Torah Accompanies Us in Our Uncertainty

Rosh HaShanah 5776 talk by Rabbi Michael Strassfeld

Editor’s note: The Ann Arbor Reconstructionist Congregation wants to take this opportunity to profusely thank Rabbis Michael Strassfeld and Joy Levitt for leading our High Holiday observances, teaching us, and sharing the New Year with us.

MJ_Strassfeld_photo-B&WThere is a great deal of discussion these last few years in the Jewish community about its future. Based on recent surveys including the Pew study, there is concern about decreased participation in Jewish life by many people. The open society of America has led to assimilation.

A related phenomenon is a growing perception of religion as a force for intolerance and conflict in the world. What is and what should be the future of Judaism as a religion?

In pre-modern times, religion was a way to explain and understand a mysterious world. Why did things happen? Why did people get sick? Why did one side win a battle?

The answer: because God or gods created the world and controlled what happened. Over time, a belief in one God, a God of justice pre-dominated. It became the unified theory to explain the world. God punished sinners and rewarded the righteous. If the suffering of the innocent wasn’t completely explained by this notion at least there was some context for a way to strive to understand the world or a foundation to have faith that God had a plan even if you didn’t understand it. The world was not random but a world of purpose. But then over time, humans came to understand the world more clearly and discovered the laws of nature. Humans discovered germs and contagion, and disease no longer seemed either random or the scourge of God. Or as the atheist Christopher Hitchens wrote in 2007: “Thanks to the telescope and the microscope, [religion] no longer offers an explanation of anything important.”

Does religion in general and specifically does Judaism still have a purpose? Is that why recent surveys show an increasing number of Jews who define themselves and their Judaism as non-religious?

Reconstructionism encourages us to ask what needs reconstructing in Judaism—not just tinkering around the edges—but what needs to be radically recast or reunderstood. In his time Mordecai Kaplan, the founder of Reconstructionism, propounded a different understanding of the nature of God. In the face of the growing evidence of the decline in the adherence to Judaism, especially as a religion, I have come to believe that it is the fundamental way we think about Judaism that needs reconstructing. It struck me that part of the problem of religion in the modern world is that we both look to religion for certainty, especially in moments of crisis, and as moderns we rarely find that certainty. The theology of our ancestors, if it ever was their theology, simply doesn’t work for most of us. We don’t believe God saved this child fleeing from Syria because we don’t believe God caused that three year old to die on the beach in that terrible photo we all saw. We don’t think God gave cancer to that person, and let the other person recover from a heart attack. We just don’t organize our world this way. Religion for liberal Jews is not about certainty.

Fundamentalists of all varieties do believe in the certainty of religion. Even if they don’t see God’s hand in what happened to them, they live more comfortably in a world where God is in charge. They are better able to acknowledge that they don’t understand the workings of God, but He is nevertheless worthy of praise, even in the face of terrible loss. We don’t see the world that way. Yet having rejected fundamentalism, we have failed to reshape our Judaism to reflect what we believe and what we need from religion. We have not made clear to ourselves and to others that liberal Judaism is not about certainty In fact, liberal Judaism is all about how to live with uncertainty, not certainty.

Each of us will have moments of uncertainty in our personal and professional lives. Each of our lives will be confronted by pain and by tragedy that will feel random and inexplicable. And while we will frequently turn to religion at these moments, if certainty is what we crave, we will be disappointed. Liberal Judaism is not about certainty or answers.

Judaism is living a life of meaning, of choosing a life filled with awareness of the blessings we experience every day. It calls us to express and experience appreciation and gratitude because that is what fills most of our life—moments of every day holiness. It encourages us to create relationships of love and caring. It calls us to a larger context, beyond personal growth and even our interactions with people in our daily lives. Tikkun olam is a call to repair the world—everywhere not just in our little corner.

Judaism provides rituals that help us experience the importance and meaning of life cycle moments and creates communities so that when there is a crisis we are not alone even when we feel, especially when we feel, most alone.

Judaism doesn’t tell us how the earth orbits the sun. It doesn’t tell us why some people get sick and others don’t. Science tells us that—or if it doesn’t yet, we have faith that it will someday. Science might explain how we are able to speak but doesn’t tell us what to say. It has nothing to say about gossip or hurtful speech, but Judaism does.

Religion is not about worshipping or serving God, it is about serving the good. The Jewish people have struggled with two central questions expressed right at the beginning of the Torah:

God asks—ayekha—where are you, and humans ask hashomeir ahi anokhi—am I my brother and sister’s keeper.

God’s question: Where are you? Are you even aware the question is being asked? Are you awake to this moment or sleep walking? Are you who you want to be? Are you growing?

Human’s question: Hashomeir ahi anokhi—am I my brother’s keeper?

Are we responsible? Going from slavery to freedom is the founding story of the Jewish people. It defines who we are. Do we understand that being freed from the narrow constriction/the slavery of miztrayim/Egypt means that now we are responsible for the world around us? How will we use our choices to improve our society? To help those who are in need? To include those who feel relegated to the margins of our society. The answers are not simple, easy or clear. Those who think they are misread reality and I would argue don’t understand that religion is about asking the hardest questions of ourselves and of our society. Insights may come from the 3000 year old conversation of the Jewish people or from deep inside you. Insights but not certainty. We are human not gods. Even the One God is not portrayed as an image of certainty. Isn’t God’s description of God’s self at the burning bush—I will be what I will be ehyeh asher ehyeh—the ultimate description of growth and change not of certainty?

What makes humans unique—and what makes certainty impossible—is we have choice. God’s great gift to humankind and also its greatest challenge is the ability to choose. In many ways, religion broadly and Judaism specifically is a response to that challenge of choice

Rabbinic Judaism tried to create categories that were clear and certain. Things were either kosher or treyf, pure or impure. If you did it this way you could be certain that you fulfilled the mitzvah/commandment. If you didn’t do it this way then you could be certain that you didn’t fulfill the mitzvah. And there are exactly 613 commandments to fulfill (not 612 or 614).

The modern world broadened the possibilities for everyone including the Jewish people. Jews embraced the possibilities and the choices offered by modernity. We were on the whole eager to leave the ghetto and all it represented. Since the enlightenment Judaism has struggled how to redefine itself in this new and very different world. The religious denominations were only one such response. Other responses replaced Judaism or religious Judaism with other isms—socialism, communism, yiddishism, Jewish nationalism e.g. Zionism. The 20th century in particular is strewn with failed attempts to create a new Judaism that would keep a piece of Jewish identity mixed with a new approach taken from the world.

For some time now, it has been clear that this moment calls for a new attempt to create a Judaism that responds to modernity. Though we live in an America where all the ghetto walls are completely gone, where most liberal Jews are choosing to marry whom they wish—and whom they wish more often than not isn’t another Jew—but we are still using old models taken from rabbinic Judaism to both understand and orient our world. If only we could get people to be more observant—keep kosher or Shabbat? If only we could get Jews to marry Jews? Yet, the only way to successfully do that is to reject modernity and to return to a self-imposed ghetto as the ultra-Orthodox have done with great success. But is that a price anyone in this synagogue or in any liberal synagogue is willing to pay?

The world for us is no longer divided between the holy and the profane, the kosher and the treyf, the Jewish and the non-Jewish. As long as we try in some way to uphold that old model we will fail, especially with a younger generation that has no perception of the world as divided and certainly not divided between the Jew and the non-Jew. They live in an increasingly multi-cultural inclusive society and while not without its own challenges, it is a world they embrace.

If in our evolving religious civilization, we have moved beyond both biblical and rabbinic Judaism, I believe there is a Judaism still to be created for this third great age for the Jewish people. I am not at all certain what all its elements will be but I am certain that the Jewish future is in danger if we don’t take on the challenge of reconstructing rather than just tinkering with Jewish life. Let me suggest one metaphor as a place to begin.

There is a statement in the Talmud Yerushalmi that describes the Torah as black fire written on white fire. Over the centuries this phrase has been explained in a variety of ways. One interpretation is that the black fire is the letters of the written Torah and the white fire is the Oral Torah, the words of the rabbis who interpreted Torah… For Jewish mystics, the white fire is the hidden meanings of the Torah that lie beneath the written text. What is true of both interpretations of this image is that we need both the black and white fire to make the Torah readable.

Paper cut illustration by Deborah Eisenbach-Budner from Spring 1991 issue of Bridges in article "Our Lives are the Text," by Rabbi Rebecca Alpert.

Paper cut illustration by Deborah Eisenbach-Budner from Spring 1991 issue of Bridges in article “Our Lives are the Text,” by Rabbi Rebecca Alpert.

I want to suggest a new interpretation for our time. The black fire remains the Torah text, the story of the Jewish people. But in this reading, the white fire is the larger world around us. Without the white spaces the Torah cannot be read for it would be lacking a larger context. In this reading, the larger world is not a place to be avoided or managed carefully. In this reading, it is an essential part of how we understand our particular story. Without it, we have no story.

The challenge in America is that we Jews must now not only learn to read the black letters but the surrounding white letters as well. Both make up the Torah. We live in two civilizations—the Jewish and the American. Yet, there are those in the Jewish community who think the white fire is dangerous and to be avoided. They think that the only letters worth studying are the black letters. Frankly, there are also those in the Jewish community that think that the black fire is antiquated, narrow, irrelevant, or simply too hard to learn.

Modernity affords us the opportunity and the challenge to be touched by both the black fire and the white fire. The real truth is we always have read the white letters. We always interacted with the world around us even when hindered by the walls of the ghetto. Now the walls are down. We are free of the limitations of so many centuries. We are free to learn the black letters—all of us—women and men, young and old, straight and queer. But reading only the black letters is an inadequate response to the world in which we live. To do so is for us to rebuild the ghetto walls.

It will not be easy but without reading both the black fire and the white fire we are misunderstanding the nature of Torah. The Midrash says that God looked into the Torah and created the world. It doesn’t say God looked into the Torah and created the Jewish people or just the land of Israel. The whole world is Torah’s context. After all, the Torah begins not with the Exodus or even with Abraham and Sarah. It begins with creation and Adam and Eve. Yes, we are to celebrate the Exodus and the particularistic story of the Jewish people at Pesach. But lest we forget about the white fire we are also to celebrate the birthday of the world on Rosh ha-Shana. Today Jews and their families have gathered to celebrate the most universal holiday—the birthday of the world. It is striking that only Jews and no one else in the world knows that today is the world’s birthday!

The particular lives in dialogue with the universal.

If for centuries this could not be realized in the face of anti-Semitism, now at least in America, we have the possibility of exploring Torah as it was meant to be—in the fullness of God’s intention—black fire on white fire.

We often say that the essential moment in Jewish history is the covenant at Sinai. Yet, we don’t pay enough attention to the covenant that precedes Sinai. There is the covenant that God makes with all humankind after the flood. The sign of that covenant is a rainbow. It is beyond black and white. It suggests a world that is all inclusive—including all the colors which make up a rainbow. Our task then is to read Torah in the light of the covenant of Sinai and in the light of the covenant of the flood. I would add that the covenant of Noah takes on added meaning in our times. After the flood, God promised never to bring another flood and destroy the world. However, humans have now acquired the ability to destroy the world whether through nuclear winter or through polluting the environment. God may have promised not to destroy the world, but humans seem to have made no such promise.

It won’t save the Jewish people if we all observe Shabbat while the world comes to an ecological end. There is no better example of the Torah being black fire on white fire then the ecological challenge of our time.

Some will argue that this is just Midrash—just homiletics, not rooted in Halakha—Jewish law. I would argue that as modern Jews, and especially liberal Jews, we live by Midrash. Most of us no longer live within the daled amot/ four cubits of Halakha, but rather in the expanse of Midrash. As we seek to understand who we are and who we are striving to be, as we look for meaning in our lives, we turn to Midrash as the expressive conversation of the Jewish people exploring these questions over the centuries. In so doing, we add our own Midrash/insights to the Jewish library and experience.

Others will argue that Judaism is in danger from increasing numbers of Jews being detached from a vibrant Jewish life, from not knowing or caring about the black fire. They worry that this notion of being engaged in the world and welcoming it as part of our world will inevitably lead to a diluted Judaism. Isn’t it a nice way to describe a process of assimilation? Doesn’t the tradition need to have boundaries to be preserved?

Let us return to Halakha/Jewish law. With the Temple destroyed and the Jews driven from the land, the Jewish people face the holiest object we have, the Torah scroll that resides in the ark. We read the Torah each week in an attempt to make its words accessible to all. For some, that Torah needs to be carefully preserved. For some it needs to be protected from dilution by outside forces. Yet the Halakha tells us that the only thing in life that cannot become tamei/impure or polluted is a Torah scroll. It is impervious to tumah. Not even the deepest form of tumah—a dead body–can affect a Torah scroll. The Torah is a tree of life—etz hayyim—and thus impervious to death. I want to suggest that we not worry what will happen to the Torah if touched by the challenges of the open society. Instead we should unroll the Torah and let its words flow out of the doors of our synagogues. These words should accompany us on our way, to our homes, to our workplaces; to the people we meet, in our ups and our downs, in every moment of our lives. We learn them not to preserve them, not to conserve them, not to die by them but to live by them, to live with them, and most to share them as we strive to live lives of holiness, compassion, and meaning.