You may have noticed that I like to talk about the Jewish future, about how our community is changing, about how the institutions of the past (including this one) have to change to account for where the Jews are.
Well, the recent convention of the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism (USCJ), which was in Atlanta at the beginning of December, was extraordinarily gratifying for me, because USCJ is now embracing the future full-throttle. Our delegation from Beth Shalom totaled seven.
First, a brief word of Torah.
The opening words of Parashat Bo are grammatically curious (Exodus 10:1):
וַיֹּ֤אמֶר ה֙’ אֶל־מֹשֶׁ֔ה בֹּ֖א אֶל־פַּרְעֹ֑ה
Vayomer Adonai el Moshe, bo el Par’oh…
Then God said to Moses, “Go to Pharaoh…
Ordinarily, when one gives an imperative to somebody to go see a third person, we use the verb “to go.” As in, “Go tell Aunt Rhody, the old grey goose is dead,” or, “Go down, Moses, way down in Egypt’s land / Tell ol’ Pharaoh to let My people go.”
But that’s not what the Torah says. Despite what you’ll find in every single translation, the Hebrew says, “Then God said to Moses, “Come to Pharaoh…” And that doesn’t quite make sense. The text should read, “Lekh el Par’oh.” Go to Pharaoh.
Joseph Bekhor Shor, the 12th-century French commentator, explains the grammatical oddity this way:
בא אל פרעה. לא היה אומר לך כי אם בא ביי”ן בלע’ שמשמע שאני אלך עמך
The text did not say “lekh” (“go”), but rather “bo” (“come,” like the Old French “viens”) because the meaning suggested is that I [God] will go with you…
Bekhor Shor is suggesting that God is reassuring Moshe: “Come with Me,” says God, even though you and I both know that I will harden Pharaoh’s heart even after this next plague, and he will not let the Israelites go.
It’s Moshe’s come-to-Pharaoh moment. The challenges are great; we might fail. But you and me, Moshe, we’re going together.
Hold onto that for a moment; we’ll come back to it in a bit.
The theme of this convention was, “Dare Together.” And I must say that it was, in fact, a daring convention, in that the ideas that are being bandied about today in the movement are very different from what they were historically. I learned a lot of good stuff to bring back to Pittsburgh; it was so good, in fact, that you should really consider coming with us to the next one in Boston in two years.
In addition to all of the practical learning, however, I also gained some new insights from a couple of great teachers of Torah: Dr. Yehuda Kurtzer, president of the Shalom Hartman Institute of North America, and Rabbi Brad Artson, dean of the Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies at the American Jewish University in Los Angeles (where Rabbi Jeremy Markiz, Beth Shalom’s Director of Derekh and Youth Tefillah, was ordained nearly two years ago). They spoke on different days and to different audiences, but their messages dovetailed in a way that, in retrospect, works out very nicely. Kurtzer spoke about today’s challenges and Artson gave us a perspective on how to address them.
Dr. Kurtzer spoke at a session that was limited to rabbis, entitled, “Jewish Identity, Belonging, and Community.” That’s a pretty vague title, but the subject matter was anything but. He began by asking the following questions:
What does it mean to live in a world in which we are fully integrated into wider American society? Who represents Judaism in such a climate?
In asking these questions, he reminded us of the existential crisis that contemporary American Jews face: that in the absence of the ethnic trappings of our parents’ and grandparents’ days, when it was abundantly clear to everybody who was Jewish and who wasn’t, that today’s boundaries are muddy. The question of who is a Jew today is much more complicated. He noted that, in a recent study in the New York area, about 5% of people claiming to be Jewish had no Jewish parents and had not converted. That didn’t happen in the 1950s.
Dr. Kurtzer identified four specific sub-challenges related to the question of who is Jewish and who represents us.
Challenge 1: What happens when self-evident truths disappear in a generation or two?
Jews light candles to welcome Shabbat. They don’t eat pork. They circumcise their baby boys. These used to be fundamental, self-evident truths, accepted without question by our grandparents and most of our parents. Today almost anything can be questioned. This type of change is unprecedented.
Challenge 2: We have a global perspective today that is unlike any time in history.
We are in a particularly ironic moment for Jewish collective living. Prior to the 20th century, Jews had no real sense of connectedness; you were Jewish, and the Jews you knew were all just like you – from the same region. Nothing connected the shtetlakh in Poland to Jews in Baghdad or Provence or Tunis.
Today, most of us live in the US and Israel, and we are more internationally networked than we have ever been. But while the American Jewish community is busy creating all sorts of new paths in Judaism (did you see the JTA’s recent article about a Jewish event in San Francisco called “Trefa Banquet 2.0”?), the State of Israel requires clear boundaries as to who is a Jew. In this climate, how do we continue to define Jewishness around the world?
Challenge 3: The data is moving faster than ever.
We love demographic data. But big demographic studies are almost obsolete the moment that they are published. The pace of change in today’s world is a challenge in that it may not be useful to determining what is next in Jewish life.
Challenge 4: The challenge of halakhah / Jewish law.
In Orthodoxy and in the Conservative movement we still understand halakhah (Jewish law) as being binding on us. But the challenge is that halakhah evolves slowly; that the rate of change in our technologies and the way we live is much faster than the rate at which halakhah is evolving.
Cognizant that he was speaking to a room of Conservative rabbis, Dr. Kurtzer said, “It’s not up to me to tell you how to do your jobs.” But his implicit message is that we have to acknowledge the halakhic challenge and do something about that.
He concluded by saying that although the boundaries are not clear, that although times are rapidly changing, we should not focus our energies on the questions of who belongs and who doesn’t, or is this behavior acceptable or not. Rather we should work harder as a community to draw everybody in closer to the center.
And how might we do this? This brings me to the inspiring words of Rabbi Artson, who spoke to the entire convention at the closing plenary. The guiding principle we must teach, he said, is ahavat hinnam, which he translated as “unearned love.”
Rabbi Artson opened with some truth-telling: “God is King,” he said, does not speak to us today. And most Jews do not really buy the idea of halakhah / Jewish law as law. But everybody understands and can relate to love – the feeling showered upon you by those that brought you into this world, who sacrificed time and money and personal space to make you what you are. “Ahavat hinnam, unmerited love,” he said, “is our first and most profound experience, and our mandate in life.” Many of us will immediately recognize this metaphor as a way to understand our relationship with God.
Rather than teach religious ritual, law and custom as oppression, a burden to the pious, we have to instead translate Torah into “dignity, glory, and dance.” The Torah has been, at times in Jewish history, wielded as source of guilt.
But nobody wants to feel guilt. So let’s translate Torah as love. “Mitzvot are about radical love,” said Rabbi Artson. “Being in God’s image takes practice. Saying, ‘I love you, but I don’t want to change anything I do,’ is a sure recipe for loneliness. We are the people in the world’s most abiding romance.”
“Romance,” he said, “is not just about maintaining the past – it is about change.”
So, when God says to Moshe, “Bo,” “Come with Me,” we might read that as a symbol of the eternal love between us and God, the intoxicating power of that ancient romance. “Come with Me, My love, and we will change the world. We will set you free.”
That’s the message we have to teach. That has to be the message of the Jewish future: Come with Me; be My partner. Yes, there are guidelines. Yes, you may have to change. But I promise you ahavat hinnam, unearned love. it’s worth it. Shabbat shalom.
Rabbi Seth Adelson
(Originally delivered at Congregation Beth Shalom, Shabbat morning, 1/20/2018.)