Note: The article below is a revised version of an earlier blog post, rewritten to be my sermon for first day of Rosh Hashana. Special thanks to friends S., R., A. for their valuable input.
It’s YOUR Problem: A Sort of Jewish Ethical Will – Rosh Hashana Sermon 5771
As Jews, we stand, in many ways, at the space between not only one generation and the next, but between one era of Jewish history and the next.
During the administration of President Bush, he became notorious for speaking to a group from the armed forces and saying “mission accomplished.” It was noteworthy because it was an extreme exaggeration. We continued, and continue today, to fight a war. But some of the work had been accomplished.
I use “mission accomplished” in the same way: A generation or two of Jews have begun to tackle some important issues, but much remains to be done. While the generation my age and older should be patting itself on the back, we, as every generation in history, leave plenty of messes for future generations to clean up. I put before you a list of both accomplishments and failures of the last few decades, in the spirit of cheshbon ha-nefesh, taking an honest accounting of our lives at this High Holiday season. And I invite you to share your thinking at the conclusions of my remarks, and, more importantly, to be “in the game” in the year and years ahead.
The Jewish Family
Mission accomplished: Even during my childhood, there were families that would literally observe the shiva mourning period for one’s children who had married a partner who was not Jewish. Over a lifetime, the Jewish community has, thank God, largely moved from this approach and has taken steps to embrace partners and children of Jews and identify ways to help them raise Jewish families
Challenges remaining: The next generations need to work harder to embrace multi-cultural and bi-racial Jewish families, without demanding that they give up their other heritage. Only a few weeks ago, the New York Times, in the aftermath of the murder of a Black Jew in Brooklyn, ran a story about the African American Jewish community. And one of the most powerful experiences I have ever had was being part of an Orthodox wedding in which the groom, whose father is Scottish-Irish, walked to the chuppah accompanied by bagpipe music. These types of blendings will become more common in the future. What do we need to do in order for that to happen comfortably?
Mission accomplished: During the past 40 years, we’ve seen the first American woman rabbis, woman cantors become more mainstream, the beginning of Orthodox congregations accepting women on some level as spiritual leaders, an explosion of study opportunities for Orthodox women, the birth of Jewish Orthodox Feminist Alliance, significant movement in halachic circles to address the inequalities in traditional Jewish divorce.
: The next generations need to move communities to become more ready for women as rabbis and cantors in the A-list synagogues of the Reform and Conservative movements and as educational leaders in day schools across the ideological spectrum.
Mission accomplished: Our generation successfully advocated for a social change agenda that emanated from a Jewish place. We understood working for peace, protecting the environment, and safeguarding human rights as extensions of biblical and rabbinic teachings.
Challenges remaining: The next generations will need to reconnect the social change to Jewish teachings. Every activist who comes from a Jewish family knows that what they’re doing is an expression of tikkun olam, but could they read those words if they saw them in Hebrew? A role of future rabbis and educators will be to rebuild the link between the actions, the values that underlie them and the texts and language from which we learned the values.
Mission accomplished: Baby boomers saw youth trips to Israel and study experiences in Israel expand from being limited to rather exclusive groups to becoming mainstream and available to all. Youth groups, Zionist organizations, expansion of numbers and types of programs, Israel savings plans and, most recently, Birthright Israel have all contributed. Overall, the relationship of American Jews to Israel has matured. Israel is viewed as a real place, complete with social challenges and political corruption. We recognize that the Israel that we liked to look at as our little child, full of chalutzim, pioneers, has grown up. And many organizations are recognizing that reality, realigning their Israel approaches in a way that sees Israel not as a needy child, but as a real partner in the continuing adventure of the Jewish people.
Challenges remaining: As a friend from high school reminded me, we all need to work to keep Gilad Shalit, captured Israeli soldier, in our minds and actions, especially as Israel enters important negotiations with the Palestinian Authority. And we have still not figured out how to handle disagreements with or about Israel. Far too many American Jews took to the streets and picketed publicly against Israel’s decision to disengage from Gaza just a few years ago. But how should we handle our disagreements, whether they are about religious pluralism, security, or whatever the next big issue will prove to be?
Mission accomplished: To be fair about it, the community of the past 50 years was the one that really created this as an issue. That many Orthodox leaders were among the founders of Jewish Theological Seminary or the fact that Mordecai Kaplan could be a JTS-trained rabbi, rabbi of an Orthodox congregation, involved in the founding of the Young Israel movement, and the founder of Reconstructionist Judaism (while on faculty of JTS) are facts of now-ancient history. The boomer generation practically invented the angry language of the dialogue between the American Jewish religious movements and their adherents. Oh, there were a few attempts to bridge the gaps: Rabbi Yitz Greenberg and the CLAL organization that he created, Gesher programs in Israel, Academy for Jewish Religion as a transideological rabbinical seminary, and Wexner and other leadership initiatives. But this generation also included the failure of an experiment with cross-denominational conversions (Denver) and the book tour for One People, Two Worlds: A Reform Rabbi and an Orthodox Rabbi Explore the Issues that Divide Them that had to be cancelled because of pressure exerted on one of the authors by his community.
Challenges remaining: Figuring out this complex issue and all of its components: conversion, Israeli policies, and just plain civility of one Jew towards another. The next generation needs to get Orthodox Jews to quit calling themselves “religious” (at one point, the Orthodox Union had the audacity to print on their envelopes that they are “the voice of the religious Jew), as if Jews of other movements were not “religious.” It also needs to get Reform and Conservative Jews to reconsider how to present themselves in ways that are not self-deprecating (“I don’t go to services, I’m a Reform Jew”…yes, some people really do say that). Increasing numbers of Jews are viewing the movements of the last 150 years or so as irrelevant to their Jewish lives. Perhaps the answer will prove to be the further development of a post-denominational Judaism.
Day School Education
Mission accomplished: Day School education exploded in the past generation. In Orthodox circles, it became sine qua non. Conservative and Reform day schools grew in number and became acceptable as an option. Partnership for Excellence in Jewish Education helped to move day schools from mom & pop operations to becoming serious players on the communal scene
Challenges remaining: How are we going to pay for all this? And, if day school education is demanded by the Orthodox community, are day schools prepared or able to do what is needed to accommodate students with special needs?
This is a very short list of a generation’s accomplishments and of challenges to the next generation of Jews and of Jewish leaders. I benefited from the observation of two friends who reviewed my remarks over the past days. One reminded me that the real theme here is that of Rabbi Tarfon in Mishnah Avot, who said:
לא עליך המלאכה לגמור,
ולא אתה בן חורין לבטל ממנה
It is not our job to complete the work, and yet we are not free to absent ourselves from it.
The other colleague reminded me of the phrase tikkun olam, coined by the medieval mystics, referring to the work we need to do in order to bring the world back into the balance and harmony through which it was meant to exist. That work is never finished until a messianic era. It is a process even more than an outcome. A process that calls us to step forward.
On this Rosh Hashana, the Jewish people invite you to begin today, to celebrate the accomplishments of what we euphemistically call a “mature” generation. And to join the communal discussions of how we will shape the responses to the challenges of the Jewish community of the future.
Best wishes for a shana tova u’metukah, a happy and sweet new year!