September 19, 2019

Running to Us: Haftarat Noah, Isaiah 54:1-55:5

Haftarat Noah reminds us of a relatively unattractive aspect of the Haftarah cycle: whoever redacted particular prophetic writings could have done a better job.  Later in the cycle, we find the precise same verses for two other Haftarot: Re’eh (54:11-55:5) and Ki Tetze (54:1-10). The prophetic corpus doesn’t lack for inspiring passages: what’s the point of the repetition? And why yoke the other two haftarot together?

We might begin to discover the answer in the cryptic prediction that concludes the haftarah:

You shall summon a nation you did not know,
And a nation that did not know you
Shall come running to you –
For the sake of the Lord your God,
The Holy One of Israel has glorified you.

What is this all about? It echoes the song of David contained in 2 Samuel 22:44 and Psalms 18:44: “Peoples I knew not must serve me.” But there is an important difference here: whatever it means for an unknown nation to “come running” (yirutzu), it differs from service (y’avduni). The prophecy deliberately creates ambiguity.

Although scholars seem to have overlooked it, the meaning seems straightforward historically. Isaiah 55, sometimes called “Second Isaiah,” appears to have been written at the end of the Babylonian exile, when the Judeans eagerly anticipated liberation from the Persians. They realized that the mighty Persian Empire – a nation Israel “did not know” — would not serve them, so the wise prophet simply left it vague.

The prophecy’s very opacity practically begs for explanation. And for contemporary Jews, both Israeli and American, two interpretations offer themselves.

There aren’t many Jews in the world – only 13 million. But Judaism and the Jewish people have a tremendous amount to offer the world – and in its own blinkered way, the world knows it.

Refugees and migrant workers throughout the world see Israel as a prime destination. They are not fools. They want to become Israeli. Quite literally, they are running to us.

Israel’s response to this potential influx has not exactly made it a light to the nations. More than 300,000 migrant workers – mostly from China, the Philippines, and eastern Europe — do the lion’s share of the unseen, often menial labor throughout the nation. “>Transit traces the travails of a Filipino immigrant family in Tel Aviv desperately trying to protect its children from the relentless patrols of the immigration police. The childrens’ deportation would certainly follow, as only adults have status. Just consider that for a moment: it is official Israeli policy to separate even very young children from their parents.

Perhaps, however, there is a way to actualize the old cliche, and turn a crisis into an opportunity. What if potential migrant workers received Israeli citizenship if they agree to become Jewish? Actually, that already is the law. So why is there no effort to exchange conversion for citizenship?

The traditional attitude is that such an exchange would constitute a false conversion, and there is obviously a great deal to this. But this argument only begins the inquiry. The first generation of immigrants rarely sees itself as adopting its new country as its own. Children are different. They gradually become assimilated into the dominant culture – a worry in America, but an opportunity in Israel. In Transit, the elder teenage daughter dates a Jewish boy and does not understand when her mother speaks Tagalog.

Her younger brother develops a warm friendship with an elderly Holocaust survivor being cared for by the boy’s father. The old man teaches the young boy a love of Judaism, including how to leyn the weekly parasha.

“How do you become Jewish?” the little boy asks his father.

After some thought, the man replies, “I don’t know. I think you have to be born that way.”

My heart broke when I heard that, as Transit’s director may have wanted it to. Here is a little boy beautifully learning his Torah portion, aching to stay in Israel, and the country is so prejudiced that it does not even offer the family a choice. Somehow we need to adapt conversion practices – which includes conversion halacha — to broaden and deepen the Jewish people. Doing it right would make the demographic worries about the Jewish state’s future sound quaint. (Reason #613 why the ultra-Orthodox monopoly on the rabbinate must be broken).

I know: it’s a movie. We might wonder how many Filipino kindergarteners can leyn their parasha.  But are we really so pessimistic about Jewish civilization and spirituality that we believe outsiders would reject it?

Certainly American Jews have little interest in exploring the answer to the question. Robert D. Putnam and David E. Campbell’s magisterial “>Miller Introduction to Judaism program (led by the dynamic and talented Rabbi Adam Greenwald), but there is no concerted effort to find the “nones” and show them what Jewish spirituality and the Jewish people have to offer. They are seeking – running to us – and we are ignoring them.

Hillel spends millions of dollars on outreach to young Jews, but makes no effort to reach out to young nones. And for non-professional Jews, the situation is even worse. Consider this: if someone came to you and mentioned something about wanting to be Jewish, would you have any idea what to say to them? Could you present an honest, loving, and passionate account of the meaning of Jewish experience?

Jews are uncomfortable with proselytization, and for good reason. But there is a vast region of outreach between rejection and proselytization: we can be open, encouraging  and welcoming “>Wall Street Journal op-ed started an important conversation about bringing conversion to the forefront of Jewish concerns. We need more voices to support Chancellor Eisen, as well as extending his call for rabbis “to use every means to explicitly and strongly advocate for conversion,” to also involve congregants in the process.  Isaiah, after all, does not say that the nation will run to Israel’s clergy, but to Israel itself.

The Jewish community has become so focused on its own victimhood that we do not recognize when non-Jews are trying to join us. As Isaiah says at the beginning of Haftarat Noah:

Enlarge the size of your tent
Extend the size of your dwelling
Do not stint!
Lengthen the ropes, and drive the pegs firm

Perhaps that is the answer for the question posed at the beginning: why create such a long Haftarah, comprising more than a whole chapter of Isaiah? Simply put, doing so connects the injunction to enlarge the tent with the prophecy of foreign nations running to us. We enlarge the tent by welcoming those nations into our home. That is profound, and powerful, and meaningful.

God has given contemporary Jewry the precious gift of foreign nations seeking us.  This is strange, and unfamiliar, and an enormous opportunity. How will we answer?