When is Now?
October 6, 2016 / Kol Nidrei 5777 / Rabbi Noa Kushner
American Judaism is in trouble. I think my wake up call was a few months ago when the AIPAC conference hosted Donald Trump. Don’t worry. This is not an anti-AIPAC drash, there’s good AIPAC people and one organization is not a juicy enough idea for a kol nidrei drash anyway.
See, it was in the days leading up to this conference, my entire social media feed was filled, unsurprisingly, with people who were upset that AIPAC had invited Donald Trump. Some were AIPAC supporters, some not. Some argued since Trump was / is the republican candidate, we have to invite him, some said otherwise. Most of the people, however, were clear that since Trump had been invited, they would be boycotting the talk. At the moment of that speech, they would get up and walk out.
I was certain based on my news sources that this would be a disruptive event of monumental proportions. I sat home glued to my computer screen to see what would happen. Here’s what I learned. AIPAC is a huge deal. There were tens of thousands of people there, many giant screens and it looked to me like the size of a giant sports event or national convention for one of the major political parties. Much, much bigger than the conferences I typically go to.
And then the moment came when it was Trump’s turn came to speak. Now I know from talking to people who were there that many participants who did not support his views stayed in the room out of sheer curiosity.
But when the moment came, it did not look like anyone left. Yes, there were some photos circulated of a few people standing outside (and god bless them) looked like a few dozen, but from watching what was going on inside, it didn’t make a dent. Inside, the people, thousands and thousands of those representing the Jewish community, laughed and applauded as Trump commandeered the stage in the giant dark room.
For me, where we are now as a larger Jewish project crystallized in that moment. There’s lots of energy and anxiety around “survival,” (The security of Israel! The Jewish future!) and less of an understanding about what it is in us that we want to survive.
Because if we were clearer, I have to think that dark room would have been close to empty.
The Innermost Point
Rabbi Yitzchak Meir of Ger, in his old age, spoke once about a congregation that had everything: a leader, and members and a House of Study and all the signs of a strong community. Suddenly Satan came and took out the innermost point, the essence, the direction that was within that community. “But,” the old rabbi taught, “the heartbreak was that everything remained just as it was, the wheel kept on turning as if nothing was missing.” He was speaking quietly to his grandson, but suddenly he cried out: “God help us, we must not let it happen!” (Martin Buber, Tales of the Hasidim, New York, Schoken Books, 1947. Volume 1, p. 45)
American Judaism is in trouble. And not because membership is down.
American Judaism is in trouble because it has relied too long on status, pedigrees and the Jewish equivalents of the American flag pin without (in general — there are of course, exceptions) without an equally serious cultivation of that innermost point, the answer to the question, “Why must we survive?” and the ongoing relationships and sacrifices that must accompany it.
Because at the end of the day, the symbols have to continue to stand for something. And it turns out that some of the American Jewish made up customs and symbols — the locked glass cases with seder plates from the gift shop in the front halls, the black and white photos of past presidents staring off into space, the yartzeit plaques with the little lights that illuminate on the week of the yartzeit — while they worked in their time, and they still work for some of us, they haven’t adequately transmitted the meaning they once signified.
The essence, the innermost point fell away but the wheel kept turning.
You see, it’s not that glass cases with seder plates in them are wrong, it’s just that if the closest we come to leaving the degradation of Egypt and slavery, and understanding what it means to be rescued by God as if flown on angel’s wings, if the closest we come to standing up to Pharaoh, and being terrified and uncertain whether or not to cross the sea.
If the closest we get to the understanding that spiritual and political freedom requires an ongoing struggle, what can often feel like a life and death struggle, if the closest we come to those things is a seder plate locked in a glass case, then the innermost point is far away indeed.
And the stakes are high: If we under react we could lose everything but platitudes, everything but that wheel that keeps on turning.
And if we overreact, (if we say it is all “organized religion”) and throw out our stories and institutions and teachers and holidays and religious provocations along with the locked up seder plates not only do we risk being ungrateful (many of those institutions got us here, after all, many did and do tremendous, worthwhile things), we will also lose a big part of the vocabulary that could help us recover that innermost point, we’ll lose precious comrades, and we’ll lose the existing maps back to where we want to be.
Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks writes that, “Science, technology, the free market and the liberal democratic state have enabled us [in the world] to reach unprecedented achievements in knowledge, freedom, life expectancy and affluence.
They are among the greatest achievements of human civilization and are to be defended and cherished. But they do not and can not answer the three questions every reflective individual will ask at some time in [their] life: Who am I? Why am I here? How then shall I live?” (Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, Not in God’s Name, New York, Schoken Books, 2015. p. 13)
These questions don’t just apply to us as individuals, they can help us recover this innermost point together: Who are we collectively as a Jewish community? Why are we here? What does that mean for how we should live?
In other words, what’s it gonna be? What’s this Jewish project going to be under our watch? Why must we survive?
And I think it is entirely possible that what we once thought were just polite lies things we said to make the children feel better, things like:
God made the world and cares about each of our actions, we each have the power to change the world, and we can only do so if we can work together, it is possible that the old lies are all true.
That we are “children of kings and queens and a kingdom of priests” (I was influenced by David Mamet’s use of this phrase in The Wicked Son: Anti-Semitism, Self Hatred, and the Jews, New York, Schoken, 2006, p. 180) and not only do each of our lives have inherent worth and meaning, we have been given life in order to bring righteousness — that potent combination of justice with “transcendent sources and eternal implications.” (Rabbi Arnold Jacob Wolf, Unfinished Rabbi, Chicago, Ivan R. Dee, 1998)
So maybe it is not that have to lower our expectations for ourselves, maybe we don’t need to just accept that religion is on the wane, rather maybe we need to raise those expectations higher, for ourselves, for our communities and for the terms of our survival.
Israeli Judaism is in Trouble
Before I went to Israel this past summer I was afraid. I was afraid of the violence. I should know better, I am the one who can list all the stats — we’re more likely to be hit by a car here than to be the victim of terror there, etc. But I was afraid. Like most of you, I hear about Israel through the news and because the news doesn’t talk about the school children playing, or the merchant who opened her new café, or the regular signs of every day life, I only saw Israel through the lens of what was happening between Israelis and Palestinians, I only knew about the violence.
But within a day of being there and being around my friends and the whole city of people who were living their lives I forgot to be afraid.
In fact, I was so busy learning torah and having some of the most substantive conversations of my year and trying to make sure we did not get hit by aggressive taxi drivers that I forgot about the matzav (the situation w/the Palestinians) altogether.
Looking back, I think neither of my positions were admirable. In one, I imagined the whole country was a danger zone on the verge of survival. In the other, like many Israelis (understandably, given how long this has gone one, but still), I ignored everything but what I could see in front of me. I made the question of survival primary and once that was settled, I didn’t consider why that survival was essential or at what cost.
Maybe my overemphasis on survival is understandable. R. Ed Feinstein teaches that there were at least two competing early forms of Zionism:
First, there was Theodore Herzl’s vision of a physical place that would be, above all, a protection against anti-semitism, a place that would give us the ability to defend ourselves and claim sovereignty.
Second, there was Ahad Ha’am’s vision that Judaism itself needed saving, that after so many years of living in exile our tradition had become narrow minded and myopic, overly obsessed with ritual and detached from the real world. Ahad Ha’am believed Judaism needed an injection of rich culture, contemporary life, land. These two Zionisms lived in tension with each other as more and more Jews made aliyah to Israel.
However, while we were in the middle of working through these not-quitealigned ideas, the holocaust happened. In Feinstein’s words: “The Holocaust proved Herzl right. We did need a safe place against the anti Semitism of the world. …Survival became our prime imperative, our only mitzvah. …All else, most especially Ahad Ha’am’s call for a state rooted in Jewish moral aspiration, was set aside.” (Rabbi Ed Feinstein, “It’s Complicated,” Yom Kippur, 2015)
I was on the plane to Israel with my family. When we got on, we got copies of the local Israeli paper. Elie Wiesel had just died. And on the front page, there was just a photo of Wiesel and a headline with giant letters, three simple words: “Hu Hayah Sham” / “He was there.”
You see, they don’t have to say his name, because everyone knows one of the most famous survivors of the shoah by his face. And they don’t have to say where he “was,” because everyone knows all to well where he “was.” In many ways, the country was built from the place where he “was.”
If you think we are concerned with Jewish survival here, since what we mean by our “Jewish survival” is kind of hard to pin down and mainly gets discussed in fundraisers and board rooms, by comparison, survival in Israel is immediate, real, a larger than life topic. Everyone has someone in their extended family who was killed serving in this war or on that bus. Everyone. And this fact means that survival can, understandably, loom over everything.
But if the whole country exists primarily for the purpose of survival, if we do not examine “survival for what?” then Israel will pale in comparison to its own founder’s dreams. If it only exists to exist, it then has no greater responsibility other than survival and its trajectory for greatness is limited. R. David Hartman z”l taught us that the key question is whether Israel is going to be a place that will stand in covenant with the Shoah [holocaust] or with Sinai, living Torah. (Rabbi David Hartman, A Heart of Many Rooms: Celebrating the Many Voices within Judaism, Woodstock, Vermont, Jewish Lights Publishing, 1999, p. 259) And I fear that with every new settlement built, that question is answered.
As Peter Beinart wrote, “We know in our bones …that Israel is headed toward moral disaster. We know that a non-democratic Israel is a dead Israel. We know that if Israel makes permanent an occupation that reeks of colonialism and segregation, America …will eventually turn against it. …We know that if Israel continues on its current path, our children will one day live in a world without a Jewish state. We know that our grandparents’ generation of Diaspora Jews will be remembered for having helped birth the first Jewish country in 2,000 years, and that ours will be remembered for having helped destroy it.” (7 Peter Beinart, “With Netanyahu’s Re-election, The Peace Process is Over and the Pressure Must Begin,” Ha’aretz, March 19, 2015)
There is line in Exodus when God gives us the Torah: V’atah im shamoa tishmi’u b’koli / ‘Now, if you listen to my voice.’
The rabbis ask, when is ‘Now’? The answer? Sinai is ongoing; Sinai lives. Whenever we hear the voice, the call, then our ‘Now’ has arrived.” (Martin Buber, Tales of the Hasidim, New York, Schoken Books, 1947, Vol. 2, p. 309)
There comes a moment in every generation where the key problems are placed before us. I believe we have come to that moment. Here in America we have an institutional Jewish structure that struggles with being largely symbolic and too often lacking in its essence. In Israel, we see the understandable fears and trauma of a silent majority directing the country towards survival but at the cost of its moral foundations and its dreams. We don’t get to pick our generation and we don’t get to pick our problems. We just get the opportunity to hear the call or ignore it, to know that this is our ‘Now,’ and to decide to respond.
And if we’re going to respond in a substantial way, if we’re going to articulate a recovery of the innermost point — who we are and why we’re here — we will need three things, this new Jewish world will stand on three things (and these are not the usual ones, I am making these up):
- A resounding faith in ourselves
- A new understanding of Jewish community, and
- A dedication to righteousness even when the ultimate solutions are no where in sight.
1. A resounding faith in ourselves
I learned a Hasidic teaching from Yakir Englander of Kids 4 Peace. He says that, “We know when God intends to destroy the people of Sodom and Gomorra, Abraham struggles with God, and tries to save those people.
He asks God: ‘What if you can find fifty tzadikim in the city?’ And when God agrees, Abraham asks, ‘What if there are forty?’ He bargains with God until he reduces the numbers of righteous people to 10.” (And it turns out there are not even ten so the city is destroyed.)
Yakir continues, “Considering this story, my Hasidic tradition goes further, and remembers the words of Rabbi Levi of Berditchev, who said that had he been present when Abraham bargained with God, he would never have accepted God’s final condemnation of Sodom. He would bargain with God and reduce the number until there is only one tzadik, and if he can’t find even one tzadik, he himself, will move to live in the city.” (With gratitude to Yakir Englander who sent me this text and his response to it)
There’s no way we can combat the defensiveness, defeatism and fatigue of our time without learning from this kind of spiritual grandeur and defiant righteousness. Go up against God? Of course. Yes. Do more than Abraham? Without a doubt. Totally necessary. And pay close attention: this is not a description of us “doing our part,” rather it is each of us paying back dues for the gift of our very lives.
2. A new understanding of Jewish community
For the first few years of The Kitchen I refused to use the phrase “Jewish community” because that phrase has been so overused to mean so little, in so many (but not all) places.
But I realized while Jewish community for Jewish community’s sake is circular, lacking, community for doing the righteous work is giant, and community that manifests our ability to act collectively is not only rare, it is inherently, indisputably necessary.
However, the Jewish community has changed and so we need to speak about ourselves in a new way. I can only speak for us here in San Francisco but in today’s Jewish community, we might not be all ashkenaz, we might not all be Jewish, we might not all be in hetero marriages with 2.2 kids, bla bla bla, and let’s face it, we never were all those things, even if we pretended we were — so our pedigrees, our ethnicity will, by necessity, now be less important to our collective self definition.
However, we can and will continue to do Jewish together: Shabbat, torah, tzedek, gimmilut chasadim, sukkot, t’fillot, baby namings, all the things we already do, anyone who wants to participate in Jewish experiences. We can and will continue to ask what’s beyond the surface of our texts and tradition, and all this activity will become the new pedigree, doing these things together will confer the new status of belonging. Whatever righteousness we are able to bring into the world together will be the basis for the new belonging.
3. A dedication to righteousness even when solutions are nowhere in sight
Last, third, this Jewish revival must have something to say here on the ground. And so I want to return to the greatest Jewish project of our time, Israel / Palestine.
We learn that a man confided in his rabbi that he prayed and prayed and yet saw no difference in his prayer or his life. The rabbi told him, “This is because when you pray, you are like an ox plowing a field. You yourself cannot see what is changing but over time the field will surely bloom.” (Adapted from Martin Buber, Tales of the Hasidim, New York, Schoken Books, 1947,Vol. 2, p. 304)
Having tremendous faith in ourselves is not enough. Redefining Jewish community is not enough. If we want to claim that we are here to bring righteousness, we have to have the discipline to play the long game, even when we can’t see anything happening on the ground in front of us.
When I went to Israel, I asked everyone, “What do you wish for?” Surprisingly, at least to my American mindset, no one offered any comprehensive solutions. Now these are the same people who suffered greatly when Netanyahu won a third term, my friend didn’t get out of bed for three days, these are far from apolitical people. But everyone I spoke with talked about small conversations, breaking down walls between individuals. “We need to teach our children how to talk to one another now so that this does not continue,” my friend said. They spoke in the language of community building, dialogues and youth programs, changing one relationship at a time, of building a new world from the ground up. They hadn’t given up on themselves or on the country they wanted to see.
It was as if they were acting out what Michael Sfard wrote in Ha’aretz, “There are …less visible forces, whose mode of operation is less overt …[and] One of them is actually the idea that all human beings are equal and that all deserve rights because they are human beings. That idea is responsible for the greatest and most important revolutions in history. …And that idea, together with those who oppose things as they are …will bring about a substantive change in the way Israeli society functions and vest ostensibly small and weak organizations with inexplicable might. And this will bring about the end of the occupation.” (Michael Sfard, “The Israeli Occupation will End Suddenly,” Ha’aretz, January 23, 2016)
Finally, since it is Yom Kippur I want to admit something to you.
There was a demonstration against the occupation when I was in Israel, activists getting to know Palestinians, everyone putting themselves on the line. Yes there were also a lot of foreigners, and maybe I would be seen as yet another preachy American rabbi but I could have met people doing the work, maybe I could have helped. But I didn’t go. It was in the territories and I was afraid. I told myself, “I am a mother.” I told myself that things were not entirely safe, which was true, but let’s face it, when are things 100% safe? I didn’t go to the demonstration but I regret it. Because my life was not given to me just so I could protect myself. Because Israel must be about more than surviving. Because Palestinians are suffering systematically. Because the American Jewish community needs to stand for more than continuity, we need to reclaim why we are here in the first place. Because 50 years of the occupation in our name deserves a significant response from each and every of us, even if we can’t see the end anywhere in sight.
There is another chance. There is a bigger demonstration happening next summer. This time I will be there. I can’t pay your way, I can barely pay mine but I think you should find a way to pay your own way. I’ll help. And we won’t fly to one demonstration and come home. We can go humble, we can listen and learn in many conversations.
So do me a favor: hold me accountable, okay? Ask me if I bought my plane ticket yet and I promise I will do the same for you. We’ll ask each other. Because I think that’s why we started The Kitchen, that’s why we’re here, to help us remember.
So do me this favor: You remind me and I’ll remind you that we can do more than just survive, that we’re actually here to pursue righteousness, and that while it sometimes it takes longer than we want, we’re in this for good.