Rabbi Steinhardt's Sermons

Shemot 5780 – January 18, 2020

Parsha Shemot 5780 – January 18, 2020

 The timelessness of the narratives of the Torah is remarkable. The Book of Shemot which we read this morning has influenced and continues to influence not only our people but all Western culture and civilization, values and jurisprudence. For this is a story about many different things, including the formation of a nation, slavery and oppression, freedom and law, and yes … faith.

There are stories of courage in the very beginning of Shemot where we find the two midwives willing to risk their lives through their profound act of civil disobedience and saving Hebrew male babies.

It is a book about the significance of life – every single life – and it is a book about the desire for God to find His people and for His people to find their God. These themes encompass the realms of literature and life itself.

A D’var Torah which I heard from an orthodox rabbi and an article sent to me last week have inspired me to speak to an issue that I know I have addressed before. And we’ll see that for two thousand years this has been the concern of rabbis and Jewish communal leaders.

At the beginning of Shemot we learn that:

The Israelites were fertile and prolific. They multiplied and increased very greatly so that the land was filled with them.

Then we read that a new king arose over Egypt, one who did not know Joseph. What follows is hard work, oppression and ultimately enslavement.

In the D’var Torah, this was seen as the paradigm for not only our oppression but also anti-Semitism itself.

There is an understanding in some of the more traditional commentaries and some of the Chassidic literature that the oppression against the Jews came when the Jews had infiltrated the society and were assumedly indistinguishable from the larger Egyptian community.

Those commentaries are obviously used to support a Jewish lifestyle that reflects separateness. We see that in Jewish communities today. It presents a paradigm to live and preserve Jewish life. Prushim Tihiyu… we learn you should be separate.

This stands in contrast to last week when we read in the text that when Joseph brought his family down to Egypt, he settled them in a region called Goshen. On the simplest level, this was because Goshen was a fertile land for grazing, and the Hebrews from Canaan were shepherds.

Some say, however, that going to Goshen was a strategy of separation. There the Jews would only be among Jews and therefore Jewish or Hebrew continuity could be assured.

Years ago, I read a D’var Torah by the then Director of United Synagogue, Rabbi Ben Kreitman. He pointed to the danger in the Goshen strategy. Because being separate creates suspicion. We are different. We are not known to “them” and they are not known to “us”.

So, which is it? This is not just a question of anti-Semitism, of those who hate us because we are different. It is also a question of assimilation.

The drash I heard from an Orthodox rabbi looked at the verses that indicate that we became large and numerous and spread over the land. The next verse indicates the “A new king arose over Egypt who did not know Joseph.” So, in his drash he indicated that the Hebrews spreading throughout Egypt was an indication that they had assimilated into Egyptian society, and the very fact of assimilation was the reason for the anti-Semitism.

Many orthodox thinkers said similar – and I think detestable – ideas about the Nazi hatred of Jews. They blamed it on their assimilation into German society.

Some blame it on Jewish separateness, and some blame it on our integration and in fact, both may contain some truth. But both notions are simply too simplistic and when viewed alone, are wrong. There is a tendency to look for simple answers.

Beyond the D’var Torah I heard – which disturbed me greatly – there was an article sent to me last Sunday. It too was disturbing! It was a review by Rabbi Yitzchak Alderstein of a book by Dr. Jack Werheimer. Wertheimer is a historian at JTS. Alderstein is an Orthodox rabbi.

Alderstein described Wertheimer’s work as taking “it as a given that Jewish religious life in this country has endured a recession.” (In this context, the term recession is an understatement.) He continues: “Over two million individuals of Jewish parentage no longer identify as Jews, and many others … eschew identification with the Jewish religion, choosing instead to define themselves in cultural or ethnic terms. And outside Orthodox communities, rates of childbearing are depressed relative to the recent past, leaving observers to wonder who will populate Jewish religious institutions in the future.”

If religion is on the decline, will a sense of peoplehood keep the Jewish enterprise afloat? “Peoplehood alone will not keep Jews engaged in Jewish life with any measure of intensity…. Sacred religious practices, holidays, rituals, and commandments keep the Jewish people Jewish … Jewish families without religion don’t stay Jewish for very long.”

The article is filled with evidence that non-Orthodox Jews are one tick away from total apostasy from the Jewish religion.

It is quite one-sided. And it is limiting in its definition of Jews and Judaism. Being Jewish has multiple meanings and aspects. Being Jewish – doing Jewish – is not the same for all people.

The author is saying that the only way to preserve that identification is through a lifestyle closed to the outside world, through rigid ritual practices and a singular purpose.

But I look around and – even as I look around this room – I see good Jews! You’ve chosen something else. You’ve chosen a more moderate response. You are in an open society absorbing what that has to offer. You want to be in this world and retain a Jewish identity and you have done it well. After all, you are here.

So, in response to the Alderstein article, I ask if you could choose to end intermarriage and assimilation would you move to Meah Shearim? Would you go to Boro Park?

You wouldn’t.

So how do we find the balance? How do we keep alive a Judaism that breathes fresh air, that is open to change, that allows critical scholarship, science and medical research, and critical study of texts that challenge freedom and impinge on our being?

There are changes we have made that reflect the evolution of thought and freedom.  For example, we do allow for women’s participation. We do have gay rabbis.

Then the article gets a little mean. It not only raised the figures of assimilatory trends but deals with the ideas and practices of contemporary Judaism.

It goes on to state that, while a majority are not atheists or agnostics, the non-Orthodox are confused as to Whom God is. No wonder. One Conservative rabbi titled a High Holy Day sermon, “Why Jews Should Not Believe in God”, and told his congregants that the images of God in our Torah that they cannot buy into should be upgraded to a kind of “container to hold our experience of life that is unnamable.”

This is critical because the issues of faith and God were always Jewish concerns! There is a reason that our tradition contains multiple names of God and it comes from different periods and different struggles. We have not always understood God in the same way. We have struggled with the ideas of God. We question God and even whether there is a God and we can remain committed Jews. Ultimately God is unknowable by definition. We can say that. That conversation and struggle makes us better Jews!

Alderstein goes on to say:

The replacement of the traditional belief in God with something else has led many rabbis “to sanctify the preexisting social and ideological commitments of their congregants by figuratively blessing them as somehow Jewish.” Commandments per se are out. Rather, there is “a complete rejection of the notion that to be Jewish involves the acceptance of some externally imposed commandments …. Internally generated rights and wrongs are all that matter. The large majority of non-Orthodox Jews have internalized a set of values indistinguishable from those of their non-Jewish peers. A single commandment may have survived – one that was newly minted in the ‘80s: Thou shalt engage in Tikkun Olam.”

Here too he misleads. We have always been influenced by the outside. We have internalized the best of what the world has to offer, and we have thrown away that which doesn’t fit.

Has any of this worked? Hardly. “Alas, it has not brought large numbers of members into synagogues, nor has it translated into other forms of religious participation.”

Modernity is the dissolver of all religion that is not infinitely malleable and focused on the Self. So, I want to take this seriously. I will not walk away from modernity or from living a Jewish life.

Yesterday, Bill Hurwitz in our class, indicated that he learned that after the destruction of the Temple a new form of Judaism emerged. It wasn’t the same after exile as it was before.

And the same is true with the Enlightenment. New forms emerged. They probably saved us. The same was true after every historical shift.

Think about when we are living. The Shoah took place in your lifetime! The birth of Israel happened a blink ago as time is measured in our history. What are Wertheimer and Alderstein saying to us?

Is it that we have failed? Will there no longer be liberal Judaism in the future? Should we either pack our bags and leave this enterprise or should we move into the closed communities of orthodoxy?

These are questions that need responses, and I know that I share in the responsibility of answering these questions. But I think you, members of this and other Conservative shuls, need to join me both in this conversation and uncovering the meaning.

I can only share a few ideas, give a little perspective. I believe we are going to figure this out. In some ways, this very synagogue serves as a laboratory for the Jewish future, simply because we are succeeding in so many ways.

I begin with the fact that Judaism is what one great historian Simon Ravidowicz called “The ever-dying people.” Ravidowicz wrote a famous essay in which he described Jews as living with a constant fear of extinction –thus, as the “ever-dying” people. He wrote the essay 40 years ago. Does that make him wrong or prophetic?

It seems that every few years a major Jewish leader or study proclaims the “disappearance of the Jews,” arguing that assimilation and intermarriage place the future of the Jewish community – of Jewish continuity – in serious danger. But we haven’t. We don’t disappear and we won’t.

In the 1950s the greatest sociologist of American Jewry, Marshall Sklare predicted that there would be no Orthodoxy by the year 2000! We have been around for over 2000 years – some might say over 3000 years – have survived all sorts of threats and destructions, and we have flourished. In fact, a narrative of crisis has always been a part of our people’s experience. But you and I know that we have also survived.

Ravidowicz points out that this narrative serves the purposes of some particular Jewish interests. It could be Zionism, or it could be Orthodoxy. Or it could be Reform.

In 1966, the late Chancellor of the Jewish Theological Seminary, Gerson D. Cohen, delivered a commencement address with the provocative title “The Blessing of Assimilation in Jewish History”. While acknowledging the challenge of living in a free society, Cohen demonstrates as a historian that from the very first Jewish Diaspora the Jewish historical experience has been marked by an anxiety over assimilation coupled with a revitalization of Jewish life resulting from that very experience.

On a cosmetic level, Cohen points out that famous Jewish names – like Aaron, Moses, Daniel, Zerubbabel, and Tryfon (or Tarfon) and so on – are not Jewish at all, but are all imports from the Egyptian, Babylonian, Hellenistic and other communities in which Jews lived. We have always looked at, copied and adopted the dress and other practices of our non-Jewish neighbors. Ironically, just consider the black hats and coats of the present-day Hasidic community – garb that is borrowed from seventeenth-century Polish gentry. More substantively, it was Jewish communities such as those in Alexandria and Cordoba, writing in Greek or Arabic, who were most effectively able to transmit our faith from generation to generation.

Cohen’s argument goes even deeper. He explains that the Jewish cultural renaissance of Spain’s Golden Age came by way of Arabic literary tastes; the Mussar/Pietist movement of French and German Jewry developed due to a familiarity with Christian theology; and, Hasidic mystical doctrines evince an on-going acquaintance with Sufi doctrine. To put it another way, the greatest, most enduring and most vital periods of Jewish life and living – the emergence of the Kabbalah, the philosophy of Maimonides, to name only two – happened not by the Jews withdrawing from non-Jewish life, but by assimilating non-Jewish life into Judaism, thus enabling Judaism to be transformed and revitalized.

David Ruderman of the University of Pennsylvania argues in his book on early modern Jewry, there exists a causal relationship between Jewish mobility and cultural production. We arrive in a new place; we appreciate and absorb the blessings of that world; and, we are rendered a stronger Jewish community because of that encounter. In Cohen’s own words, “Assimilation properly channeled and exploited can be a blessing.”

What we find, in fact, is that out of crisis some of the most creative Jewish solutions have emerged. This is the time for us.  I happen to be a ridiculous optimist. As I engage with the generation of your kids and your grandkids, I see some very creative responses being born.

There is a need for liberal Judaism. There always has been. A good argument can be made that states liberal Judaism has in fact saved the Jewish people.

During the enlightenment when Jews had the option to live essentially Orthodox Jewish lives or no Jewish lives, Jews left and intermarried, assimilated converted in large numbers. The birth of Reform changed that trend. Conservative Judaism, born out of a desire to understand our texts through the eyes of history and a view of change as an indelible part of living as Jews, gave new energy to Jewish scholarship and Jewish life.

We provided a home for the massive number of immigrants in the early and middle part of the twentieth century. We Allowed them to become Americans and remain.

Conditions are different today. But we have the capacity to respond, and that response will include the creation of a new narrative to living Jewishly. It will include Shabbat, kashruth and learning. It will focus on building compassionate communities that are open to other Jews and to the world in a new and different way.

The Judaism we know began after a period of our destruction. At that time, if there were an internet, you would be reading that it was all over! It didn’t happen! We responded with creativity and looked forward to a new day. We used hope to stay alive. Learning became an essential component of this new Jewish life.

We love to kvetch, tend to see the dark side and the dangers, to express our fears. I also know what I see.

This is a vibrant community. It is not just vibrant here in this sanctuary, but it is vibrant in our schools and in our activities for family lives. We have hundreds of young families engaged in learning and in projects of tzedakah. I know there are places in our Movement, our Ramah camps and our Schechter schools where there remains vitality. And the same is certainly true in Reform.

Something is happening in relationship with the non-Jewish world. Yes, we are rightfully concerned about anti-Semitism, but let’s keep a certain perspective. Here we remain protected by law. Here we are leading politicians and journalists, businessmen and professors, doctors and lawyers. We are more intertwined with the non-Jewish world than ever before. And as Jews!

So that very source of oy gevaltmay also be a source of strength.

For you hardly know a non-Jewish family that doesn’t have Jewish members today.

 What do we make of that?

I would suggest that we think about it in terms of the product we have to offer and the influence we can extend. The power of family and the beauty of celebration, especially Shabbat.

Our tradition speaks very loudly about the most profound issues of our day – be it climate responsibility, treatment of others, women’s issues, respect and participation for the issues of gay rights or workers’ rights.  These are among the issues that your kids want to hear about.  Our tradition is focused on integrity and truth-telling. It is not a political assertion; it is a reflect of my own 60 years of Torah study!

Derech eretzis a central religious value.

And so, these are the notions that we must put out into the world.

Many of you know and many of you have heard about our TLC program.

Let me tell you,Tzedakah, Limudand Chesedare important because we serve people in need.  But they have served another purpose by bringing together hundreds of our young adults and kids working as Jews, in a framework of a Jewish community, doing what Jews are also obligated to do.

I want to share two rather trite sounding ideas about engaging people.

The first came to me years ago when I heard over and again that this was not a friendly shul. I knew why: No one was from here. Everyone was new. There were no owners. I used the Walmart model of friendliness and warmth, and convinced everyone who works here – from the security guards to the receptionists and the entire staff to approach everyone with friendliness.

And you know, we have turned this around. We are a friendly congregation! You are welcomed when you come here. We care.

From Walmart I turned to McDonald’s. Ray Kroc once said, bring the kids in and the parents will follow, and he invented the Happy Meal.

I know something, and you know it too: People want their kids in a safe environment.  They want their kids in the most creative place possible. They want their kids to feel they belong. They want the highest quality education! We are determined to do that, but it doesn’t end there. It beginsthere. Bring the kids in and the parents will follow!

Now we must build on all of that and be the place where young parents feel comfortable. They shouldn’t feel excluded because they don’t have backgrounds or because they have intermarried. Just the opposite. We need to teach them and make them feel part of our community and open the doors to learn more.

That takes a concerted effort.  It takes great professionals – including devoted rabbis and cantors – and your exceptional help to engage those young families.

And so, what is also our job? It is to fund it and see that it takes place. It can. It will. There is no way that we will lose our identity. We have inherited too much. We are too rich in tradition and meaning.

And so, you see … there is no one way. There are challenges, but we won’t survive because we turn backward. We will thrive when we look ahead and take the most meaningful traditions and values of the past and give them a voice!

Today we began the story of our descent into slavery. We survived that and went on to create the most meaningful ideas in the history of humanity.

Am Yisrael Chai. We do live. And we will continue to live.

L’Chayim Tovim.