February 28, 2020

The Blues Brothers Were Right

Someday, I will start a Jewish oldies program on late night radio. My theme song would be the classic hymn: “All The World Shall Come To Serve Thee,” which is an authentic musical souvenir of our classical Reform heritage.

All the world shall come to serve Thee
  And bless Thy glorious Name,
And Thy righteousness triumphant
  The islands shall acclaim.
And the peoples shall go seeking        
  Who knew Thee not before,
And the ends of earth shall praise Thee,
  And tell Thy greatness o’er.

“All The World” makes some of us cringe. It seems presumptuous, and pretentious, and triumphalist. It is actually an authentic Jewish text that goes back at least as far as the year 1000, and most likely earlier than this. So, we are talking about a very golden oldie.

The translation itself is a classic piece of modern Jewish literature. Its author was the great British Jewish novelist and playwright Israel Zangwill – who lived from 1864 to 1926 – who was a staunch Zionist, and who also invented the term “the melting pot” in his play of the same name, which he wrote in 1908.

So why do I love this notably old-fashioned hymn?

Because it actually answers the question that we rarely ask” Why should the Jews even exist? Is it because the world needs a nation of comedians, and of Nobel Prize winners, or a people whose main culinary achievement is overly salted foods?

No. “All The World” basically says that the Jewish people has a mission that goes beyond itself.  God had told Abraham, right at the beginning of Jewish history: “Be a blessing.” Share My dream of the world. Make a difference.

Your descendants will be, in the words of the old Blues Brothers’ movie, on a mission from God. Your descendants will have something to teach the world.
Not everyone will believe that this is either true or possible. The events of the past summer, the incursion into Gaza and the flood of anti-Semitism, unprecedented since the Shoah, has made many Jews skittish. In the wake of the Yom Kippur War, Cynthia Ozick wrote an article for Esquire magazine, famously titled “The Whole World Wants The Jews Dead.” Cynthia was wrong.

Nevertheless, there is the overwhelming temptation for us Jews to turn inwards, and to build our walls ever higher.

That would be precisely the wrong strategy.

Now, perhaps more than ever, the world needs a Jewish voice. Even and especially at a time of rising anti-Semitism, we need to remind the world of who we are, and what we stand for, and what we teach.

So, what should we be saying to the world – that the world needs to hear?

Here is my short list.

First, the idea of the essential dignity of every human being.

A few years ago, at the dedication of the National Museum of Jewish History in Philadelphia, my teacher Rabbi Yitz Greenberg offered a parody of Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address:

Four millennia ago, our forefathers and mothers brought forth on this earth a new religion, proclaiming the presence of a universal loving Creator. We held these truths to be self-evident that all human beings are created in the image of God, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain fundamental dignities, that among these are infinite value, equality and uniqueness.

If anyone ever asks you: What does God look like? What does God’s face look like? – you might suggest the following answer: All of us. All of us, together, constitute the face of God. As the contemporary scholar of mysticism, Melilah Helner-Eshed, once suggested, all of us are pixels in the face of God.

Yitz Greenberg goes on to teach: The Messianic Age will come when all of the political, social and legal institutions in the world will be structured so that every human being is treated as if he or she is made in God’s image.

Second, the idea of pluralism.

Think about what passes, or tries to pass, for discussion about the most sensitive and the most controversial topics in America today. Most of the time, people tend to demonize their opponents. They tend to ascribe only the worst intentions and motives to the people with whom they disagree.

But that is not how Judaism views the world.

Do you know what the first text that an Orthodox Jew learns in the yeshiva? It must be about the Sh’ma, right? No, it must be about kashrut, right?

Wrong. It’s from the Mishnah, the classic code of Jewish law written 1800 years ago. It is in Bava Metziah. If two people find a coat, and one says that the coat is his, and the other person says that the coat is his – what do they do?

They divide it.

This is actually not about dividing coats – it is about saying: I don’t have the entire truth, and neither do you.

This is precisely what Judaism should be saying to America at this most difficult time in her history: We are living with very complex challenges in our nation.

Complexity means that you are permitted to see the other side of an issue. You are allowed to blink, and you are allowed to think, and you are allowed to change your mind.

Third: responsibilities might be even more important than rights.

Every time I drive to Bayonne, I have a beautiful view of the Statue of Liberty.

Perhaps in California, on the opposite coast, we need another statue – not another Statue of Liberty, but a Statue of Obligations.

I say this because it sometimes feels that America is overdosing on the rhetoric of rights. “I have a right to….” Fill in the blank.

But, in fact, if we wanted to have this conversation in Hebrew, we would have a lot of difficulty.

There is no good Hebrew term for “rights.”  But there are many words for “responsibilities” — chiyuv, mitzvah, and so on.

Imagine how this sense of responsibility versus rights could change the entire American conversation about health care. It might be that everyone has a right to health care.

But if we look at this through a Jewish lens, we might discover that Maimonides, in the Mishneh Torah, taught that all societies have the obligation to provide health care to their citizens.

We Reform Jews love to say that we have a right to make up our own minds about what we are going to do with our Jewish lives – if we even do anything at all. And that would be true.

But we also have obligations – to the Jewish past, to the Jewish present, and to the Jewish future – to live in such a way that this great and noble tradition can live and thrive.

And finally, the idea that time is holy.
The most important book that the great teacher Abraham Joshua Heschel ever wrote was The Sabbath. He wrote it in 1950. It is a very thin book. Read it. You will love it.

1950 was the beginning of American Jewry’s post-war period of prosperity. Heschel came to understand that when people constantly strive for wealth and for “stuff,” that this could become a great spiritual danger.

Listen to what he wrote:

The seventh day is the armistice in man’s cruel struggle for existence, a truce in all conflicts, personal and social, peace between man and man, man and nature, peace within man, a day on which handling money is a desecration, on which man avows his independence of that which is the world’s chief idol.

Perhaps the greatest Christian preacher in America today is a woman named Barbara Brown Taylor. Listen to her words.

When it comes to the Jewish Sabbath, I freely indulge in what I call “holy envy.” When I find something in another religious tradition that sets my heart on fire, I wish that it were mine…

Because our work is so often how we both rank and rule over one another, resting from it gives us a rest from our own pecking orders as well. When the Wal-Mart cashier and the bank president are both lying on picnic blankets at the park, it is hard to tell them apart.

Shabbat is the model for how society can be healed, for the temporary cessation of social hierarchy – a day of being at peace with the world and with yourself.

A Judaism that does not speak to the world is a Judaism that does not speak at all. A Judaism that does not speak to the world is a Judaism that is useless, a mere ethnic remembrance – a Judaism that is the worst thing imaginable – a Judaism that is boring.

What is at stake here is far more than what Judaism has to say to the world.

What is at stake here is what Judaism has to say to our children and grandchildren.

Our children and our grandchildren are asking us: Why be Jewish? Especially on the college campus — where the very idea of Israel is under attack, and where our kids hear that Judaism itself is irrelevant: our young people are asking: Why should I bother?

They should bother because Judaism has much to teach the world. That will be the greatest Jewish gift to the world: the gift of God.

“And the peoples shall go seeking
Who knew Thee not before…”

(This is an expanded version of my essay in All The World: Universalism, Particularism and the High Holy Days, edited by Lawrence Hoffman (Jewish Lights).