Friday, December 20, 2013

Parashat Shmot: Us vs. Them

Several weeks ago I posted an article on our facebook page about how Rabbi Rick Jacobs, president of our URJ, which just met in our Biennial conference last week, went to the Linus sluchim, the annual gathering of CHABAD rabbis and community leaders, and how he met with rabbi krinsky, his peer at Lubuvitch. I posted the article, which was entirely neutral, with the comment: An interesting development. Feel free to share your thoughts!

At the time, there was a mix of reactions, from 'why bother?' to "well, it's nice they invited him" and everything in between. I was reminded of this article this week for two reasons. First, at the clergy meeting at biennial a number of my colleagues brought up this visit to the "Rebbes army" and there was more than a little anxiety in their voices. These Chabadniks were trying to take our people, undermine our initiatives, and negate our authenticity as Jews, performing scorched earth policies designed to maximize them and minimize anyone else. At least, that was the fear voiced in the questions.

The other was at least one Chabad response to Rick Jacobs' Biennial Keynote, which was, let us say, less than kind. Never mind the many, many Orthodox triumphalist responses to the Pew report denigrating Reform.

It seems to me that there are two fears at work on both sides. The fear that the other is more numerous, more powerful, and as a result may be out to get us. The other fear is that they may be right in their criticism.

This week we read (ex 1:19). We seem to spend an awful lot of time looking at each other in the Jewish world as threats, saying about one another 'rav lahem', they are too big. We can't compete. We are negated in their presence or at least we will be if we dont fight back.

And if you think this only happens between movements, come and see how even in synagogue life, different groups can see each other as competing for resources, money, space, time slots, the attention of the leadership and clergy, etc.

But here's the thing: It's not true. The portion doesn't begin with these words of threat: it begins by naming the sons of Israel, reminding us of the previous portion, where Joseph had found plenty for Egypt, and Jacob blesses each and every son. It's a reminder that there is enough blessing for EVERYONE. There is enough room for EVERYONE. No one movement or experience can define Judaism in Toto, and we may agree to disagree as only Jews can about how we engage in that Judaism meaningfully, but we are not enemies, any more than the tribe of Dan and the Tribe of Issschar are enemies. Sure, CHABAD things we dont care about mitzvot. As Rabbi Jacobs said, we just care differently, and since when is our pride of Reform predicated on their perception of us? And sure, we begrudge CHABAD on occasion. But let us recognize that they serve a need and we could learn a lot from how they create nonanxious, loving entree points to Jewish life. There is enough blessing for all of us. When the text says that Pharaoh does not know Joseph, what it means is he doesn't understand that Israel is not a threat, but a help and Egypt's prosperity is tied to Israel's. 

Honestly, I'm tired of having this conversation. What does it matter what others think of us? And what does it matter how others practice their Judaism? To quote Rabbi Jacobs in his biennial Keynote: "Our Judaism is for everyone. Our Judaism is inclusive, egalitarian, intellectually rigorous, joyful, passionate, spiritual, pluralistic, constantly evolving and relevant. Soul elevating spiritual practice, life-altering Torah study, courageous practice of tikkun olam, loving care for our community, especially the most vulnerable--that's what we are... " Like Rabbi Jacobs, I believe our Judaism is for everyone, and don't need to measure it against some traditionalist measuring stick, but I also recognize that we are stronger and better as a people for our diversity. 
In a couple of weeks Israel will go out of Egypt, and as Amichai Lau taught this week, it takes all Israel to go into freedom and accept Torah. All the Tribes, each of the tribes need eahc other. The same is true for our tribe. I am a proud Reform Jew, proud of our past and even more excited for our future. I am a child of this movement anf, without being Pollyanna, believe it's future is bright. But it won't be of we continue to see Jewish experience as us vs them. That doesn't mean compromising our values-on Israel, egalitarianism, social justice and a strong critical approach to text and tradition, in all meanings of that word. But just as the tide lifts all ships, we need each other, and need to see that there is enough blessing. For if we don't, then our redemption, our liberation, may be a lot farther off then just a few parshiot.

1 comment:

  1. Rabbi Ellenson, who gave a spectacular televised dvar Torah at the RJ convention, wrote one of the essays in Jewish Megatrends where he acknowledged the decline of denominational identity, written and published well in advance of the Pew Research study's release. Even Chabad was historically a break from denominationalism with Schneur Zalman's maggid reaching out to disaffected individuals stifled or judged inferior by the religious authorities of the time with a slight reversal from the founders of Lubavich who thought it best to restore at least in part mandatory study leading to Chochma-Binah-Daat.

    While I might be something of a Hellenist who can be swayed by wisdom and beauty wherever it derives, or perhaps even the prototype of the Pew Research findings of people loyal to creed by skeptical of institutions not quite up to the task of promoting them, I still find my own learning directed toward places like or other orthodox sources, though I have no intention of keeping my car parked on shabbos or eating only at home. And while I certainly read other views and take a certain delight in the diversity that is Shalom TV, what I have found too often is the Conservative and to a lesser extent Reform expositions putting as much effort into defending ideology as they are to partaking of Torah. While Rabbi Jacobs and Rabbi Ellenson each gave outstanding televised presentations, the HUC-JIR President did not seem to have an eye looking backward in anticipation of later attack of his words than did the URJ President.

    With the three principal denominations now firmly institutionalized in America for at least a hundred years and nearly unassailable Pew data showing considerable crossover of individuals from one loyalty to another during most of that time though a measure of ongoing institutional competition for more adherents, I think Jewish pluralism is pretty much accepted by everyone, even those not entirely happy with it. But as your blog comments suggest, the principle of Derech Eretz Kadma l'Torah may not have reached its potential in America, though locally in Wilmington there does not seem to be any destructive interdenominational hostility that exists in many larger Jewish centers.