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

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