Shabbat Mevarchim: Rosh Chodesh Elul 5777
“Identity”, according to Rabbi Irwin Kula, “ including our religious identity, is becoming fluid, permeable, and an ongoing construction — a verb rather than a noun. “ This means that … Americans are increasingly becoming… “mixers, blenders, benders and switchers” who “customize our religious identities in order to find greater meaning and purpose.” One driver of this mixing of religious ideas results from “new powerful technologies from search engines to connection technologies.” This makes available religious and spiritual resources independent of religious authorities, which challenges exisiting institutions, whose business models and organizational structures are increasingly unsustainable. This alternative “model of authority and hierarchy, [with its] very limited barriers of entry and far more choices, …tends to be a user-friendly and open source environment.” The reality of this model is threatening to many clergy, and stands in sharp contrast to this week’s parasha, R’eih. (http://www.huffingtonpost.com/rabbi-irwin-kula/from-the-cathedral-to-the_b_659871.html?tr=y&auid=6738396)
Parashat R’eih is filled with legalities and is framed by blessings and curses associated with the choices we make concerning adherence to the Torah’s rules and regs. The Israelites are warned not to be lured by other nations to worship their gods. On this point, one commentary states, “Every religion has its own ‘grammar’, its coherent way of expressing its values. We do violence to that coherence when we mix practices of one faith system with another” (Eitz Hayim Commentary, p.1068). The text continues, “Be careful to observe only that which I enjoin upon you: neither add to it nor take away from it” (Dt. 13:1). How, then, can each new generation reconcile the conflict that arises between preserving a rich heritage and way of life, and making out-of-the-box choices which challenge the institutions and sources of authority? Kula’s point is that this is already happening and represents a great opportunity.
Adam Stone offers a perspective that places “relevant ideas—and not institutions for institutions sake—as the dominant value proposition of Jewish life.” These ideas should relevant and meaningful to people, and lead to behaviors such as treating the stranger kindly, extending justice in the world, and learning to relax and rejuvenate. Stone emphasizes that he is not advocating for slapping a Jewish label on universal humanist tendencies. He is seeking an “intellectually robust and honest conversation,” not “Judaism-lite.” And, while acknowledging the role institutions play in supporting communal life, he emphasizes the importance of creating engaging alternatives for those more hesitant to become “joiners.” http://www.schusterman.org/blog/service/where-relevant-meets-reality#more-2499
In contrast, Kula moves the discussion out of the Jewish community and into the global sphere. Responding to the rise intermarriage (racial, religious, ethnic, etc.) he believes that “more people with different inheritances and traditions form intimate relationships and families, the better we will understand each other across all boundaries, and the wiser we will be at knowing what from our rich traditions we need to let go of and transcend, and what we need to bring along with us to help us create better lives and build a better world.” This is a radical view which no doubt creates discomfort for traditionalists, liberals and secularists alike.
So, how can we make sense of today’s parasha?
Consider the opening verse: “See(Re’eih), this day I set before you blessing and curse; blessing, if you obey the commandments of YHVH your God that I enjoin upon you today…(Dt. 11:26) for “before you (lifneichem), is in the plural. Why? The Kotzker Rebbe explains that while the Torah was indeed given to everyone – it was placed before you all [those who were, are and will yet be] – each person only beholds in it that which s/he is capable of seeing.
Consider another reading. Perhaps this hints at the tension inherent between the choices made by an individual and those made by a community. It is within that tension that Judaism and the Jewish people struggle – hopefully, for a blessing. It is in this dynamic tension between the roots of tradition and wings of innovation that transformation takes place. Upon seeing the unique godliness in the individual may we be so blessed to manifest the love and acceptance needed to connect us together as part of the human family.
Shabbat Shalom & Rosh Chodesh Tov,
Nina J. Mizrahi
Ames, Iowa & Chicagoland