Last week in this space, I spoke about my trip in January with Honeymoon Israel, a program which seeks to reach the least-connected Jews by providing a heavily-subsidized trip to Israel for couples in their first five years of marriage. The program is not about Israel, per se, but uses the visit to Israel primarily as a backdrop to discuss issues of Jewish peoplehood. I spoke also about a featured presenter on the trip, renowned Jewish educator Avraham Infeld, and discussed his framework of the “Five-Legged Table” of the supporting pillars of Jewish peoplehood. Those “legs” are:
- Mt. Sinai
What is at least initially missing from this list is an acknowledgment that , historically speaking, an essential statement of what it means to be a part of the Jewish people is the covenant of mitzvot, the opportunities for holiness that are the central framework of Jewish living and our relationship to God.
Framing that in the form of a question: Isn’t our responsibility as Conservative Jews, as those committed to halakhah / Jewish law and to conserving Jewish tradition, to teach Judaism as a religious tradition? How can we define membership in the Jewish people without the classical religious content?
You might say that the “Mt. Sinai” leg of Infeld’s table includes that. That is, when the Israelites stood at Sinai to receive the Torah, as we did symbolically today, and then they say, “Na’aseh venishma,” we will do and we will seek to understand (Ex. 24:7), that they were effectively saying that membership in the Jewish people mandates performance of the mitzvot first. That is, ours is a religious tradition, based on fulfilling the specific behaviors commanded by God. And there are certainly Jewish communities in which everybody is expected to toe the line, halakhically. Through much of our history, we have had a bit of a judgy streak – in the shtetl, to live among the Jews meant to live as Jews do, and if you did not, you were a threat to the fabric of Jewish society. In the Old World, keeping the mitzvot was also about personal security – you were safe with the Jews if you kept our ways. God and the community would protect you.
Avraham Infeld bellowed at the Honeymoon Israel participants that Judaism is not a religion, but a people. A family, as he puts it. He spoke of his own father, who was a proud atheist, but a committed Jew nonetheless. Some members of our Jewish family put on tefillin every morning. Some refrain from eating pork, but see no problem with ordering steak in non-kosher establishments. Some proudly walk down Murray Ave. on Yom Kippur eating bacon double-cheeseburgers. But all are Jews.
While I place myself firmly in the tefillin-every-morning crowd (and I of course want you all to join me there, when you are ready, of course, with a special invitation to those of us who identify as women), I certainly want us all to continue to be included in, and proudly identify as Jews, regardless of our relationship to the mitzvot.
But there are many Jews for whom the very idea of identification with the Jewish community is fraught. There are many of us who have been turned away by our community. There are many who have felt judged, who have been subjected to intolerance, who were made to feel not welcome for various reasons.
We have pushed people away. Yes, it’s true that some wandered off by themselves, uninspired, uninterested. But many were turned off by the very people who wanted them to stay, by those of us who insisted on drawing hard lines about who is in and who is out, about what was acceptable behavior for a Jew and what was unacceptable.
Our role, as Conservative Jews in the vibrant center of the Jewish world is to build bridges. To build a bridge from peoplehood to religion and vice versa; to build a bridge from non-engagement to engagement; to connect Jews from different backgrounds and practices to one another. We inhabit a Jewish environment that can be secular and religious; where doubt can live alongside faith; where an academic Torah-as-human-literature can sidle up to Torah-as-history and not be rebuffed.
When we say, as Rosh Hashanah begins, “Shalom, shalom, larahoq velaqarov, amar Adonai. (Isaiah 57:19),” we mean it. “Greetings, greetings to those who are far and those who are near, says God.” We have to be open to all who are close, and all those who place themselves beyond the outskirts of our community.
My work as a rabbi is to teach Judaism, to connect you, and everybody else, with the lessons of our text, our history, our culture, our rituals. And there are some who think that rabbis should teach to the top, to those who are committed, to the members of our community who are already steeped in Torah, who have already drunk the Talmudic Kool-Aid.
There is a time and a place for that. But whenever I can, I am also going to teach to the uninitiated, to invite in the ones who are she-einam yode’im lish’ol, who do not yet know how to ask. Because those are the people we need to reach.
So how do we do this?
It is easy for us to keep doing what we are doing, and not worry too much about the rest of the Jewish world, to assume that everybody knows what to do when they walk into a synagogue, to assume that our customs and wisdom, and indeed the supreme value of what we do are obvious to all. But they are not. I know this because I hear it all the time: it’s not so easy to enter Beth Shalom if you do not know where the door is, figuratively speaking.
So how do we invite in Jewish and Jewish-adjacent folks while not scaring them off with our commitment to tradition? Although we know that our approach to tradition is decidedly modern, egalitarian, and inclusive, often those who are unaffiliated or who have been turned off by other Jews and Judaism in the past may not see that. How do we welcome them into our community in such a way that they stay?
And the answer is as follows: First connect, then teach.
And this is, you might say, orthogonal to the principle of “Na’aseh venishma,” we will do first, and then we will understand, which has been so essential to Jewish life for our entire history. The traditional model of teaching Jewish religious practice is to teach the mitzvah, the behavior first, with the intent that the understanding will follow.
But for many today, there has to be a preliminary step, and that step is connection. That is the Mt. Sinai moment. That is where God speaks to each of the individuals standing at Mt. Sinai. Anokhi Adonai Elohekha. “I am the Lord your God.” It’s the first Commandment of the Top Ten. And the “your” is singular! The first commandment is about individual relationship.
It is only after this relationship is established that the doing and the understanding can begin.
First connect, then teach. The connection must precede Na’aseh venishma. That’s the element of Jewish peoplehood, of family, of Mt. Sinai.
Ladies and gentlemen, we are not going to compromise on the mitzvot part of the equation; we will uphold our standards of Jewish practice. What goes on at Beth Shalom will always be kosher, shomer Shabbat, and so forth.
But we also have to take the first commandment seriously, and read it as, “You’re a part of my family.” Whatever you may have experienced in the past, whether you were turned off by Jewish religious practice or felt judged for your choices or your parents denied you a Jewish education or whatever, you are welcome as a part of our family.
And, to go a step further, I want those who are Jewish-adjacent, i.e. not privileged to have been born Jewish or yet joined the Jewish people, but having the hutzpah to have married a Jew, to think of themselves as a part of our family as well.
A brief coda: I received an email this past week from one of the Honeymoon Israel participants that really made my week, a person who is married to somebody who is not Jewish, who had bad experiences with rabbis and Jewish organizations. And this person expressed gratitude for having been welcomed back, for feeling for the first time like one of the tribe. And I would now not be surprised to see this person cross my orbit again, this time open to learn, open to the idea of belonging, open to the idea of na’aseh venishma.
First connect, then teach. Remember that when you are in the building, and as you saunter out as an ambassador for the type of Judaism we live.
Rabbi Seth Adelson
(Originally delivered at Congregation Beth Shalom, Pittsburgh, PA, Shabbat morning, 2/15/2020.)