Saturday, October 26, 2013

Wells of Wisdom / Toldot

Frank Zappa once said: Information is not knowledge. Knowledge is not wisdom. Wisdom is not truth. Truth is not beauty. Beauty is not love. Love is not music. Music is the best.” I’m not so sure about the implied hierarchy here but I am certain that information, and even knowledge, are not wisdom. My mind reels when I consider how many sources and outlets there are for information, many at my fingertips thanks to a computer. But again, information and knowledge are not the same as wisdom. And alas! We cannot google wisdom and it is wisdom to need to live meaningful and purposeful lives.

Marcel Proust wrote, “We are not provided with wisdom, we must discover it for ourselves, after a journey through the wilderness which no one else can take for us, and effort which no one can spare us. (In Search of Lost Time Vol. II: Within a Budding Grove, 1919)

Isaac’s life exemplifies this principle. Isaac, who once lay beneath the blade of a knife, has a perspective and experiences most of us lack. He lives a quieter, less dramatic life than either his father or son, but within the quieter parameters, we find he is every bit as active in his search for divine wisdom.

In this week’s parashah, Toldot, there is much talk of wells. I suppose that shouldn’t come as a surprise given the arid desert in which the narratives take place. Proust’s wilderness? Water that comes from the arid earth is like wisdom, so difficult to acquire; and digging wells reminds us that the search for wisdom—genuine wisdom— is arduous. But it’s worth the effort because wisdom, like water, is life sustaining.

The Sfat Emet (Rabbi Yehudah Aryeh Leib Alter of Ger, 1847–1905) comments:

Regarding the wells the patriarchs dug: the word be’er (well) should be read in the context of, “Moses agreed to explain/clarify (bei’eir) this teaching” (Deuteronomy 1:5). In the same way, even before the Torah was received [at Mt. Sinai], the patriarchs explained/”welled” the wisdom of Creation, since everything was created through Torah and for God’s glory. We have to contemplate all of Creation in order to understand the Creator’s purpose. Abraham our Father explained/”welled” how to derive the love of God from all of Creation.

This passage is easier to understand in the original Hebrew than it is in translation. I hope I can succeed in explaining what the Sfat Emet is teaching us. He connects the word “well” (b’eir) in our parashah with the use of bei’eir, written precisely the same way in un-pointed Hebrew, which means to explicate, elucidate, clarify, or explain. The Sfat Emet thereby imagines the word “well” to be a verb, explaining that what Moses is doing when he teaches Torah to the Israelites is “welling.” Hence Isaac, in his flurry of well-digging, is explaining Torah, as Moses did. But Isaac lived long before matan Torah (the Giving of the Torah at Mount Sinai), so we might well ask: How could Isaac teach a Torah that hasn’t been given yet? The Sfat Emet offers us a beautiful response to this question: Torah existed before Creation; the Rabbis tell us (Bereishit Rabbah 1:1) it was the blueprint with which God fashioned the world.

The Sfat Emet’s comment is a prescient reminder about torah (I write torah with a lower-case “t” to connote divine wisdom, which is not necessary explicitly articulated in the Five Books of Moses). There is torah all about us: divine wisdom we learn from the world and from within. S’fat Emet reminds us that [capital “T”] Torah, the Five Books of Moses, and many would include the Talmud, or [lower case “t”] torah, divine wisdom from many sources, is available to us if we but dig for it.

We can see the many wells recounted in Parshat Toldot as signposts reminding us of seven sources of divine wisdom.

First, Isaac digs anew the wells of his father Abraham:

So Isaac departed from there and encamped in the wadi of Gerar where he settled. Isaac dug anew the wells that had been dug in the days of his father Abraham and that the Philistines had stopped up after Abraham’s death, and he gave them the same names that his father had given them. (Genesis 26:17-18)

Isaac re-dug the wells of his father Abraham. The generations before, and the sacred books and traditions they bequeathed us, have both Torah and torah to teach us.

The second, third, and fourth sources of wisdom we learn from the well of fresh spring water that Isaac’s servants find. (Genesis 26:19-21) As water is the metaphor for Torah—mayim chaim/life-giving waters, the well of fresh spring water reminds us that torah wisdom comes, as well, from new interpretations. The herdsmen of Gerar claim that the spring is theirs, as if to say, “This water, this wisdom, is ours.” The third source of wisdom is other traditions and cultures that possess valuable wisdom. Isaac drank their water.  Fourth is the wisdom gleaned from pain and suffering. The wells of Esek and Sitnah reflect the contention and struggles between Isaac and the herdsmen of Gerar. I’ve yet to speak with someone who has gone through a crisis, or experienced trauma, or survived a dangerous situation who has not gleaned wisdom from their experience.

Next Isaac moves on and digs a well he names Rehoboth, saying, “Now at last the Lord has granted us ample space to increase in the land” (Genesis 26:22). Rehoboth means, “wide, open space.” So, too, the world itself is the fifth source of divine wisdom, and it is ours if we dig within and open ourselves to make space to receive it.

Sixth, Torah tells us:

From there [Isaac] went up to Beer-sheba. That night the Lord appeared to him and said, ‘I am the God of your father Abraham. Fear not, for I am with you, and I will bless you and increase your offspring for the sake of My servant Abraham.’ So [Isaac] built an altar there and invoked the Lord by name. Isaac pitched his tent there and his servants started digging a well. (Genesis 26:23-25)

A sixth source of wisdom comes to us from our relationship with the One, God who is ultimate, accessible, a well of compassion, justice, love, and wisdom that never dries up—whether we encounter God as being beyond us or within us.

Avimelekh arrives in Beersheba to make a peace treaty with Isaac. The following day Isaac digs two more wells.

Early in the morning, [Isaac and Avimelekh) exchanged oaths. Isaac then bade them farewell, and they departed from him in peace. That same day Isaac’s servants came and told him about the well they had dug, and he said to him, “we have found water!” He named it Shiv’ah; therefore the name of the city is Beer-sheva to this day.[1] (Genesis 26:31-33)

The seventh source of divine wisdom emanates from living in the community of others, both those like us and those different from us. Isaac digs a well in Beersheba, where his parents had lived and where his descendants would live, but also a place where many other peoples would live. Isaac breaks ground for a new community to blossom and thrive. (Genesis 26:32-33)

From how many of these seven sources have you drawn wisdom? Is there one or more that have not been on your screen but perhaps have something to offer you?

Isaac works hard to find wisdom, and even harder to employ it in his life. He is not always successful any more than we are. He lives by the adage:

Don’t wish life were easier; wish you were better.
Don’t wish for fewer challenges; wish for more wisdom.

I imagine that Isaac’s daily prayer might be, “God, grant me strength to wrest wisdom from every corner of life in this universe, and the ability to use that wisdom in all that I do each day!”

© Rabbi Amy Scheinerman

[1] This passage depends upon a pun in the Hebrew: Beersheba’s name is derived from a pun. The “Seven Wells” (sheva = seven) are also the “Well of Oath” (sh’vu-ah = oath).

Monday, October 21, 2013

The Little Prince's vision / Chayei Sara

I was 12 when I first read Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s The Little Prince in summer camp. I returned to it in high school when we read it in the original in French class. 

If you have read the book, you undoubtedly recall the drawing of a boa constrictor that swallowed an elephant, which children easily recognize, but adults—lacking imagination and insight—mistake for a hat.

The Little Prince travels through the universe to allay his loneliness. His first stop is Asteroid 325, home of a king, attired in magnificent royal habiliments, seated on a throne—and entirely alone. The king claims to rule over all the stars and planets, yet there is no one who obeys him because no one is even aware of him. The king’s way of ruling is to promulgate laws that coincide with what people are already doing or wish to do. Seeing that the Little Prince is reading, he imperiously demands:

I order you to keep reading! I order you! You see, you are already reading so my request is reasonable. I order you to keep reading. I do not allow insubordination, but I do not ask unreasonable things of my subjects. I order you to keep reading, but only if you want to. If you are going to stop, I command you to do so, but only if you are going to. I have a magnificent air of authority.

When the Little Prince asks the king to order the sun to set, the king consults an almanac and says yes, he will do so at 7:40 pm. The king wears the accouterments of a ruler, and speaks grandly, but his authority is meaningless, his power illusory.

The king leapt to mind as I perused this week’s parashah, Chayei Sara, and came upon a rabbinic comment, which I will share just as soon as I explain what the Rabbis are responding to in the Torah text. Preparing to send Eliezer off to Haran to find a wife for Isaac, Abraham adjures him,

“Put your hand under my thigh and I will make you swear by the Lord, the God of heaven and the God of the earth that you will not take a wife for my son from the daughters of the Canaanites among whom I dwell but will go to the land of my birth and get a wife for my son Isaac” (Genesis 23:2-4).

We might be curious about the hand-under-the-thigh ritual, but the Rabbis latch onto a far more ordinary, seemingly prosaic, phrase: “the God of heaven and the God of the earth.” The Hebrew here is not the usual Elohei shamayim va’aretz/God of heaven and earth, but rather Elohei shamayim veilohei ha-aretz/God of heaven and God of earth. Rabbi Pinchas explains it this way:

Abraham said, “Before I made God known to God’s creatures, he was the God of heaven; now that I have made him known to his creatures he is the God of the earth.” (Genesis Rabbah 59:8)

Is R. Pinchas saying that God needs Abraham to make God known to people in order for God to rule on earth? Like the king on Asteroid 325, whom no one knows, God cannot influence people until they know God, which is to say, until they are mindful of God, aware that divinity resides in them, fully conscious of their moral capacity, and attuned to their spiritual power. Without these, people simply do what they want to do, or what is instinctual, dutifully obeying the vapid commands of the king on Asteroid 325: they are beholden only to themselves.  We all need to know that, and while we sometimes succeed at reminding ourselves of our divine potential and capacity, often we need another to remind us or tell us. Conversely, we can be that someone who reminds another person.

Abraham’s role is to introduce into the world some radical ideas: People are not just subjects of the King, but children of the King. People are not merely animals that eat, breath, compete and procreate, but human beings endowed with insight, moral discernment, and the capacity for so much good. People are far more than slaves to the Sovereign; they are architects, designers, and builders of civilization and guardians of the planet. Knowing God means recognizing our own moral and divine potential.

Without awareness, we cannot know that. And so the Rabbis also explain a verse from the book of the prophet Isaiah:

“You are My witnesses—declares the Lord—My servant, whom I have chosen, to the end that you may take thought and believe in Me and understand that I am He. Before Me no god was formed, and after Me none shall exist” (Isaiah 43:10). R. Shimon bar Yochai explained: “If you are my witnesses then I am the One, the first One, neither shall there be any after Me. But if you are not My witnesses, I am not, as it were, God.” (P’sikta D’Rav Kahana, 12)

Without mindfulness, we cannot fulfill our mandate.

Long ago, I read a moving story recounted by Rabbi Paysach J. Krohn, published in several books, and circulated far and wide through the internet. Perhaps you’ve already heard it. It is told by the father of a learning-disabled boy named Shaya, who longs to play baseball with his peers although he barely knows how to hold a bat. Shaya watches the boys in his class playing and asks to join them. With a shrug, Shaya is given an at-bat in the ninth inning since they are behind by six runs in the eighth. By the time the boy comes to bat, however, the score is even. Shaya swings clumsily and misses the first two pitches, so the pitcher takes a few steps forward and tosses the ball gently. Shaya swings and hits the ball, a slow grounder. The opposing team throws the ball wildly far over the first baseman’s head, allowing Shaya to run to first. Again the ball is thrown too far, and Shaya reaches second base. The children cheer him on. He rounds third and runs to home with the children from both teams cheering him on. Shaya’s home run wins the game.

God says,

You shall be holy, for I the Lord your God, am holy. (Leviticus 19:2)

Shaya’s classmates understand this verse in its fullest sense. They were God’s witnesses.

Is there someone who reminds you of the divine spark of holiness within you, your value and potential? When was the last time you reminded someone else? The question before us today and every day, especially in all the challenging, stressful, aggravating and infuriating situations we face at work and at home, with friends, family and community, is: Can we see, and do we help others to see, beyond the ordinary, beyond the mundane? Do we see the boa constrictor swallowing the elephant, or does our vision extend no further than a mere hat? Can we see beyond what is, to what might be?

© Rabbi Amy Scheinerman

Sunday, October 13, 2013

Housekeeping in a cave. Really? / Vayera

From the Boy Scouts (here and here) to the Catholic Church (here and here) to the ultra-Orthodox Jewish community (here and here) to the Evangelical churches (here and here) to the U.S. Army (here), there is an epidemic of child sexual abuse here in America—abuse that is either tacitly accepted, deviously covered up, or both.

After the Flood, God promises never again to destroy the entire world, but S’dom and Gomorrah are not the entire world; they are two cities. S’dom and Gomorrah are incinerated when, in cinematic technicolor drama, fire and brimstone rain down from heaven. Lot and his family escape the city but his sons-in-law refuse to heed his warning and do not leave, and then Lot’s wife looks back and is turned into a pillar of salt. As a result, Lot and his two daughters are the sole survivors of the catastrophic annihilation. They find their way to a cave, which they make their home and where the daughters engage in incest with their father.
The older [daughter] now said to the younger [sister], “Our father is old, and there is not a man on earth to consort with us in the way of all the world. Come, let us make our father drink wine, and let us lie with him, that we may maintain life through our father.” That night they made their father drink wine, and the older one went in and lay with her father; he did not know when she lay down or when she rose. (Genesis 19:31-33)

The following night this scene is repeated with the younger daughter. There are so many troubling questions about this story. Let’s dig in.

First, we find the arayot (sexual prohibitions) enumerated in Leviticus chapter 18. A man may not have sex with his father’s wife, or his sister or half-sister (whether they live in the same household or not), his granddaughter, aunt, daughter-in-law, sister-in-law, or a woman and her daughter. Do you notice a glaring omission? Torah does not explicitly forbid a man from having sex with his own biological daughter. How can that be? Many explanations have been offered, ranging from the argument that father-daughter incest is so taboo, it was unnecessary for Torah to list it; to the argument that implicit in the prohibition against having sex with a woman and her daughter is the prohibition against a man having sexing with his own daughter. Concerning the first, if strong taboos need not be covered by Torah’s strictures, why does Torah bother to mention murder and theft, as well as a host of blood taboos that constitute many of the laws of tum’ah and taharah (ritual purity)? Concerning the second, having sex with both a mother and her daughter is termed zimah (depravity), a term not applied to the other arayot in Chapter 18. Torah has in mind not one’s wife and her daughter, but another woman and that woman’s daughter.

Torah appears to obviate the accusation that Lot committed forbidden incest in three ways: First, Lot is drunk and unaware. Torah is telling us that Lot is not a conscious partner to the act. One cannot help asking how, if he is not conscious, he manages to be a partner at all and successfully impregnate both daughters. Second, it is not Lot who approaches his daughters, but the daughters who initiate sex with their unsuspecting father. Third, the daughters fear that they, like Noah and his family, are the only people on earth, and they take it upon themselves to repopulate the world in the only way possible (Genesis Rabbah 51:8). We noted that their husbands remained in S’dom and died, and their mother turned into a pillar of salt.

But are they the only living souls? Clearly not, and Torah makes it clear that they know this. Just prior to the daughters’ conversation with one another concerning their father, we are told:
Lot went up from Zoar and settled in the hill country with his daughters, for he was afraid to dwell in Zoar; and he and his two daughters lived in a cave. (Genesis 19:30)

Lot and his daughters pass through the city of Zoar. How can they pass through a city without encountering the people living there? And why should Lot be afraid to live in Zoar? How can the daughters, who were just recently in Zoar, think there were no other people on earth? Rashi says Lot was afraid to settle in Zoar due to its proximity to S’dom, but he does not say that Zoar was decimated in the deluge of fire and brimstone. Somewhat conversely, Midrash Genesis Rabbah 51:6 claims that Zoar, too, was destroyed in the sulfurous rain of fire. If that were the case, how could Lot and his daughters have visited it after the destruction?

I cannot help wondering if an earlier version of the story had Lot taking his daughters through Zoar and far away from any semblance of civilization. A cave. A cave? People lived, if not in houses, at least in tents, not caves. The only cave mentioned in Genesis, which we will come to in chapter 23, is the burial cave in Machpelah. Far from the madding crowd, Lot could do with his daughters what he had readily offered and thought perfectly fine for the Sodomites only the day before.

The story of Lot and his daughters evokes an image of the story of Noah. Immediately following the Flood—a watery deluge of universal proportion, according to the Torah—Noah gets drunk and something enigmatic happens in his tent. As Torah tells the story, Noah’s son Ham “sees” his father naked and trots off to bring his brothers to the peep show. We are to believe that the extent of Ham’s sin was his disrespect toward his father. But Torah provides hints that his encounter with his father was sexual. Torah reports that, Noah awoke from his wine and knew what his youngest son had done to him (Genesis 9:24). Not seen, but done. And in any case, Leviticus uses the expression le’galot ervah (to uncover nakedness) repeatedly in chapter 18 to connote sexual intercourse; Leviticus  20:17 explicitly says to “see nakedness” when it intends sexual intercourse. Is it possible, then, that the sin of Ham, was incest? Moreover, perhaps the story about Noah, has also reversed the generations: perhaps Noah initiated sex with his son, Ham.

It seems to me that we may have worked-over versions of two deeply troubling stories of incest that occur in the aftermath of destruction raining down from heaven. The original stories may have featured: in the first story, a father initiating a sexual relationship with his son; and in the second story, a father initiating a sexual relationship with his daughters. The versions preserved in Torah neatly invert the stories: Both fathers are sound asleep when the sexual act happens. It is not Noah who initiates sexual contact, but rather Ham. I presume this is in order to protect the image of Noah. After all, Noah is ish tzaddik tamim haya b’dorotav “a righteous man, above reproach in his generation (Genesis 6:9). Lot, even less than Noah, could be thought of as a man who committed incest with his daughters. He is, after all, the nephew of Abraham. Hence, his daughters are said to initiate the incest. While Ham is certainly not a child—he is old enough to be married—Torah does not tell us the age of Lot’s daughters. They could well be 13 or 14 years old. When was the last time you heard of someone raping his or her sleeping parent?

Aside from being either a curious observation of textual transmission and emendation (or, if you prefer, an outrageous suggestion) what can be garnered from reading the text this way? I would hold that it can serve as a sober reminder of the danger of sweeping adult incestuous relationships with children—indeed any and all child sexual abuse—under the carpet by minimizing them, concealing them, denying them, changing the story, and blaming the victim.

The University of New Hampshire boasts a “Crimes Against Children Research Center.”  Studies by Dr. David Finkelhor, director of the Center, provide these chilling statistics:
  • 1 in 5 girls and 1 in 20 boys is a victim of child sexual abuse;
  • Self-report studies show that 20% of adult females and 5-10% of adult males recall a childhood sexual assault or sexual abuse incident;
  • During a one-year period in the U.S., 16% of youth ages 14 to 17 had been sexually victimized;
  • Over the course of their lifetime, 28% of U.S. youth ages 14 to 17 had been sexually victimized;
  • Children are most vulnerable to child sexual abuse between the ages of 7 and 13.

Understood this way, the story of Lot and his daughters helps shine the spotlight on the primary offenders of child sexual abuse: most sexually abused children know their offender, and often that offender is a relative (such as a father, uncle, or brother), or a coach, scout leader, teacher, or member of the clergy—someone the child should be able to trust to protect him or her.
With this in mind, here are resources for learning to recognize signs that a child has been sexually abused:
Children are the heritage of Adonai, the fruit of the womb is [God’s] reward. (Psalm 127:3)

© Rabbi Amy Scheinerman

Sunday, October 6, 2013

Today's pop quiz / Lech Lecha

Question #1: Who is the first person in the Torah to bless someone? No points if you say God, because I stipulated a person.
Question #2: Is Abraham a prophet, patriarch, leader, nation-builder, or general? 

In good Talmudic fashion, I’ll address the second question first. The answer is: yes. In parshat Lech Lecha, Torah recounts internecine warfare in the land of Canaan during Abraham’s lifetime. Tribal kings battle one another, joining forces with other kings, subduing tribes, rebelling against those who dominate them, seizing the spoils of war, taking hostages, regrouping, realigning, and fighting again. Abraham manages to stay out of the on-going wars until a fugitive from a war involving Sodom and Gomorrah informs him that his nephew, Lot, has been taken hostage. Torah reports:

When Avram heard that his kinsman had been taken captive, he mustered his retainers, born into his household, numbering three hundred and eighteen, and went in pursuit as far as Dan. At night, he and his servants deployed against them and defeated them; and he pursued them as far as Hobah, which is north of Damascus. He brought back all the possessions; he also brought back his kinsman Lot and his possessions, and the women and the rest of the people. (Genesis 14:14-16)

Abraham, God’s prophet, the patriarch and progenitor of the nation of Israel, is also a general. The model of Abraham living relatively isolated from other peoples, and responding only when one of his own is threatened, is familiar to us all. It is how Jews lived throughout much (but not all of) history until the modern age. Modernity, with its newfound freedoms and opportunities brought Jews both literally and figuratively out of the ghetto and into the mainstream of society. Yet our identity continued to be largely ethnic: our values, priorities, customs, culinary tastes, socializing patterns, and even humor were decidedly “Jewish.” And while it may not be possible to objectively nail down those with any measure of specificity—and in reality there was always great diversity among the Jewish communities around the world—the important thing is that we perceived there to be Jewish customs, Jewish food, Jewish humor, and comfort in socializing with other Jews.

I recall, as a teenager, the struggle to secure freedom for Jews in the former Soviet Union. We organized marches and protests, wrote letters, wore buttons, t-shirts, and bracelets engraved with the names of Refuseniks, and made phone calls to the Soviet Union. We didn’t know any of these people personally, but that didn’t matter. I recall a summer camp friend whose family attended a Presbyterian church asking me why we went to so much effort for people we didn’t know. The only response I could muster was, “Because they are family.” That made no sense to her.

I recall in 1977 the quiet movement to collect funds—we weren’t sure initially for what purpose—that turned out to be to support Operation Moses, which airlifted 7,000 Ethiopian Jews to Israel, extracting them from the jaws of Ethiopia’s oppressive Marxist regime. Two years earlier, the Ashkenazic Chief Rabbi of Israel, Shlomo Goren, had written, “You are our brothers, you are our blood and our flesh.” To say “you are our blood and our flesh” is to say “you are family.” Here is a community of Jews isolated from the rest of world Jewry for virtually all of their existence, observing pre-Talmudic Judaism, yet they are us.

Shaul Magid has recently published a new book titled, American Post-Judaism: Identity and Renewal in a Postethnic Society. He argues that the two primary pillars of Jewish American identity, the Holocaust and the State of Israel, will not hold a roof over the heads of the next generation. We live in a postethnic world, which David Hollinger defines this way:

A postethnic perspective favors voluntary over involuntary affiliations, balances an appreciation for communities of descent with a determination to make room for new communities, and promotes solidarities of wide scope that incorporate people with different ethnic and racial backgrounds. A postethnic perspective resists the grounding of knowledge and moral values in blood and history, but works within the last generation's recognition that many of the ideas and values once taken to be universal are specific to certain cultures. (Postethnic America: Beyond Multiculturalism, p. 3)

As a result of cultural shifts in America and high rates of intermarriage, traditional notions of peoplehood are collapsing. In fact, traditional notions of halakhah, monotheism, and chosenness are giving way to alternative understandings of observance, theology, and our relationship to the non-Jewish world. The old edifice is crumbling; it can no longer support Jewish survival. A new structure, an alternative mode of being, and identifying as, Jewish is needed.

This brings us back to Quiz Question #1: Who was the first person in the Torah to bless someone? If you said King Melchizedek of Shalem you are correct. Torah tells us:

King Melchizedek of Shalem brought out bread and wine; he was a priest of God Most High. He blessed him saying, “Blessed be Abram of God Most High, Creator of heaven and earth. And blessed be God Most High, Who has delivered your foes into your hand.” (Genesis 14:18-20)

Our sense of connection with the non-Jewish world has ancient roots. Abraham eats the bread and drinks the wine that Melchizedek brings out and offers ritualistically—in a ritual that could not possibly be considered in any way “Jewish” but which forged a strong bond between them. Many generations later, Jethro, Moses’ father-in-law, hearing about Israel’s escape from the clutches of Pharaoh, brings Moses’ wife and children to him in the Wilderness. Torah recounts:

Jethro rejoiced over all the kindness that the Lord had shown Israel when He delivered them from the Egyptians. “Blessed be the Lord,” Jethro said, “who delivered you from the Egyptians and from Pharaoh, and who delivered the people from under the hand of the Egyptians. Now I know that the Lord is greater than all gods, yes, by the result of their very schemes against [the people].” And Jethro, Moses’ father-in-law, brought a burnt offering and sacrifices for God; and Aaron came with all the elders of Israel to partake of the meal before God with Moses’ father-in-law. (Exodus 18:9-12)
Jethro and Abraham. Engraving by Gerard Jollain from 1670 La Saincte Bible.

Time and the contingencies of history served to shape us into an insular people whose survival depended upon seeing ourselves as set apart from the rest of the world. There were Jews and there were non-Jews, sometimes even defining ourselves by who we are not, what we don’t do, what we don’t eat, where we don’t live.

One more question on today’s pop quiz. Question #3: Who is the prophet who said, “The Times They Are a-Changin’”?

Bob Dylan warned an entire nation to embrace change rather than fear it. The proposition of shedding the pillars and attributes of Jewish identity is daunting and even threatening. We can no longer count on the old standbys (bris, bar mitzvah, weddings, and funerals, not to mention anti-Semitism) to keep people “in the fold.” We now need to stretch ourselves and meet the religious and spiritual needs of people who have other choices. Change is frightening, but also opens us to a world of exciting possibilities. Happily, ours is a rich tradition and civilization with much to offer, and a long, proud history of interpretation and re-interpretation in every generation to make Judaism ever fresh, responsive, and meaningful. Rather than entering the future wringing our hands and fearing the worst, let us look forward to new insights, meaningful practice, and an authentic sense of community based not only on who are ancestors were, but on who we are.

© Rabbi Amy Scheinerman