Why Bother With Judaism?

In this speech from the 2017 RRA convention, Rabbi Michael Strassfeld reflects on redemption, responsibility and embodying Torah as Jewish leaders and community members.

An illustration from a 1299 manuscript of the Hebrew Bible by Joseph Assarfati of Cervera, Spain. DeAgostini/Getty Images.
An illustration from a 1299 manuscript of the Hebrew Bible by Joseph Assarfati of Cervera, Spain. DeAgostini/Getty Images.

Taken from an address to the Reconstructionist Rabbinical Association at its 2017  convention, on receiving the Rabbi Ira Eisenstein Award for Distinguished Rabbinic Service.

Yesterday I was in the convention group that focused on making the case to live a Jewish life. That is what my new book is about. If my first attempt, The Jewish Catalog, tried to make Judaism accessible to people, and my second attempt, The Book of Life: Embracing Judaism as a Spiritual Practice, suggested spirituality as the why/the kavanah of Jewish life, then my new book tries to address people who wonder why bother. Why bother with religion in general and with Judaism in particular? People who wonder why bother when religion fosters intolerance or worse. Why bother with Judaism, which seems so particularistic and ritualistic? After all, one can be ethical and even spiritual without all the trappings and problems of Judaism.

A piece of an answer:

The Jewish story begins in Genesis chapter 12 with God saying to Abram: “Lekh lekha– Go forth.” This is the Jewish origin story. Origin stories of nations are meant to tell you about the character of that nation. George Washington couldn’t tell a lie so he confessed to chopping down a cherry tree. In the Jewish origin story, Abraham is told to leave his country, his birthplace, his family and presumably his native language behind and go off to a Promised Land.

Abraham is the first immigrant in the world. That is our founding story. Being an immigrant begins not when Jews came to America, not even when we left Egyptian slavery. It is our beginning. A story of displacement, a vision of something better, a willingness to journey into the unknown. Needless to say, our story as immigrants shapes who we are, and how we should respond to the world.

Why do I say to the world? Because the other point the Torah makes is that the Jewish story begins in chapter 12 of Genesis, but the Torah begins in chapter 1 with the creation of the world. In other words, the particular story of the Jewish people begins with the most universal setting. Judaism is a particularistic tradition, but it exists in the context of the universal. Both are essential aspects of Torah. Judaism without the universal is not just missing its context; it is a distorted version of Judaism. God after all is God of the universe not just of the Jews. This also means that Judaism is not the only “true” religion. There is no one true path—neither for Jews nor for anyone else.

What is that Jewish path? Abraham after all is told to go forth. He is not told any other specifics. We see that he is hospitable to strangers, for Abraham knows what it is like to be an immigrant.

The strangers/angels leave Abraham and Sarah’s tent on their way to Sodom. God says to God’s self: “Shall I hide from Abraham that which I will do… after all, Abraham and his descendants will keep derekh Adonai—the way of God” (Gen.  18:17).

What is the way of God? God tells us: tzedek umishpat—righteousness and justice. Social justice is derekh Adonai. To all those who say that tikkun olam (repairing the world through justice work) is a late twentieth-century liberal invention, I suggest that Gen.-18:19 makes very clear that the path for Abraham, Sarah and Jewish people is the path of righteousness and justice. It is the path of speaking truth to power, even if that power is God (as Abraham will do in a few verses (18:23).

When I retired from the rabbinate several years ago, I wondered: Was I successful as a rabbi or not? There is no objective answer to that question. It is how you feel about your life that makes it a success or failure.

The deeper truth is that it is the wrong question. The measure of life is not how much you have accomplished. A Jew is to engage in one thing: Torah. And it is not how much Torah you know that is the measure of a Jew. It is not how much you have eaten of the tree of knowledge. Rather, it is how much you have eaten of the oft forgotten second tree in the Garden of Eden: the eitz hayyim—the tree of life.

It is not how much you know but rather how much you are known. That is— how through your relationships, through your daily interactions with the other tzelmei elohim—divine images disguised as human beings. How well did you connect?

It is not how much you know but how much you are known. The voice of Sinai goes forth every day not just constantly revealing Torah but calling each of us to join in the act of revelation by revealing ourselves in to the world. Franz Rosenzweig suggests that creation, revelation and redemption are the three central activities of God. We understand how we as humans can imitate God by being co-creators, and how acts of caring, compassion and connection can bring redemption to the world. Often we don’t realize that we can also be sources of revelation when we reveal our selves.

Understanding this I finally understood why I became a rabbi. It gave me, an introvert, a forum to reveal myself as each week I taught Torah which is always both the Torah of peshat—the meaning of the text and sod—the inner meaning reflecting my concerns, struggles and values. I became a rabbi as a way to be known and as a way to know myself. It is all about connection. It is not existential aloneness that is the challenge of our modern world—it is a sense of existential unknownness.

Did I make a difference or not?

One more word of Torah: Let us turn to the very last verse in the Torah, Deuteronomy 34:12

“And in all that strong hand and awesome power that Moses displayed before all Israel.”

The Hebrew for “in all that strong hand” is ha-yad ha-hazakah. In the very last verse of Torah there is an amazing reversal! It is no longer God’s mighty hand and awesome power –it is Moses’. What is this mighty hand of Moses? Is it a fist? Is it when Moses smote the Egyptian taskmaster or hit the rock?

Rashi, the great medieval commentator, comments on yad hazakah. He Says that it means Moses received the Ten Commandments in his strong hand, because the weight of the lukhot, the tablets, of the Torah required strength. Or perhaps what made it powerful was that he received Torah with it. And if you think about it, to receive Torah or anything else, you need not a fist but an open hand.

The verse continues: and everything Moses did was l’einei kol Yisrael—before the eyes of all Israel. What did Moses do before all of Israel? Rashi says it refers to one specific moment.

Rashi: Before all Israel –this refers to the fact that Moses’ heart inspired him to shatter the tablets before the people. (It is the moment when the people are worshipping the Golden Calf, and Moses comes down the mountain and smashes the tablets.)  Rashi continues: We know God’s opinion of this deed because in Exodus 34:1 God said halukhot asher shibarta, the tablets asher shibarta—literally the tablets which you broke—is to be reread not as asher but as yishar kokhakha sheshebarta—congratulations that you had the strength to break them.  Yishar kokakha—the traditional phrase we say to people after an aliya to the Torah. “Moses,” God says according to Rashi’s interpretation, “you had the courage and strength to do the right thing. The tablets were meant to be broken.”

In his very last comment on the Torah, Rashi says that Moses, not God, has a yad hazakah– a mighty hand—a hand that is mighty because he accepted Torah with it but then had the courage to smash the tablets when necessary. It is an amazing concluding statement by Rashi, who I want to suggest was the first Reconstructionist, in that he understood that we must receive the Torah but we also must reconstruct—break the tablets of that Torah and reassemble its pieces. It is a fundamental statement about Judaism with which Rashi ends his commentary and therefore reveals how Rashi understands the greatness of Moses, the greatest leader of the Jewish people.

I do not mean to suggest that smashing or even reconstructing Torah is a simple thing. These days, rabbis struggle as never before about the freedom of the pulpit about what can be said about Israel and about U.S. politics. Please don’t go back to your communities saying Michael told us to look for tablets to break. There is no magic wisdom here about when to speak and when not to. But I am suggesting that Moses’ greatness rested on his ability to question what is and to understand that the Torah has been given into our hands for us to continue to unroll the Torah scroll l’einei kol Yisrael (before all of Israel) and to engage in the revelation of new meanings found therein and found within ourselves.

I say to you, the members of the RRA yishar kokhakhen/ yishar kokhakhem asher shibarta (congratulations that you have the strength to break the tablets).

And as we finish that last verse of Deuteronomy, we say to each other let our hands be strong, let us strengthen the hands of those in our communities and let our zeroa netuyah—outstretched hand—help support so many who are in need. In that way, we and Judaism and the world will be strengthened.

Together let us say: Hazak Hazak ve-nitkhazeik.

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