A Few False Calls in the Present Moment

Oasis Songs: Musings from Rav D
Friday, March 24, 2017 / 26 Adar 5777

I am excited that after kiddush lunch tomorrow, Tefilla Lab launches. Mark Sherman, Eddy Shuldman, Steve Skolnik and I have been working on some interesting niggunim. I hope you can join us at 1 pm in room 102 for an enjoyable workshop.

Also of note, the first event in our Israel360 series will be next Thursday at 7 pm in the Stampfer Chapel. Israel360 is dedicated to presenting diverse perspectives on Israel explored in an atmosphere of respect.These early programs are exclusively for our members, but we hope to open later events to the larger public.

Some of our lay and professional leadership recently returned from the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism’s convention for large synagogues held in Vorhees, New Jersey. (Steve Sirkin, Steve Blake, Liza Milliner, and Fred Rothstein all traveled east. My apologies if I’ve neglected someone!) These gatherings are important, as they keep our community apprised of best practices.

They also remind us that Congregation Neveh Shalom doesn’t exist in a vacuum. Across the country, and around the world (our Masorti congregations), communities much like our own bravely face the challenges of the day. What does it mean to be connected to other striving Jewish communities? They also are searching for the proper fulcrum point between tradition and change. How can we stay true to our principles and commitments to Torah in a turbulent era?

And while we answer those questions, we must also remember that we are charged to translate the Torah’s wisdom and its demands into the language of our day.  No less a scholar than Maimonides (Ramba”m) taught us that when he explained that the sacrificial cult of Temple times was always meant as an interim step in our spiritual development. The Torah, he says, is given in the language of human beings. Had it abolished sacrifice at that early stage, we would have rejected God and the Torah wholesale.

What a remarkable teaching! Leadership that is too far ahead of its community is doomed to failure, and is thus not leadership. Every person and community must be rooted in a place and a time. Only the dead escape that. So too with our holy scroll of the law. Phrased differently, the Torah that cannot be transmitted to others is not actually Torah.

I struggle with that. I think deeply and broadly and it takes concerted effort for me to “dial it down a notch.” I suspect that is true for most of us. We all have areas in which we are gifted and therefore within that area, complex matters appear simple to us. The person who always pushes in the chairs at the table when leaving sees clearly that others will follow; the skilled auto mechanic quickly hears the ping of worn bearings. As someone who dabbles in clay, I have watched in awe as a master potter lifts 30 pounds of clay from the wheel head in a single pull, shaping it to an image already conceived. I can’t do that. Oh, but the admiration I hold for those who can!

And that brings us to a comment my colleague Mike Uram made at the USCJ convention (at least as shared with me) and the news of the day. Rabbi Uram had spent considerable time nurturing a relationship with this millennial Jewish woman who had no previous exposure to her heritage. As she discovered the wisdom and thrill of our texts, she felt the pull of return. That ended, though, when she attended a gathering populated by well-dressed folks speaking in what seemed to her to be a stereotypical Jewish manner. “I’m post-ethnic,” she declaimed.

Post-ethnic. What does that mean? I can’t speak for her, I can only relay how I hear that. To be post-ethnic means, positively, to be freed from the vagaries, peculiarities, and particularisms of a culture. It stakes a claim on what it considers to be higher ground, and the higher ground in question here is a universalism that strives to have equal concern and awareness for all.

Yet perhaps the post-ethnic Jew also loses something vital in that exchange?

A sense of peoplehood points us to expanded moral responsibilities after all. Peoplehood, that is to say, demands that we are concerned with the well-being of the group. At times, that may seem constricting or confining or morally insensitive, or even occasionally racist. But at other moments, it lends us a far greater perception of the whole precisely because the sphere of our responsibility increases.

Here’s what I mean. We all just learned in the last day or so that the person responsible for making bomb threats to more than a hundred Jewish community centers was Jewish. Actually, he was a nineteen year old Israeli Jew. He may suffer from mental illness. The details are still unclear. What is clear? As I monitored my social media feeds, again and again I found older Jews expressing a sense of shame, while there was little mention of this incident on the feeds of my millennial or most of my gen-x Jewish friends. When it was mentioned, confusion was the emotion most often cited.

Shame is an interesting, a powerful and a holy emotion. It is the appropriate emotional response to our wrong doing. What is so striking is that these older friends who were experiencing shame clearly had nothing to do with this young Israeli teen who called in more than a hundred bomb threats. They had not caused the anxiety that countless parents felt! They were not responsible for the hundreds of evacuation drills that schools undertook! And they certainly bore no guilt for the hundreds of children whose parents, fearing from their safety, pulled them out of Jewish schools. So was their shame misplaced?

I don’t think so. I think their shame spills out of their transpersonal understanding that the Jewish people are one. And that unity implies responsibility. We could have done more to build a better Jewish community. We might have demanded that we see every Jewish child, including the mentally ill ones, so that we could properly care for them. We could have transmitted our values more effectively–our reverence for life, our rejection of hatred because we are all God’s children. We might have ensured, somehow, that Jews at least don’t hate fellow Jews–because if you can’t manage that for a small people such as ours, is there any hope of raising the entire human species? Indeed, the way we play politics in America, by blaming politicians across the aisle, is our unspoken expression that we are not responsible and that we are therefore absolved from feeling shame? Their actions, not our actions. 

The rabbis of old understood that universalism is a somewhat meaningless claim. It’s immensity attenuates our moral responsibilities and only a relatively small number of gifted people can expand their concern to encompass all of a vague and vast humanity. That’s why, our sages claimed, God formed a  specific covenant with us. Not because we were better or different or nobler than others, but because humans can’t really love an ethereal other. Peoplehood is the mechanism by which we remove the abstraction of other people’s lives and make them part of our own story. It’s the teachable Torah, the one that is not so far ahead of the people as to be meaningless. But then God demands that we develop our own spiritual concern so that it extends beyond just “the tribe.” Judaism starts at home so that we can gain skills in compassion and responsibility; then it repeatedly requires us to care for the widow, the orphan, the stranger, the non-Jew.

We’ve all suffered from a few false calls made in the present moment. No one can fix all of them. Few will be inspired to act for the seven and a half-billion who fill our planet. But can’t we expand our horizon of concern sufficiently to care for those with whom we share an ancient kinship? Can’t we build a better society for a scant twelve millions Jews? Because if we can figure that out, we’ll discover the secret to caring for everyone.

May the spirit catch you,

Rav D

Shabbat Table Talk

  1. When has belonging to a group made you cruel to those outside of the group? When has it made you more compassionate?
  2. Do you believe shame is an important emotion to feel? Why or why not?