidays and history to understand the complexity of lived Jewish life through the ages and the wisdom that struggle can bring to contemporary practice. I want you to learn that Torah, real Torah, is not a set of credos or one-liners but a multivocality in which you will join with our sacred texts and the sacredness of Jewish interpretation of these texts through the ages in creating new meaning, new interpretation, new revelation.
While there is enough in the internal category to offer you a rich, powerful Jewish experience, our tradition demands more of us. It demands that we extend our gaze outward and advocate for the application of our values to the society in which we live. While the era of the Prophets has long since passed, we are sorely in need of more Jewish prophets who are willing to speak out against injustice and suffering. While the era of the High Priesthood is also gone, God still yearns for the Jewish people to be a nation of priests, cultivating and advancing a sense of holiness through the offerings of our hearts and consciences. Jews continue to serve in the vanguard of social justice efforts, but too infrequently we do so because we are Jews. Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel’s participation in Selma was powerful not because he showed up as an individual but because he showed up as a rabbi and a community leader. So much of our Jewish community today has grown comfortable outsourcing transformative, systemic tikkun olam work to other organizations (whether Jewish like American Jewish World Service or Hazon, or secular like Doctors Without Borders or Greenpeace). And we are beginning to see the emergence of rabid Jewish conservatism that argues for a macho, militant foreign policy combined with unbridled free-market economics. The truth is that Jewish values are neither Democratic nor Republican per se. But the values that appear and reappear so often in our sacred texts: protecting the poor; stewarding our environment; avoiding bloodshed; recalling our exodus from Egypt when encountering aliens in our community, etc., etc., need to continue to matter to us; need to obligate us no less than the laws of kashrut or Shabbat.
Finally, and oh-so-conspicuously, I want to talk to you about Israel. The Israel I wish for you is an Israel that can combine the best elements of the internal and the external. Internally, I hope Israel can one day become a Jewish state that is accessible to Jews of all stripes and denominations. A place where radical pluralism is not only discussed but implemented. A place where Jews can respectfully debate different ways to practice their Judaism without acrimony or stigmatization. In short, an Israel where the Law of Return is not just a means to increase Jewish demography and citizenry in the land but a statement of Jewish validity and acceptance for all who wish to express their Jewishness in Medinat Yisrael. Externally, I yearn for Israel once more to be an ur l’goyim, a light unto nations. I want Israel to be lauded at the United Nations and around the world as an example of what a small nation can do not only economically but morally. I want Israel to be a laboratory of social — not only high tech — innovation. This means, of course, that Israel must find the courage, the audacity, to advance a peace initiative that culminates in the establishment of a Palestinian state in the near future. It is not enough to critique Palestinian intransigence or rely on the re-emergence of global anti-Semitism and the ascent of radical jihadist Islamists nearby as reasons to do nothing. In short, the Israel I aspire for you is an Israel at peace with its Jewish identity at home and at peace with a Palestinian state next door.
I know all of the above is a lot to wish for. But today is a time for visioning, for imagining, for dreaming. May it be your will and that of your generation to bring this wish to fruition. I can’t wait to watch you do so.
All my love,
For more on welcoming Jewish newborns, go to MyJewishLearning’s “Newborn Ceremonies 101” or check out our parenting site Kveller.
Pronounced: kahsh-ROOT, Origin: Hebrew, the Jewish dietary laws.