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.
Today we celebrate the holiday of Simhat Torah. Literally meaning “rejoicing in Torah,” the holiday is a culmination both of the fall festival season that began with Rosh Hashanah and of the annual cycle of reading the Torah. Both last night and today, services involve a series of “hakafot” in which we dance around the Torah seven times while singing a variety of melodies.
The services are often fun and joyful. And I wholeheartedly believe that it is well and good to engage in ritual formality, as the Simhat Torah service provides.
But are we missing the message that ritual is intended to convey? The reason we dance around the Torah, after all, is to represent symbolically the Torah’s centrality to our lives. We dance in a circle with the Torah at our epicenter because Torah is the foundation upon which our religious and communal lives are built. Indeed, the importance of Torah in Judaism cannot possibly be overstated. In a famous midrash on the first words of Genesis, the rabbis reinterpret “B’reishit barah…” (“When God began creating the Heavens and Earth…”) as “with Torah did God begin creating the Heavens and Earth.” Torah is the blueprint in Judaism for our entire way of life.
Yet I wonder whether we, as an American Jewish community, are committed to moving beyond the symbolic when it comes to our commitment to Torah. Our philanthropic actions to date suggest that we are not. The 2013 Pew Research Center’s A Portrait Of Jewish Americans revealed how little Jewish Americans today value religion and study.
Among its myriad findings was the fact that a full 62% of Jews say being Jewish is mainly a matter of ancestry and culture, while just 15% say it is mainly a matter of religion.
We know what can be done to mediate some of these disparities, to bring a richer, deeper level of engagement with the religious and educational dimensions of Judaism. In fact, to respond to the two-year anniversary of the Pew Report, a group of leading Jewish scholars and thinkers have put together a “Statement on Jewish Vitality,” advocating strategic responses to these challenges to the Jewish future. Their responses highlight the need for a dramatic infusion of resources to expand the numbers of students who can attend Jewish day schools and summer camps, expanding religious school and youth group programming beyond the Bar or Bat Mitzvah years, funding for more pluralistic rabbis and educators at campus Hillels, and funding to increase Jewish cultural events, prayer communities, and learning activities among Jewish young adults. In essence, we need a Marshall Plan-like coordinated effort to increase exposure to the best in Yiddishkeit (Jewish culture) we can provide children, adolescents, teenagers, and young adults.
What have we seen leading Jewish philanthropists do in response? Has there been a Birthright-style effort (Birthright Israel offers free 10-day Israel trips to Jews age 18-26) conceived and launched to tackle these funding challenges? No. Instead, what we have seen is a dramatic increase in Jewish giving to partisan political causes. To lobby against the recently negotiated Iran nuclear agreement, AIPAC (the American Israel Public Affairs Committee) created a new tax-exempt lobbying group in July called Citizens for a Nuclear Free Iran. This group raised and spent up to $40 million in ads to oppose the deal, which wound up getting approved anyway. The Statement on Jewish Vitality estimates that $1 million is sufficient to initiate an overnight camp on rented property that would serve 500 campers per summer on a self-supporting and sustainable basis. $40 million? That’s 20,000 more Jewish kids who could have attended camp next summer! Imagine the impact, both in the short-term and the long-term, this could have made.
Of the top five individual donors to American federal political campaigns in 2014, three were Jewish. Michael Bloomberg (in 2nd place) spent $28,549,392; Paul Singer (in 3rd place) spent $11,518,474; and Fred Eychaner (in 5th place) spent $9,669,400. Imagine how much of a difference this money could have made injecting Torah into the hearts and minds of the next generations of American Jews. And that’s not even counting Sheldon Adelson’s millions spent on online gaming lobbying and, in 2012, single-handedly supporting the quixotic presidential aspirations of Newt Gingrich. Leveraging our financial strength to elevate Torah study and Jewish content will require leading Jewish philanthropists to change what they privilege in their funding decisions.
We stand at the threshold of a tenuous future. Without a dramatic re-prioritization of resources and community values, non-Orthodox Judaism in America is going to continue to erode. Torah will become something that we dance around at Simhat Torah but do not understand. It will become a cultural relic, an opaque object of empty veneration that is embraced solely for the sake of perpetuating ritual formality. Or we can decide that we want the future generations of American Jews to take Torah seriously; that Torah is about so much more than chanting words one doesn’t understand; that Torah contains a rich font of wisdom, one with ancient as well as contemporary importance in giving the Jewish people a particular identity and a particular lens through which we can find meaning in this complex and confusing world. On this Simhat Torah, I pray that we will find the wisdom to choose the latter course. That would truly be a Torah to rejoice over.
Pronunced: TORE-uh, Origin: Hebrew, the Five Books of Moses.