Creating a New Diaspora Judaism

In some Jewish circles all over the American Diaspora, there have been the bubblings of new approaches to what the Judaism of the next generation could be.

Part 1

A Brief Tour of the Broad Horizon: The Worldwide Hyper-Crisis

I intend this essay to be both a summary of what is already sprouting, and a pointer to how it could fit together into not only a renewal of Judaism but a transformation of it — of us. That transformation could meet our own needs and the needs of a multi-level, worldwide crisis.

In some countries, the crisis of globalization has so tormented parts of the people who feel excluded from it that they have turned to hyper-nationalism. They were correct in their fears and apprehensions. Globalization is correct in seeing the planet as a whole, but it is destructive in seizing the planet’s abundance by and for a small number of top-down extremely large corporations. The result: ever-greater gaps in wealth and power between the hyper-wealthy and the suffocating middle class. Middle-class people might make out “OK” in the present, but they nevertheless despair about a dead-end future for themselves and their children.

We need to affirm a planetary outlook but turn its benefits in favor of the many species that are crucial to each other and the many cultures and political approaches that could be added up into an inclusive, universalist democracy. That means affirming, not ignoring or excluding, the communities of the American people that have felt forgotten until the mid-20th-century, and even since then, though having with great struggle achieved “visibility,” have now become the targets of backlash: Black and brown-skinned Americans, women, Indigenous communities, Jews, Muslims and GLBTQIA communities.

All these communities were, of course, always visible to themselves. They were not visible as full citizens to those who had held that status as if it were a private prerogative. The outsider, “invisible” communities became visible to the folks who considered themselves the real Americans only when the outsiders demanded public rights of full citizenship. The long-powerful communities — white, Christian and male — are also entitled to a place and shared power in an expanded democracy. They are not entitled to exclude the newly visible communities.

The result of all this has been two world-wide crises: the Democracy Crisis and the Climate/ Extinction Crisis.

I have mentioned the Jews among the newly visible communities who have come under attack by some of the hyper-wealthy and by some of the privileged older communities. There are within the American Jewish communities some who have accepted and joined in “globalization for the hyper-wealthy,” which often goes along with support for the present ultra-right-wing regime that governs the State of Israel. There are also many who define Judaism as justice-and-peace-pursuing, compassionate and activist.

I am among the second group. It is clear in the present crisis that we need a stronger framework for those of us who live in Diaspora and perhaps also for those who are conscious of living in spiritual or ethical “exile,” even though geographically they live in the Land of Israel. The rest of this paper will address their needs and contributions.

 

Part 2

Hierarchy or Ecology?

First of all, a major intellectual and spiritual contribution to everyone’s thought about Diaspora has come from Rabbi Professor Shaul Magid of Dartmouth University. In The Necessity of Exile, he has shown how crucial it is to create Diaspora and Exile not just as a geographic distance from the Land of Israel, but as a spiritual distance from and attraction to the Messianic Age — always growing towards it, never “there.” Not yearning for a kingly Messiah, but “How do we get it together? Together!” — to quote Reb Zalman Schachter-Shalomi. Why? Because we keep learning how much more love is necessary for a life-giving Judaism to remember “not yet.” We must always embody the compelling impulse to take, step by step, the society-wide advance toward a messianic world.

Turning now to my own work and that of The Shalom Center, newly informed and enriched by Magid: I want to urge a conscious change in the Name we give to God. To name God is not the same as naming a person “Joanna” instead of “Jerome.” We express a whole view of the nature of the world when we attach a Name to God.

The present usage in most Jewish and Christian life is to translate the Bible’s “YHWH” into “LORD,” followed in Jewish prayer with “Melekh, King.” This language is a relic not just of living under the heel of various empires but of the conception of the world that is based on hierarchy.

More and more of us understand that the world is — as ecology teaches us — not a hierarchy. It is a network of interactive species and cultures. Ecology is not just biological. Within the human species, it also stems from a jigsaw puzzle of many cultures, many identities and many political views. When one cluster of people tries to make itself hierarchical over others, disaster follows. We are seeing this happen in the United States with the growth of a deliberately exclusive “white male Christian nationalism.”

So if “Lord” and “King” are dangerous ways of imagining what is sacred and unifies us, what would be language that would help us flower and flourish? There are a few attempts in the Jewish community that have won a modest degree of celebration and support.

One has been shaped by the poet Marcia Falk and has won very considerable support among Jewish feminists. That is Ein HaChayim, the Wellspring of Life.[i]

The other came from me, drawing on the ancient Yud-Hey-Vav-Hey. In 1982, I found myself disobeying the orders my grandmother had given me when I was 11 years old and beginning to study Hebrew towards becoming Bar Mitzvah. She insisted I pronounce YHWH as “Adonai, Lord” — even though none of the letters pointed to that result. So as an adult seeker, I experimented with pronouncing it as it is written in Torah texts, YHWH with no vowels —and not inserting vowels to pronounce it as YAHWEH or YAHOVAH.

When I tried this, the sound that came out was not in English or any other language — or rather, it was in all of them. It was the sound of breathing. To my joyful astonishment, they became just a Breath. I inserted a breath or “Yahh” as a translation of “YHWH” along with “Ru’akh HaOlam” (Breath/Wind/Spirit of the World) instead of “Melekh HaOlam” (King of the World).

I hear the “Breath” interpretation of “YHWH” as a true understanding, not the true understanding. Indeed, I am attracted to see the Name as having a different aspect in each of the Four Worlds taught by Kabbalah, Jewish mysticism.

First is the World of Asiyah/Physical Actuality. That is where the physical pronunciation of “YHWH” becomes Breath or Interbreath. Skipping the second World for the moment, in Beriyah/Creative Intellect we find the grammar that sees “YHWH” as a Moebius strip in the verb “to be,” turning past/present/future into a transformational “Eternal.” And in the World closest to the indescribable Infinite, the World of Atzilut/Spirit/Sheer Will to Create, the four letters of the Name can be reversed, becoming “HWHY” or Havaya, referring to “Existence.” That interpretation suggests that every quark, every black hole in every galaxy, every grasshopper, every mushroom, every naked hunter deep in tropical forest, every ethical sage, is Divine, is God and part of God.

That leaves us with the world of Yetzirah/Relationship — Emotion, Ethics. Baffled, I asked my friend and teacher Rabbi Jeff Roth. “It’s a puzzle with a wonderful answer,” he said. “Substitute ‘Aleph’ for the ‘Yod.’ Then you have ‘AHWH’ or Ahavah, love.”[ii]

What a wonderful array of ways to understand “YHWH.” YHWH is simultaneously Breath or InterBreath, Love, Eternal, Existence. Not a hierarchy in the whole bunch.

I do want to suggest that in our generation, maybe our epoch, it will be important to use InterBreath to inspire activism.[iii] As I will explain below, the existential crisis of Planet Earth is about the InterBreathing of life forms on all Earth. This crisis will be with us for a long time, so we might be well off to be clear that what we call the climate crisis is a crisis in the InterBreath Name of God.

Hierarchy in Jewish State and Universal Earth

I realized that the InterBreath of all life is what keeps life going on our planet. Animals breathe in oxygen, metabolize it and breathe out CO2. Plants breathe in CO2, metabolize it and breathe out oxygen.

What we call the “Climate Crisis” is a crisis in the maldistribution of CO2. Human corporations have invented machines that burn fossil fuels to make so much CO2 that there is no way even for all the plants in the world to turn it into oxygen. So the CO2 piles up. Since it is a heat-trapping gas, it makes the planet hotter and hotter, scorched, burning.

The “Climate Crisis” is really a crisis in God’s Name. And if we could recall that the true meaning of YHWH is the InterBreath of life, we could act to give new life to the ecological network that actually keeps life — animal and plant, humans and grasshoppers and frogs and redwoods and azalea bushes — alive.

The debate on whether to think about the world as a giant hierarchy or an interlocking set of empowered cultures and species is as old as the Bible. I think that the shepherds and farmers who made up the ancient people knew that all life was interconnected, and they used “YHWH” to say so.

But for them, war was a different matter. Their experience was that nations with a king were more likely to be organized so as to win their wars. Samuel could only offer an alternative version of hierarchy in which God stood at the top.

 

In the debate with the Prophet Samuel, the people demanded an earthly king “like all the other nations.”[iv] Samuel argued that they have a king, “Your king is in Heaven.” The people insisted. Samuel gave in, and the people later agreed to a constitutional monarchy, with the priesthood holding a weak controlling hand. They could appeal to Torah if the king broke the rules.

A similar debate broke out early in Israeli statehood between Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion and Torah philosopher Martin Buber. Ben-Gurion called for Mamlakhtiyut, literally “kingly” power, to control the state and fight for it. Buber had argued for a binational state, and when that vision came undone, he urged a much more decentralized country, hoping that with peace, there would no need for a king, and with no king there would be less support for subjugation and war.

Ben-Gurion won. The suzerainty of God evaporated. Hierarchy has become internally a government’s bid to nullify an independent judiciary, and externally, a blood-soaked war.

So that is where I would begin in seeking to create a Judaism that would be life-giving for centuries to come. No “king,” earthly or “heavenly.” Turn this from silent intellectual theology into warm sound. Hear a whole congregation, every time it comes to Hebrew or English YHWH, pausing to breathe. Knowing it is breathing in a myriad breaths from every living creature and breathing it out as well. “Shema Yisrael — Listen up, You Godwrestlers: the Breath of life is our God, and that Breath is One!”

On Shabbat morning, we begin the heart of the morning service with these words:

Nishmat kol hai tevarekh et shimkha, YHWH [Yahh] Elohenu. The breath of all life praises Your Name, YyyyHhhhWwwwHhhh or ”Yahh” [or just breathing]. Our God.

Not just the God of us Jews or the God of us humans, but the God of all life. For Your Name IS the Breath of all life.

I suggest that the InterBreath is a true understanding of the Name, not the true understanding. If the Name Itself were to manifest in the each of the Four Worlds of Kabbalah, the physical sound (in the Asiyah/physical world) of pronouncing YHWH would give us Breath. In the Beriyah/Intellect world that includes grammar, as many have noted, we might learn from “YHWH” a Moebius strip of the verb “to be” in past, present and future. That would make the Name a transformational verb beyond time — therefore, the Eternal. In the world of Atzilut/Spirit, closest to the indescribable Infinite, reversing the letters gives us HWHY or Havayah, Existence — suggesting that every proton, every star, every gazelle, every sycamore is an aspect of God.

So that is where I would begin in seeking to create an ecologically rooted Judaism that could be life-giving for centuries to come.

The State

But that is not enough. We have sorrowfully seen that one attempt to seek security for the Jewish people from pogroms and Holocaust — Zionism and the State of Israel — out of fear and trauma have turned into a modern equivalent of Samuel’s King Saul. I do not think it had to turn out that way; I think there were several moments when the State could have turned towards fulfilling its own Declaration of Independence to celebrate every language, every culture, every religion, every sexuality, every gender, every class and occupation.

But even at the State’s founding, the effort to make sure that Jews would be safe was turned into an insistence that others would not be fully included in the political body that might have made Jews safe and Palestinians safe and Russian immigrants and African immigrants safe. There were several moments when the turn towards a fuller broader democracy could have been made. But fear and the trauma inherited not only from the Holocaust but from centuries of oppression pushed the Israeli Jewish community to a dominating ethic and policy.

I think we have learned that even if the centralizing and hyper-nationalizing effect of controlling a State were to change, it will take a wave of energy for crucial change from Jews who don’t live in the midst of it, as well as some who do. It will take the growth of a conscious Diaspora to help bring about decent change. That, too, will require an ecological mindset, not a hierarchical one. It requires a friendly and deeply critical human community that we understand and shape ecologically. It requires a Jewish community that has considerable empowerment in its own society but does not rule the roost.

Allies With the Newly Empowered

A deeply ecologically minded Jewish community could ally itself with other communities and identities that became newly visible when they claimed full citizenship just 50 years ago.

Those diverse communities could, like the pieces in a jigsaw puzzle, fit themselves together. That community could choose to make one of its own major values the encouragement and protection and empowerment of itself and others.

 

Part 3

Creating ‘Actifests’

I will draw especially on the history and the future plans of The Shalom Center. But these ideas and practices are certainly not the property of The Shalom Center. “Activist festival” and “actifest” are not words for The Shalom Center to own and control. For example, two Reconstructionist rabbis, Ariana Katz and Jessica Rosenberg, have written a book called For Times Such as These, precisely to say how the public crises of our age could be addressed by some specific activist festivals with public rituals. They see themselves in the tradition of my own Freedom Seder and Seasons of Our Joy, and I am glad to see them that way.

And for Pesakh in the midst of war in 2024, in hundreds of college campuses, Passover Seders were devoted to the liberation of subjugated Palestinians, celebrating Jewish history and values precisely to condemn the continuing actions of the government of the Jewish state.

Can these emergency celebrations meet the deeper, longer-lasting needs of a vigorous American Diaspora? Without a king or even a State, living scattered within and across a larger nation, what would give a Diaspora community like American Jewry the continuing unity to make itself a serious weight for justice in U.S. politics?

One of the most important ways to do that would be to elevate the holy days of our sacred calendar, so that they not only recall efforts of creativity and freedom in the past, but also use public rituals old and new to transform the future toward more justice, more love. That practice is what The Shalom Center has called “actifests” — activist festivals that use ancient symbols to encourage not subjugation but a constantly fuller democracy. This would give new life and meaning to those rituals and symbols for a generation that feels they have become either boring or tormenting.

Assume that we pursue the path of actifest, with content for each actifest that enriches each community as part of an all-inclusive democracy. Undoubtedly there will be other practices besides the actifest that emerge as necessary and delightful. We begin with transformation of the festivals because the sacred festivals most fully distinguish our own community from all the other American celebrations.

Let me suggest a few examples: On Tisha B’Av, adding grief for our deeply wounded universal Temple Earth that is being burned right now to our grief for our ancient Temples in Jerusalem burned by predatory Empires long ago. In 2010, The Shalom Center commissioned Rabbi Tamara Cohen to give this imagining a body. She responded by writing an English “Eikha for Earth,” for chanting at the U.S. Capitol the summer that BP killed 11 of its own workers, and thousands of fish and birds in the Gulf of Mexico.

Her work pointed to the prayerful vision of other activist festivals. On Sukkot, for example, challenging the swollen U.S. military budget, following the words of a traditional prayer: “Spread over all of us [the seventy nations of the world] the sukkah of shalom.” And do what with that money? Urge that the money be restored to U.S. public schools in poor American neighborhoods and to Earth-protecting measures in poor nations afflicted by climate crisis.

In the early spring of 2024, the continuing news of the war by the Benjamin Netanyahu regime in Israel against the civilians of Gaza collided with the festival of Purim in an astonishingly apt way. The sacred text of Purim is the Scroll of Esther, a fictional satire of stupid and vicious political leaders. First the satire is aimed at the leaders of the Persian Empire. Then, in Chapter 9 of the Scroll, the satire targets the Jewish leaders of Persia who had first been held out as heroes. The Jews had feared the Persian leaders would carry out a genocide against them. But the genocidal plans failed. The Jewish leaders in the story, instead of helping transform Persian society so no community need fear oppression again, plan a reverse attack, which in the story kills 75,000 Persians.

Is the Scroll warning that even wise Jewish leaders can fall for the dangerous attractions of revenge? Especially if the anti-Israeli plan had been successful enough to kill or kidnap about 1,400 lives? Some have taken the story not as a satirical warning, but rather as factual history, to be imitated. In 1994, Baruch/Arur Goldstein — an Israeli Jewish settler near the Palestinian West Bank city of Hebron — thought and did as much. On Purim morning, he slaughtered 29 Muslims prostate in prayer, a threat to no one, in the Tomb of Abraham, our shared forebear. While others were writing midrash with a typewriter, he wrote midrash with a machine gun. Twenty years later, his midrash had been made a reality by the Israeli government.

So before Purim 2024, the satirical story seemed too close to what was actually happening in Gaza. The Shalom Center decided this was the right moment for an actifest. A double actifest, in fact.

Rabbi Nate DeGroot led a strenuous and successful effort in San Francisco to create a “Tent of Mourning” for the Fast of Esther — grieving for all the dead of the war, Israeli and Palestinian. And The Shalom Center, working with its former chair and “people’s artist” Arlene Goldbard, invited a passel of writers to create alternative Chapter Nines with wise and peace-seeking leaders teaching wise and peaceful paths. The alternative chapter(s) were warmly greeted in synagogues across North America. They became a prooftext for the success of a Diaspora community in making an audacious transformation of a sacred text. It did not stop the war, though actifest Passover Seders on hundreds of college campuses did stir major changes in U.S. policy towards the Netanyahu onslaught.

Growing Alliances

The actifest commitment fits Diaspora Judaism well, since Judaism already has a profusion of festivals — dark and light of sun and moon, agricultural celebrations, historical moments of winning more justice, even moments of mourning. Other traditions may have fewer choices. Working with them, fewer “actifests” may be available as focuses for activism. American civil festivals like MLK’s Birthday, the Fourth of July, Thanksgiving and Juneteenth arrive frequently, and they might be useful for multifaith activism.

Even for a New Diaspora Judaism, activism need not be restricted to transforming the sacred festivals, and of the language we use to Name the One.

We may always lift our visions as we take each step — so that we are never “there,” but always moving toward. The commitment to infuse more love into the world could embrace new versions of kashrut. The new kashrut could help heal Earth and calm the climate crisis by applying to food and to other substances taken from Earth, and by insisting that kosher food be grown through regenerative farming.

Two more areas for a new Diaspora Judaism to explore: One might be the possible revision of old and introduction of new sacred texts as with the revised Chapter Nines of the Scroll of Esther.

Reshaping heart-felt education between the generations of elders and youth to “prevent utter destruction of Earth,” as the Prophet Malachi (Chapter 3) teaches.

As Rabbi Shefa Gold infuses in every moment of her teaching: If love is at the center, then the Song of Songs is the guiding-star of the Next Torah. The Song needs to be learned in body, mind, heart and Spirit. In human communities and in relation with Earth and in our wrestling with the Holy One. For wrestling is a lot like making love, and love is strong as death.

As we learn to do this, the InterBreath of life will become more conscious, more known, more understood, to ourselves and to all who breathe the One.

 

[i] See The Book of Blessings: New Jewish Prayers for Daily Life, the Sabbath, and the New Moon, 1996.

[ii] This more or less works on sound. The “v” sound in “YHWH” is a “vov.” In Ahavah, the “v” sound is a “vet.” This may be a reminder that “Love” is complex with many twists and turns. I do believe that the loving heart of Torah is the “Song of Songs,” as the Talmud became the heart of “Next Torah” after the end of Temple Judaism. It is remarkable that the Name “YHWH” does not appear in the “Song,” perhaps to teach us that the whole text of the “Song” is a Name of God, and the intrusion of “YHWH” would spoil it.

[iii] “Inspire” in English comes from words that mean “breathe into.”

[iv] I Samuel 8.

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