November 19, 2018

Judaism as world wisdom

Sandra is in my office because her marriage is falling apart. She is not a member of any synagogue, and doesn’t consider herself religious. But she read some of my insights online and decided that a Jewish perspective might help her figure out her next move. 

Jason is 16 and wrestles with what his life is supposed to mean. He heard me speak, and could use help discovering a meaning for his existence. 

Yusuf writes on my public Facebook page that he’s a Muslim from Saudi Arabia. He doesn’t know any Jews, and I’m his rabbi. Kathy, a Catholic from Maine, writes that she feels the same.

We stand on the precipice of the third great transformation of Jewish life in modern times. It shouldn’t be news to any of us that Judaism has exhibited a dual tendency of retaining the value it inherited from the past and, at the same time, transforming that inheritance to advance the needs of each new age. That trend has accelerated. Judaism is emerging from tribal expression into a stream of world wisdom. 

The bulk of American Jews descend from the great immigration of 1880-1920, when Ashkenazi Jews left the Pale of Settlement for the East Coast of the United States. Most American Jews to this day are related to Ashkenazi Jews from Poland, Lithuania, Latvia, and the shtetls of Eastern and Central Europe. They fled to the United States, it should be noted, to get away from two repressive dangers: The first (and the one we love to talk about) are the Cossacks and anti-Semitism. But the second oppressive reality they fled was Orthodox rabbinic Judaism. Make no mistake, the learned and the pious stayed in Europe, and they and their descendants were murdered. 

We are the children and grandchildren of the plucky ignoramuses who wouldn’t take no for an answer. They didn’t bother asking their rabbis’ permission to move to New York, they just packed and left. Onboard, they flung their tefillin and their wigs into the turgid Atlantic. They were not only leaving Russian oppression, they were also escaping rabbinic oppression. No surprise that when they came to North America, the prerequisite was to create a safe, comfortable haven where they could be comfortable as they were: fighting the anti-Semitism of the surrounding culture and creating spaces where they didn’t have to feel excessively Jewish. Ironically, the only way they could avoid a sense of being “too Jewish” was to retreat to places where there were only other Ashkenazi Jews. They created the legendary lodges in the Catskills, where you could talk with your hands, eat pickled herring or pickled salmon (which is something!). The food was kosher and mostly mediocre, but you could order as much of it as you wanted. These havens hired Jewish artists and comedians who shared the immigrants’ humor and sensibilities. 

Those new American Jews needed a haven because the larger culture slammed shut the doors of opportunity. Our immigrant forebears were restricted to certain neighborhoods and specific jobs. They were criticized for talking too loud, with their hands, in Yiddish. They felt like outsiders and so they created institutions in which they would not have to deal with being different. No surprise that they created synagogues where a congregant didn’t have to be too Jewish and wouldn’t get hassled for the patina of Jewish they maintained. These Americanized synagogues successfully met the needs of that first generation. What is extraordinary is that these Jews erected institutions throughout the country. They built synagogues, they established rabbinical schools, and created institutions of Jewish learning and culture that enabled them to successfully navigate the larger culture while feeling at home in this adopted country. 

Their institutions successfully met their needs, but those needs are no longer our own. 

The second great transformation of American-Jewish life took place around and after World War II when millions of our people were butchered back in the very countries we had fled a generation or two earlier. The pressing issue was no longer how do we conform to the ways of this country or even how to gain a foothold, but how to combat the virulent midcentury anti-Semitism? How to create a space for ourselves as Jews where we can be participants in the robust and raucous life of American democracy? To meet these new needs, the institutions that were created and modified in this generation were no longer places to retreat so we didn’t have to be consciously Jewish, this post-War generation created powerful anti-defamation leagues. They expanded congresses and committees. Now was a time to mediate Jewish power in democratic contexts: They scrambled to generate effective ways to support the Zionist effort creating a Jewish democracy in the Middle East, and they created agencies that would engage in the political system and the cultural life of America. This is the period in which the Jews took advantage of the openings in American life, attending their colleges and universities, composing the music sung in their musicals. We became their entertainers, their artists, their doctors and their experts. That age reaped unprecedented success for the postwar generation of Jews. 

Nobody today comments on the disproportionate number of Jews in the Supreme Court or in Congress. It is commonplace to hear Yiddish in the entertainment industry, the finance industry, business and academia. That presence is a tribute to the success of the second transformation of American-Jewish life, the time in which we intensified our Jewishness and insisted that we had the right to apply the lesson of the civil rights and women’s liberation movement: that we could be ourselves not only in private (which is what the first generation established), but also adamantly in public. In ways large and small, we put big Jewish institutions out there for the whole world to see. That was the second wave. 

Today’s challenge with the first and second wave is that they succeeded. They accomplished what they set out to do. American Jews by and large feel comfortable in private and safe in public. And we feel safe exerting pressure on the political system as a whole. This past summer witnessed the American-Jewish community engage in a brutal internal debate on the Iran nuclear deal, a contentious issue of international concern, with Jewish institutions publically exerting enormous political pressure on the United States Senate and with a popularly elected president (who most Jews support) willing to go head to head on an issue that many in the community felt was vital to its own well-being. Whether you agree with that move or not, what’s noteworthy is there were no earthshaking repercussions: Jews were still invited to two Chanukah parties in a kashered White House. Both Democrats and the Republicans still compete to represent Jewish voters and invite Jewish engagement in the upcoming elections. 

Jews are a public facet of American-Jewish life. 

The first two generations’ waves have succeeded, but we paid an unanticipated price for that success. That price is that we can no longer use fear to inspire Jewish living anymore. We can’t use guilt, ethnic solidarity or insecurity as a reason to be Jewish anymore. These claims are what motivated Jewish life in this country for a century: terror and anti-Semitism, the specter of being rejected, isolated and marginalized; these just don’t sell anymore. We Jews live in the same neighborhoods, graduate from the same schools, attend the same universities, enter the same professions, and offer our counsel at every level of business, in academia, in science and in government. 

So, what’s left? What are the needs of today? 

It turns out that Judaism is one of the great traditions of world wisdom. We have nurtured a way of life that has caressed and strengthened a resilient people throughout our wanderings. Whatever the political conditions in each age, Jews could retreat to Torah learning, to the practice of mitzvot (literally commandments, but much more: embodied practices of holiness and responsiveness), to warm and engaging community. In that embrace, they could emerge renewed. 

We have wandered through persecutions and exaltation, into places that were happy to host us and other places that could barely abide our presences. In and out of all of those locations, we carried Torah with us because it made our lives better. Torah – the living and the learning — molded us to be more resilient and stronger.

The time for fear has ended. No one will be scared into being Jewish anymore, and they shouldn’t. Yes, resurgent anti-Semitism afflicts Europe, roiling some of our college campuses, and criticism of Israel’s policies often masks a murderous hatred of Israelis and Jews. These phenomena are real and must be contained. But we are no longer trapped in passive terror. 

Much of the world is open to our insights. Because it turns out the Book of Deuteronomy is right. The Torah tells us, “this is your wisdom and your understanding in the sight of the nations, who, when they shall hear all these statutes, shall say, Surely this great nation is a wise and understanding people” (Deuteronomy 4:6), that we are to live our lives in such a way that the nations of the world will look at our practice and say, “What a wise people! What a great God!” Rashi’s interpretation removes any possible misunderstanding: This verse speaks about wisdom. Rav Saadia observes that it is specifically about justice and truth. The standard for Jewish authenticity is wisdom, justice and truth, such that a well-meaning gentile will notice and be inspired.

What would it look like to elevate that criterion for this third tide of American-Jewish life? This hunger for wisdom is not limited to North America. Those same dynamics now affect Jewish life in Europe, Israel, Latin America, Canada, Australia and everywhere there are Jews. Indeed, we are blessed to live in an age in which millions of non-Jews are willing to glean Jewish wisdom if it will help them live better lives. An example: Hospitals now routinely consult with experts in Jewish bioethics (along with other spiritual/ethical counselors) to practice a humane form of medicine. Several years ago, Harvard convened a conference on the environmental challenge that included authorities in Jewish traditions of land and living with the earth. Sharing traditions like letting the land rest every seven years or the Sabbath as a day of harmony with creation offer assistance to a humanity lacking in tools for better living. We will win Jewish (and universal) allegiance if Judaism is robust, if Judaism augments human life, if people can thrive better because of the wisdom Judaism brings to our lives and our communities. Rabbi Harold Schulweis offered an early example of this approach when he established pro bono legal, psychological and para-rabbinic counseling at Valley Beth Shalom as a way of conveying Jewish wisdom and care for any who sought it. The offer of wisdom drew in people.

So that’s the task. That’s what’s going to bring in today’s people. This network of emergent communities, the more established Jewish institutions, the camps that we run, the youth groups that we offer, the adult education, the introduction programs — all of them are a constant effort to give back to the Jewish people and humanity what is already theirs: this ancient and time-tested path for being human. But that old/new goal changes our rhetoric. This passage in Deuteronomy invites us to admit that the standard by which we judge whether someone is a good Jew is no longer how punctilious they are in particular rituals or prohibitions. The question we must train ourselves to ask is: If someone who isn’t already engaged in Jewish practice were to look at your life or community, would they say, “Wow! I love how Judaism augments their values, the way they treat each other, the way they include the outcast, the way they pursue lives of justice and compassion. I want to be more like them, because the Judaism that keeps them strong and keeps them focused and keeps their eye on the goal makes them kinder and sweeter and wiser and more generous and more resilient. And I need some of that, too”?

What if we placed the criteria for a good Jew not in the hands of a small cabal of rabbis and agencies who assess Jewish status by how well one practices a particular ritual, how learned and literate they are in ancient texts, how pure their bloodlines, how vocal their nationalism? Those characteristics can indeed matter, but they are important for what they cultivate, not as an end in themselves. They ought to deliver a mensch (think, for example, of Ruth Messinger of American Jewish World Service, Elie Wiesel, Betty Friedan, Jerry Seinfeld, Ruth Bader Ginsburg), which should be apparent even for someone who doesn’t read Hebrew or Aramaic or is able to supervise a kosher establishment. 

This kind of decency ought to be visible in the way we conduct our lives with ourselves, with our loved ones, with each other and how we engage the world. That’s what our Torah passage insists: that a gentile will look at our lives and recognize that whatever is inspiring us is wise and good and would benefit anyone. But let’s add another group into that mix. Maybe when we say “the nations” we ought to include that large sector of our own people who are themselves wrestling with Jewish illiteracy and ambivalence. How about all those Jews who don’t know how to practice mitzvot? When they look at our religiosity, are they inspired? Or do they recoil before what appears to them as lunacy and cruelty? 

If our passion for Judaism makes us appear insane, smug and judgmental, well, the Torah has already weighed in on whether that counts as good Judaism. Rashi is already agreed with Deuteronomy’s judgment whether it does or not. 

I want to be clear here: I am not arguing against rigorous learning or scrupulous practice. But if the practice does not lead to a broadness of heart, it is no service to God. If it doesn’t lead to a deeper capacity to feel the pain of your fellow human being, to take on their suffering as your own, if it doesn’t allow you to rejoice when something good happens to the one sitting next to you, then what is it for?

Our challenge as Jews hoping to mentor this next wave is to help midwife the transition from Judaism as an ethnic enclave into Judaism as a world tradition of wisdom. We have what to teach: that God sides with the outcast seeking liberation and that all must be included (Passover seder), that we are more than our résumés (Shabbat), that the land owns us rather than the other way round (ger toshav), and that all people deserve respect and dignity (tzelem Elohim). We have what to share with the world: our values, our stories, our traditions and guidelines, our love of a place, our ways of sanctifying time and family, our hunger for justice. 

Ours may be the greatest secret that humanity has yet to discover because it has been hiding in plain view. And it is our job to bring it out there into the world. There are bright lights already pushing back the shadows, groups like CLAL, the Hartman Institute, American Jewish University’s Whizin programs, Rabbi Benny Lau’s innovative 929.org, Ron Wolfson’s relational Judaism and countless others.

To do that, you have to know the sources. How else can we transmit the wisdom that people are starving for if we don’t ourselves become fluent in it? 

How can we become their teachers if we don’t teach them the language of our classics, if we do not teach them the rhythms of Hebrew and its multiple layers conveying meaning over meaning if we don’t ourselves become practitioners?  

How can we show people what a life of spiritual discipline can be if we don’t root ourselves in that Tree of Life, the Torah and its forest of sacred commentaries (midrash, Talmud, codes, philosophy, kabbalah, hasidut, etc), and grow in mitzvot as well? 

But if we do these things simply as a way to judge others more harshly, if we perform these mitzvot thinking they are the criteria for Jewish judgmentalism, then we betray our own heritage. We turn our back on God, and in this age, no one is putting up with it anymore because they can live a perfectly fine life without it.

So the only reason left for engaging in Torah, the only reason left for our pursuit of mitzvot, is because it brings joy, because it augments depth, and because it heightens wisdom, resilience and community in an age that is scared and desperately lonely and exhausted by the pain of making it through another day. We are, I believe, the heirs of one of humanity’s most beautiful creations, one of God’s greatest gifts. Our heritage is truly something shimmering and on a hill, but it is our job to take it off the hill. It is our job to become so welcoming with it and so good at providing access to it, that we can share it with those who have not yet accessed it. And by those I mean three categories of people: 

I mean Jews who have been swimming in the sea of Torah for a long time and have lost their way. Lost their way because they thought that being punctilious was the end in itself, the goal rather than a means to an end. We can help them through our living to see Torah as a path for a greater life. 

I mean a path for those Jews who have been so wounded by the way Judaism was presented to them, inflicted on them, that all they had when they turned to Torah was pain and rage. We can help to show them there’s another way, a truer way in which Torah becomes the balm of its own healing, and Torah becomes the solution to the problems that its defenders took upon themselves to inflict.

And I mean a new group in this day and age: those legions of human beings (and they number in the thousands if not millions), people who are open to wisdom wherever they find it, people who are willing in the same day to practice Hindu yoga, Zen meditation, listen to a talk of the Dalai Lama and read a tweet from Pope Francis. Yes, they are willing to look at the Facebook page of a rabbi or sage if it can offer something to help them live a better life (check out facebook.com/rabbiartson, facebook.com/rabbiwolpe or facebook.com/accidentaltalmudist for three great examples). 

In an age when people are finally willing to embrace the wisdom of Judaism, don’t we owe it to them to make it available, to be able to first of all wrap ourselves in it like a cloak, and then to be able to share the warmth with those who cross our paths? Don’t we owe it to them to seek them out and help them with Torah’s wisdom whether they are Jewish or not? This isn’t about changing the label; it is about giving access to a tradition that has inspired and transformed human life across the ages. The digital revolution opens access through blogs, online magazines and newspapers, podcasts and videos. Any teacher can enrich our lives anywhere.

What we are sitting on is too precious for us to try to own or monopolize. This is no time for business as usual, no time for simply doing Jewish without opening it to the world. The resilience of Judaism comes from having been repackaged from a time when we were assaulted, and at the same time, allowing us to renew ourselves for each new age. Now is the time for us to be renewed, to allow this time, this day, this age to forge new contact to the Torah of healing, the Torah of humanity, the Torah of wisdom and compassion, and to allow ourselves to be made over in its image so that we ourselves will be forces for healing in turn.


Rabbi Bradley Shavit Artson (bradartson.com) holds the Abner and Roslyn Goldstine Dean’s Chair of the Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies and is vice president of American Jewish University in Los Angeles.