Our Real Birthright is Torah
Thank you for inviting me to be the scholar in residence at this year's General Assembly. I am deeply honored. I say that as a donor to Federation, as well as a leader of Hadar, the start-up immersive Jewish educational institute that receives support from Federation. I am humbled by the incredible work the people in this room do, every day.
This is an unusual GA because of its focus on the new. There is an entire track devoted to “the innovation imperative.” There is a conference about Jewish Futures and a session on the Federation of the Future.
We are all here together, searching for the new model, the new method, the new way to engage the next generation and inspire the current one. And all we know for certain is that the old models, the old ways of doing business, the old assumptions, simply don’t hold.
Today I want to push us forward by challenging one of those old assumptions: Jewish continuity is the end goal, and everything is in service of that goal.
It’s been 20 years since the release of the 1990 National Jewish Population Study, which found an unprecedented rate of intermarriage. It launched 1,000 ships of Jewish identity efforts in the service of ensuring Jewish continuity. Indeed, in our current language, everything is in service of Jewish identity. Birthright strengthens Jewish identity. Day schools strengthen Jewish identity. Summer camps strengthen Jewish identity.
Our theory is: Strengthen Jewish identity, and Judaism will continue.
But here’s the problem with that theory: In our zeal to ensure the Jewish future, we forgot to articulate why it matters for Judaism to continue.
Abraham Joshua Heschel already recognized this in 1965, when he addressed the 34th General Assembly in
Jews were not placed on this earth to survive. Jews were placed on this earth to embody and to model the quest for “spiritual wealth” and “meaning.”
Jews, like all people, are searching for meaning, substance and connection. The more we are inundated with emails, status updates and tweets, the more we want to go deeper. Our souls are calling out for engagement; our hearts are crying out to be opened.
Judaism, at its core, is a response to that yearning, an answer to that call. What are we “continuing” with our calls for “continuity”? Why does Judaism need a future? Because Judaism offers a system, a covenantal language, a heritage and tradition that responds to the human need for meaning, substance and connection. It is our system, our language, our heritage; it is relevant, and that is the reason that we need a Jewish future.
We Jews have a word for the pathway to meaning, substance and connection. It is called Torah. I don’t just mean the Torah scroll that sits alone in the ark, or even just the words of the five books of Moses. I mean the sum total of Jewish sources and texts – the wisdom stored up in our textual heritage.
So often we sideline Torah in the culture of the organized Jewish community. It takes the form of a pithy quote at the top of a website; an icon on our ipad; a glazed dvar Torah at the beginning of a board meeting. It’s what we pay lip service to before we really get down to business.
But real Torah is so much deeper.
I want to offer three illustrations of the power of Torah as a reminder of why Torah, not continuity for its own sake, should be at the center. First, I’m thinking of my student Ben from
Every morning, for four hours, Ben studied a particular section of the Talmud. On the third day of class, Ben was floored by a Talmudic debate. In it, one rabbi disputes a point of law and gets extremely angry with the proponent of the other view. As Ben described it, the words “amar lo” - “he said to him,” repeated throughout the story, were very powerful: “I realized the story was about a conversation between people. It was an invitation to participate,” Ben said. “I never had that before. Normally Judaism felt settled – everything was already decided. But now I could see how much was unsettled, how much was open-ended.”
What Ben said next shook the way I understood the power of Torah. He told me that he gets angry, he gets lonely, and he feels vulnerable. And this story gave him a pathway to explore those feelings within a community of fellow learners. Ben told me: “The idea that these rabbis had personalities, that they had feelings and arguments was extremely powerful. It was an entrée into a world I could relate to.”
Torah has the power to draw us into the conversation, and to push us to think more deeply about ourselves and our struggles.
The second student I am thinking of is
Torah gives us a language for clarifying our own life’s mission, and an entryway to express our deepest values.
The last frame I want to offer involves my Dad. We study Torah every week over the phone, and have done so for the past 15 years.
My dad once spoke about our havruta – our study relationship – for a radio show in
“When I discuss a text with my son,” he said, “I always ask questions to which I do not know the answer. What comes out of these dialogues is a set of novel and exciting ideas which never occurred to me. But my son and I do more than connect with the texts and their moral gems; we also connect with each other.”
Torah has the power to push us to ask bold questions and to transform our relationships.
So who is Torah for? Is the search for meaning and content reserved for a few motivated Jews? Is it stuck up in the heavens where no one can reach it? Or across the sea where no one can find it? (cf Deut 30:12-13)
There is a radical teaching in Jewish tradition about the moment of revelation at
When God spoke the word [on Sinai], God’s voice split into seven voices.
Those seven voices split into the 70 languages of the world
So that everyone could understand
- Midrash Tehilim 65:6
מדרש תהלים (בובר) מזמור סח
[ו] ה' יתן אומר המבשרות צבא רב.
הקב"ה יתברך שמו וגבורתו
כשהיה אומר בדיבור
הקול נחלק לשבעה קולות,
ומשבעה לשבעים לשונות של שבעים אומות,
לכך נאמר המבשרות צבא רב.
When God spoke the words of the Torah, says the Midrash, God’s voice split into seven voices, which in turn split into the 70 languages of the 70 nations, so that everyone could understand.
That is the radical notion: שיהו הכל שומעין – So that everyone could understand.
What’s incredible about this Midrash? It means that Torah has something to say to everyone. Not just kids. Not just day school graduates. Not just synagogue goers. Not just rabbis. Not just New Yorkers. Not even just Jews!
We often assume that Torah is for the elite or only reserved for those with a strong Jewish education. But Torah never understood itself that way. This Midrash recognizes that it is a basic human need to yearn for meaning and substance, and that yearning doesn’t exclude anyone. Our real birthright, our real morasha, is Torah.
Of course not everyone is going to be a textual scholar, and there should be many ways into Judaism. But, as my colleague Rabbi
In conclusion, our task today is two-fold. First, we have to abandon the old paradigm of Jewish continuity as an end in itself instead. Continuity must be in the service of Torah; Survival must be in service of the deep search for meaning and substance. When we are able to articulate why Judaism matters, why it is critical for us to have a future, then continuity will be the obvious result. In the twenty-first century, Jews are not inspired to survive just to survive. But we can be inspired to engage in the deepest questions of meaning and existence and do that through the wisdom of our heritage.
Second, we have to make Torah accessible to all. We have to stop imagining Torah as only for the clergy and the elite. We have to stop telling ourselves: I do social justice, other people do Torah. We would never limit the quest for pursuit of social justice, or charity, or service, to a few elite. Why do that with Torah? We suffer and Torah suffers when we short-sell its relevance.
We often have trouble articulating why Judaism matters, and we start casting about for the “next big idea.” Torah always has been the big idea. Let’s bring it back to its place of glory, and in so doing, remind ourselves why we care so much about our Jewish future.
What is the most outlandish claim you can think of related to Israel? How about this: Jerusalem makes all Jews into friends.
Sounds crazy! Jerusalem makes all Jews into friends??
But there it is, straight from the Talmud.
Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi, one of the Talmud’s leading scholars, makes this audacious claim about Jerusalem. It all starts in Psalm 122, a Psalm about Jerusalem, which has a strange line in it:
Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi said: What does the following verse mean?:
“Jerusalem is built up; like a town that is connected together.” (Psalm 122:3)
Jerusalem is a city that makes all of Israel haverim – friends.
- Jerusalem Talmud/ Hagiga 3:6; 79d
תלמוד ירושלמי מסכת חגיגה פרק ג דף עט טור ד /ה"ו
ירושלם הבנויה כעיר שחוברה לה יחדיו
עיר שהיא עושה כל ישראל חברים
Playing on the word in the verse – hubra – Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi says that Jerusalem makes all of Israel haverim - friends.
Can you imagine a statement that is further from the truth today?
In the Jewish community, the discourse on Jerusalem, on Israel as a whole, has become one of the most divisive issues of our time. No one can pretend that slogans such as: “We are one” capture any of the reality of our relationship to each other when we talk about Israel.
The impact of this discord is profound. It leaves only the most hardened in their positions to duke it out, or talk past each other, while the disheartened middle simply pulls out. Ironically, this is perhaps most true among young engaged Jews. Apart from those in the Israel advocacy camps, most young engaged Jews I know have actually dis-engaged from the hard conversations around Israel. There is no room for nuance, exploration, open questioning or doubt, so these Jews decide to drop out of the Israel conversation. This, despite the fact that so many of us spent significant time in Israel and report a strong emotional attachment to the country!
There is guilt on both sides, and I want to offer a way forward. First, we have to open up more spaces for real discussion and dialogue around Israel. A leader in this field is Encounter, a conflict resolution start-up that works to create conversations between Jews and Palestinians, and also across divides within the Jewish community. I am heartened to see Melissa Weintraub, Encounter’s co-founder, presenting again this year at the GA. Yehuda Kurtzer at the new Shalom Hartman Institute of North America has also been doing pioneering work in this area through the Engaging Israel Project. But this is not only a job for start-ups. Federation can lead the way. In a speech to the New York Federation community 2 years ago, John Ruskay laid out this vision:
“…In conflating Israel advocacy and Israel education, we deny members of our community the opportunities to deepen their own engagement and bonds to Israel by developing their own positions and perspectives. At its best, Israel education prepares young and old to develop their own positions, their own conflicting visions, about what Israel can and should be. An important component of effective Israel education provides settings to work through difficult historical and moral issues, which both deepens knowledge and solidifies personal commitment to and engagement with Israel.
…We will embark on a major effort to enable young and old to legitimate Israel -- not because they are defending a given line, but rather on the strength of the positions they have developed after wrestling with Israel’s history and difficult existential issues, and reconciling their views with their deepest values.”
So the establishment needs to help open up the spaces to talk honestly about Israel, and I hope John’s vision moves closer to reality. But the young engaged Jews –including students in Hillels, leaders of independent minyanim and those in professional schools, - need to take the bait and risk jumping back into the conversation. We have often used Israel instrumentally: as a place to become inspired, learned, engaged and spiritually aware. We form our deep Jewish identity there – but then we go home and don’t engage in the thorny issues of the real Israel. I am guilty of this as much as anyone, and it devalues the real relationship our generation could have with Israel.
To the engaged Jews who are burned by the Israel conversation, despite their love of the ideal Israel, I offer this teaching.
מדרש תהלים (בובר) מזמור קכב
א"ר יוחנן אמר הקב"ה לא אבוא בירושלים של מעלה, עד שאבוא לירושלים של מטה
Rabbi Yohanan said: God said: “I will not enter Yerushalyim shel maala – the heavenly Jerusalem, until I have entered Yerushalayim shel mata – the earthly Jerusalem.” (Midrash Tehilim #122). We can’t stay in the ideal Jerusalem, Yerushalyim shel maala. The real Jerusalem, Yerushalayim shel mata, with all its difficulties, demands our attention and connection.
In closing, I want to return to the teaching of Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi: kol yisrael haverim; all of Israel are friends. See, what is so amazing about the claim of Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi is that he had a different understanding of the word haverim, or friends. It wasn’t Mark Zuckerberg’s understanding of the word. No – for the rabbis, a “friend” – haver – meant someone who was trustworthy in issues of religious piety. Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi is claiming all of Israel is trustworthy.
What’s critical to remember in the dialogue about Israel is that trustworthy does not mean uniform. This is not a naïve vision of a superficial relationship where everyone agrees. I can trust you even though I disagree with you. But kol yisrael haverim does mean moving to a different level of connection– one of deeper relationship, where people feel safe to express their concerns as well as their love, and don’t feel threatened or on the outs just because of their stance on Israel.
This is the vision: Jerusalem: Ir she-hubra la yahdav – a city in which everyone is connected – hubra – and through that connection, evolve into trusted friends, trusted dialogue partners, trusted lovers of Zion. May we move toward that day, a day when, as the Psalm continues: We all pray for the peace of Jerusalem – the city that connects us.
Welcome to the final plenary of this extraordinary conference. In so many ways, this year’s GA has been about embracing the new, the innovative, the unimagined. Part of that process involves reframing our old views of Jewish life. On Sunday, I spoke about the need to move from a survival-driven goal of continuity to a mission-driven goal of substance and meaning; of returning Torah to the center of Jewish life. Yesterday I suggested that on Israel, we have to move from a stance of heated conflict or disengagement to trusted dialogue – to really opening up the conversation to the spectrum of views – as hard as that may be to those of us with passionate opinions about Israel’s future.
Today, in closing, I want to offer another reframing, and it concerns the focus on Next Generation engagement. The Federation, and Jewish institutions in general, have declared Next Gen engagement to be one of the top priorities on the Jewish agenda. Any Jewish institution worth its salt has a Next Gen taskforce, or a young leadership council, or an engagement committee. JFNA itself has made incredible strides in this area through the TribeFest conference, happening for the second time this March.
As an outgoing member of the Next Generation, let me just say: Thank you. We’re flattered by all the attention.
But I am left with the question: Why? Why is it so important to engage this upcoming generation of Jews? Most of the time, the answer is articulated by stating the counter scenario: If we DON’T engage the next generation of Jews, then a) our institutions will not survive, and b) Judaism will cease to continue.
This is what I would call the survival frame. Its assumptions are plain: Judaism must survive, and we aren’t getting any younger. So we better start drawing in the people under 40.
Young Jews are valued, this framing implicitly states, for their contribution to the continuity of the Jewish people, and the continuity of the Jewish institution. They are bodies in the door; they feed the machine.
There are a few problems with this framing, though. From a tactical perspective, people often see through it. “Hmmm…why is it that some wealthy Jews I have never met are buying me Shabbat dinner over and over again? I have a hunch they aren’t interested in my soul. Well, I’ll take their money,” they say, “but I’m not going to join their institutions.”
In addition, this approach works to undercut the real power of Judaism: its relationship to meaning and substance. When I am interested in drawing in young people as the end goal, I don’t care how it is done. I may opt to use social action, or Torah study, but if parties and casinos are more effective at growing numbers, guess which one I am going to choose? The long-term impact of this tactical choice is pernicious – it leaves young Jews with the impression that Judaism is not about anything at its core; its goal is simply to preserve itself, by any means necessary.
I want to try to shift this frame. Because there is another way to view the importance of engaging Next Gen, and it does not put survival and continuity for its own sake at the center. Rather, it recognizes the value of the vital contributions young people can make to the Jewish project. In this frame, we don’t empower young Jews so that they will feel bought into an institution; we empower young Jews because they can actually make a contribution to Jewish life and vision. Or to state it in more Jewish language: They can continue the conversation of Torah.
In this view, young Jews are valued not for their numbers, they are valued for their fresh perspectives and thoughtful engagement with the core of Judaism. And in this view, we should care about any young Jew who has the ability to contribute to our collective mission-driven enterprise: whether she is just off the Birthright bus or a graduate of 12 years of day school. We would no longer orient around a goal of “bringing in the unaffiliated” – we would orient around a goal of: “enriching the Jewish conversation of meaning and substance.”
I want to share three brief stories about the young Jews I interact with daily in my work as an educator at Hadar. These stories reminded me how truly including young Jews in the conversation can challenge some of our community’s long-held assumptions, and renew the core essence of Jewish life.
The first thing young Jews can teach us is that Judaism is meant to be countercultural, in the best sense of the word. Abraham Joshua Heschel expressed this concept in his talk to Federation in 1965. He said: “Judaism does not always simplify itself in order to accommodate fashion or society….It demands nonconformity with what prevails in the marketplace, the courage to be different, depth of insight in a world where inane … values are acclaimed through the loudspeakers.” (Moral Grandeur and Spiritual Audacity, p. 28).
Here’s how I witnessed this in action from my students at Hadar. They come to learn Torah for many reasons. But one of the reasons is to inhabit the magical relationship between themselves, another person, and a text, without the mediation of technology. Yes, they have iphones and laptops. But when it is time to learn Torah, they put them away, open a book, and sit across from each other, engaging in face-to-face discussion. They are looking to unplug, to encounter, to focus and not constantly be interrupted. And in this way, they are very countercultural. Judaism is never going to be the leader in technology. But it can be the leader in putting technology into perspective, in not fetishizing it or kowtowing to its every demand for attention. I learned that from the Next Gen students who sit with books and talk about texts, instead of sitting alone, texting about nothing.
The second thing young Jews can teach us is that obligation can be freeing. Obligation is a touchy word in modern culture, especially in a society that is all about rights, not responsibilities. Even at the GA, apparently the only “imperative” is the “innovation imperative.” No one has to do anything, and no one wants to be told what to do.
And yet, I am thinking of my student Sarah, who said one of the most moving pieces of Torah, completely spontaneously, at the end of her summer session at Hadar. You see, our students don’t only learn from books. They bring their Torah of Hesed into the world. Specifically, they spend 4 hours a week visiting elderly patients at Jewish Home Lifecare in New York City, a beneficiary of UJA-Federation of NY. We all know the importance of nursing home care, and many of us here today spent time visiting patients when we were kids. But these students make a commitment to return, week after week, for hours on end, to spend time with the elderly, many of whom are in stages of dementia. Our students talk with them, read to them, sing to them, and encounter their humanity. It is a very difficult thing to do, and it is a requirement of being at Hadar – an obligation. This is not just a programmatic obligation, it is the expression of one of the core obligations of being a Jew.
At the end of the program, reflecting on her time at Jewish Home Lifecare, this is what Sarah said:
“I always talk about wanting to help the other, but I realize that in my life, I actually only do what I want to do. This is the first time in my life I did something meaningful that I didn’t want to do, but I had to do. I learned I could prioritize something other than my own wants. I felt obligated, and that was incredibly freeing. It was liberating.”
Heschel says that the fundamental element of Judaism is self-transcendence. This means overcoming the need to ask the question of “What can this do for me?”, and instead asking: “How can I respond; how can I serve?” A core teaching in Jewish life is recognizing that you are not the center of the universe. Sarah taught me that the sense of being compelled can release you from the prison of yourself. As we approach the 73rd anniversary of the nightmare of kristallnacht, it is worth reflecting on what obligations to the Jewish people we hold dear.
The last lesson we can learn from young Jews is that God and prayer are not dirty words in Jewish life. I remember interviewing Joel for our full-time immersive learning program, and he spoke about wanting to learn to pray. He went to Swarthmore, he was on his way to a Marshall scholarship in England, and he was not a particularly active Jew. But Joel sensed that there was something more to Judaism than Hannukah parties and mitzvah days. His told me that his main goal was for the summer was to learn how to connect to God through prayer.
I was shocked – here’s a kid who is successful by all of society’s standards, but he felt a lack in his life. He wanted to pray. And he wanted to pray with other Jews, in traditional language. I myself had fallen victim to the stereotype often put forth in Jewish life that the only people who want to pray are those who grew up praying, or feel obligated to pray, or know what they think about God. But I learned from this 22 year old that prayer, one of the three pillars of the world, is something that is broader, something that represents a deep human yearning. Joel reminded me that the reason people don’t pray is most likely because they have not encountered a meaningful, engaging prayer environment, not because they reject the entire notion of prayer or God.
Again, Heschel recognized that God is not out of place, even at Federation. Heschel brought God to the GA in 1965. He said: “Who is a Jew? A person in travail with God’s dreams and designs; a person to whom God is a challenge, not an abstraction. Who is a Jew? A witness to the transcendence and presence of God.” (Moral Grandeur and Spiritual Audacity, p. 32) Imagine a new frame where God and prayer are not embarrassments meant to be tucked in a corner, but core aspects to our mission as Jews.
So why is it critical to engage the next Generation of young Jews? It’s not because we need them to further the Jewish people. It’s because the Jewish people need their contributions to help us achieve our collective mission of meaning and substance. And they might surprise or upend some of our assumptions. Assumptions like: technology is a solution to engagement; or: responsibility and obligation are threatening; or: prayer and God are reserved only for traditionalists.
I’ll close with the Torah’s thoughts on Next Gen. The Torah speaks of 20-somethings also, but it does not use a survivalist frame. We read in Exodus chapter 30:
שמות פרק ל
(יד) כֹּל הָעֹבֵר עַל הַפְּקֻדִים מִבֶּן עֶשְׂרִים שָׁנָה וָמָעְלָה יִתֵּן תְּרוּמַת יְקֹוָק:
“Everyone counted from 20 years and upward shall give an offering to God.” – Ex 30:14
In the book of Exodus, twenty-somethings were considered part of the larger whole – and they were expected to make a donation, a half-shekel, to the community collective. Same as everyone else. We would be well-advised to return to that framing for our Next Gen engagement – a framing that includes them in the larger community, but with an expectation that they have something to offer, something to teach, something to help build our collective enterprise.
When our child asks: Why do you care if I am Jewish? We could answer: Because without you, Judaism would cease to exist. Or we could answer: Because you have something critical to offer to the mission of the Jewish people.
That is a Next Gen approach that will– as a side benefit – ensure the future of our people. But more important, it is an approach that will foster a more substantive and purposeful Jewish community. May we engage Next Gen in order to learn from Next Gen, and may we open up pathways for all of us to build a more substantive, meaningful Jewish people committed to Torah, Avodah and Gemilut Hasadim.
Let me begin with a very brief but heartfelt word of thanks: to the staff and board of the Covenant Foundation, and especially to Harlene and Joni, and to the Crown family, for the really deep honor of having my work recognized and honored in this way. Thank you.
I’d like to share two thoughts this evening-- one about being an educator, and one about founding and building an educational institution.
The term tzimtzum, or contraction, is one of the most well-known words in the history of Jewish thought. But what is less well-known is that in Jewish theology tzimtzum had had two seemingly radically different meanings.
First, the lesser-known meaning found in Rabbinic sources. God tells Moshe to instruct the Israelites to build a sanctuary in which God can dwell (VeAsu Li Mikdash VeShakhanti BeTokham). According to the Midrash, Moshe begins to panic—how can we possibly build a finite space that will contain the infinite? Later, in the book of Kings, King Solomon will ask God the very same question regarding the Temple. God’s answer to Moshe is stunning; “Twenty boards in the north and twenty in the south and eight in the west will suffice. More than that, I will contract my divine presence (Atzamtzem Shekhinati) so that it may dwell in one square cubit.”
Now contrast this with the more famous notion of tzimtzum from Lurianic Kabbalah? How can the finite even exist if God is infinite? How can there be anything other than God? The Kabbalists answer: God contracts Godself (tzimtzum) and, as it were, gets out of the way so that the world, and people within it, can exist.
On the face of it, these two meanings of the word tzimtzum are antitheses of one another. For Hazal, tzimtzum means making yourself radically present; for the Kabbalah, it means making yourself absent so that others can exist and flourish.
I’d like to suggest that the work of an educator can best be understood by bringing these two images together: what it means to me to be a teacher (and a spouse, and a parent, and perhaps a human being in general) is to be present while making space, and to make space while being profoundly present. This is a really powerful form of imitatio dei, of “walking in God’s ways.” Just as God, often imagined as a teacher, makes space for us to grow in freedom and responsibility, so should we grant that space to our students. And just as God remains radically present even as God makes space, so should—so must—we. That is what it means to love someone while truly honoring their freedom and their dignity.
For me, a major part of being an educator has been about building a new and innovative educational institution, Hadar. Five and a half years ago, when we first opened our doors, I quoted the words of Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook: HaHalomot HaGedolim Yesod HaOlam Heim—the great dreams are the foundation of the world. To take God’s covenant with Israel seriously is to recognize that the world as it is is not yet the world as it ought to be, as both God and we dream it could be, and to set to work on the slow and painstaking work of transformation. Elie Kaunfer, Ethan Tucker, and I had spent most of our lives searching the Jewish world for the institution we so badly wanted—a place that is at once deeply rooted in and committed to tradition, on the one hand, and unapologetically egalitarian, on the other; a place that is open to learning from secular philosophy and general culture and academic Jewish studies, and yet never forgets that it is, first and last, a mekom Torah, a place where Jews come to discover together what it is that God asks of us; and a place that understands and embodies the truth that God’s Torah is a Torah of hesed, and that the spiritual life culminates in compassionate concern for others—that’s why all of our students automatically become volunteers at a local senior citizens home where most of the patients suffer from varying degrees of dementia. We have begun to build that institution, and through it, we pray, that kind of Jewish world, and it means so much to us that so many Jews, young and old, seem to find that vision compelling and inspiring.
I hope that my students learn something from that dreaming: that when they find a glaring hole in the world, or when they see a profound injustice, or an unattended hurt, they refuse to accept that “that’s just the way the world works.” Let them learn to dream. Rav Yehudah Amital used to tell his students: “Be careful. Never let the day come when your child asks you, ‘Abba, did you once have dreams?’” We have a dream for the Jewish world, and we hope many of our students will come to share in that dream, and in the burden of making that dream a reality. But I also hope that no matter what, they always, always, always remember to dream.