Of War and the Spirit: As Paris Burns

Veteran’s Day

I’d like to share two occasions in which I took part this past week. The first was a family outing to the Oregon Historical Society on Veteran’s Day. There was a powerful display on World War II and on the American “propaganda” posters of both world wars. I was moved by both, given hope and also saddened. There on the walls were President Wilson’s 14 points and his fervent wish that humanity might turn away from war as we would come to realize that it is not a practical solution to our problems. While we have thus far avoided another world conflagration, clearly war remains on the table as “diplomacy by other means.”

The posters, meanwhile, told a more hopeful story. In addition to their colorful and compelling graphics, their messages pointed to a time in which Americans were willing to sacrifice for a greater cause and during which we shared a common sense of what that greater cause was. We were encouraged to buy war bonds, we understood the demands of freedom and that our voluntary curtailment of freedom of speech sometimes increases the cause of freedom (“Loose lips may sink ships” read a famous poster). In our age, when so much of the social fabric has unravelled, when we struggle to find shared values and to extend trust to those who think differently than we do, I wonder how the posters’ call for shared sacrifice would be heard today. I would encourage you to see this exhibit and form your own impressions.

The second occasion took place yesterday evening. I had the privilege of teaching a class on Hassidism at PSU. The students were fantastic. Bright and engaged, they were sensitive and questioning readers. Our own Natan Meir, who heads the Jewish studies department, had astutely noticed that I often bring hassidic texts into my sermons. He thought it would be interesting for his students to hear how and why a contemporary rabbi uses these texts.

That in turn forced me to articulate what I believe we all can learn from this unique literature, which began in a very different world than our own. Here is some of my thinking.

Hassidut and the Next Wave of the Conservative Movement

When we think of Hassids today, many modern Jews often fall into stereotypes, distracted by their antiquated garb and their lifestyle, centered around very strict forms of Jewish practice. What is fascinating is how different that is from the origins of Hassidism, which was a revival movement that began in the 18th century. At that time, for a host of reasons, many average Jews had turned away from the Torah, not finding it relevant to their own lives. The Torah, in other words, failed to inspire us or enrich us spiritually.

The early Hassidic authors, beginning in particular with Ya’akov Yosef Katz of Polonye (the western Ukraine), created a new type of literature in which the Torah was read not as a historical account of our ancestors, but as a sophisticated map of human psychology and spirituality that applied to all people at all times.

There are two main points here. The first is that many modern Jews demand relevance. It is not enough to learn for its own sake. Most of us are too busy for that luxury. Rather, learning, and Jewish learning in particular, must connect to our own lives and speak to us today. But there is a second point that to me is even more important. Relevance without penetrating and sophisticated insight doesn’t seem to be sufficient to me. We can find all sorts of books in the self-help section that are relevant. We can listen to TED talks and read Oprah.

I think that what a great many of us hunger for is not just relevance, but a spirituality that we can believe in and that inspires us and leads us to devotion, gratitude and even awe. We want a Judaism that offers us relevance, sophistication and significance.

The early days of the Conservative movement were built on scholarship that wanted to find out historical truths about the Torah and Jewish history. It built a Judaism that the rational modern Jew could believe, a Judaism that meshed with the findings of science. In that process, however, it often neglected spiritual uplift, perhaps because people lived lives that were sufficiently enriched with Jewish ritual. That is the Conservative Judaism of which the news reports dooms and gloom–the Conservative Judaism of the past.

That is not our age. Many of us don’t have the knowledge or background to practice as our grandparents did. Yet we are hungry also. We want to be inspired. We want to believe.

There is a new generation of Conservative rabbis who are deeply steeped in Hassidic writings precisely because we find there a way of looking at the world that inspires us without insulting our intelligence. These sophisticated texts touch us and challenge us. They give us permission to believe without disavowing the gains of science. They present images of God that we can buy into that are not fundamentalist, that are open to our egalitarian and pluralistic commitments.

Paris in the Present Moment

At this very moment, when bombs are exploding, when 35 people have been killed in Paris and more are being held hostage, the urgency of this endeavor is critical. We want a religious fervor that doesn’t belong to the fundamentalists or the terrorists. We need a religion that enhances all of humanity. We seek genuine connections and the warmth of real relationships. We are crying out for the hope that renewal brings.

I will do my best to bring you those gifts. I won’t always succeed. There will be failures. But I will do my best.

Warmth and blessings,

Rav D

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