1. As liberal Jews who value religious autonomy, how are the concepts of “covenant” (בְּרִית) and “commandment” (מִצְוָה) relevant to us? In what way is the Torah sacred text for us?
My notion of brit or covenant functions on both the horizontal plane – between one Jew and another, and the vertical plane – between God and the Jewish people. The brit is most alive for me on the horizontal plane, in the sense of shared responsibility Jews can feel towards each other. It is tribal, what it means to be a part of am yisrael, the Jewish people. Not everyone feels this bond and I will admit that there is something beyond the rational about it; what do I really have in common with Jews in Israel or France or Argentina? Yet, my daily consumption of the News begins with a quick scan to see what is going on in Israel and anywhere else Jews might be.
And, it is not just the Jews themselves with whom I feel this bond but also their heritage. When I officiate at funerals I often say that, “our ancestors walked through the valley of the shadow many times and somehow came out the other side. They left us a road map, a way to journey on through the darkness and out the other side, and we will follow their path today.” Our obligation to follow the heritage and traditions that our ancestors bequeathed to us is not necessarily because it is divine in origin but rather because our very existence as a people is tied to and dependent on those who came before us. The shelshelet kabbalah, the chain of Jewish tradition is not just about what God “said” or “commanded”, it is also about our past experience and how that has shaped who we are today.
On the vertical plane, between us and God, the concept of brit or covenant becomes, considerably more challenging, at least for me. The traditional understanding that the covenant detailed in the Torah governs the history of the Jewish people to this day, is hard for me to accept in light of our tortured history. I often say that “if this is what it means to be chosen, than choose someone else!” However, to jettison the idea of covenant or chosenness is equally unacceptable because in doing so we cast ourselves off into the chaos of history and lose any sense that there is a meaning to our suffering and a purpose to our existence. My approach is “to build a heart with many chambers.” (Toseftah, Sotah 7:12) In one of them I place the literalist view of covenant and election and in another chamber live my doubts born out by history and affirmed by reason. In a third compartment lives a more practical notion of covenant as a way to make meaning and give us hope as we journey through the vicissitudes of time and space. Depending on my need, I access one of those chambers.
The concept of mitzvah/command assumes two things: that there is a mitzaveh/commander and that we can know and understand what those commandments are. Ever since the Enlightenment and the shift of the focus of knowledge from inherited tradition i.e., the Torah and Rabbinic Literature, to science, liberal Jews have questioned this fundamental notion of mitzvah; we may believe in God, but we struggle with the more personal idea of God as mitzaveh/commander and wonder equally about the divine nature of what has come down to us as the mitzvoth/commandments. The liturgical phrase sung in most every service as the Torah is raised before the congregation to view; v’zot hatorah asher sam moshe, livnei b’nei yisrael al pi adonai b’yad moshe/this is the Torah that Moses gave to Israel, from the word of God, written by Moses, is a lovely symbolic message but how many people in the non-Orthodox world take that phrase literally? For me, Torah is the incomplete record of ancient Israelite life, lore, law and mythic history. It reflects our ancestor’s best attempt to write down and pass on their encounters with the Divine and what they believed were the most salient developments as a people. On the horizontal plane, the Torah binds us through its description of our origins and as a foundation for who we have become as a people and an evolving civilization. In that sense the Torah, and especially the Exodus narrative, is the master story of the Jewish people, the foundational document that defines the essential elements of Jewish life like our sense of peoplehood, our connection to the land of Israel and our focus on social justice; “love the stranger for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.” (Levitcus 19:34) But, is it “the word of God?” That to me is a question each of us in every generation must answer for ourselves, through study and struggle, engagement and a hermeneutics of generosity (a desire to make meaning, not tear apart the text). The Torah is a living covenant when we bring our lives to it and challenge it to respond.
2. What is a Jewish definition of “being religious” or “having faith?” How does communal prayer fit into the definition?
From Rabbi David Hartman I learned that in this age of doubt and antagonism towards religion, just the desire to pray is a prayer in itself. This radical redefinition of prayer is also an apt description of what it means, from a liberal perspective, to be a religious Jew. A religious person is someone who is “in the game,” in dialogue with Judaism and Jewish life. They may question, argue, disagree and doubt any and all elements of our tradition, but as long as they are leaning in to rather than walking away from the myriad of challenges Jewish religious life poses for the modern, liberal Jew, they are “religious.”
It’s instructive to note that David’s definition of prayer ignores the question of “faith” and focuses rather on the religious act of prayer. Like our mythic ancestors who in response to their overwhelming sense of God’s presence at Sinai said, naaseh v’nishmah/ we shall do and (then) we shall understand, (Exodus 24:8) faith is born out in our actions not so much in theology; we work toward tikun olam (repair of the world) because it is the right thing to do not because of our faith that “God is with us.” In being the hands and feet of God, we make God’s reality our reality. True faith is believing that what we do makes a difference and that ultimately we help make sure “the arc of history bends towards justice” (Adapted from, “The Quest for Peace and Justice,” Martin Luther King Jr., 1964). In communal prayer we are reminded that the values of our tradition, not the market place, are our loadstar for redemption, and that we are not alone in our struggle for meaning and purpose in life. Our ancestors struggled as well and somehow made their way. They left us a road map, a spiritual guide, the siddur, the prayer book to help us on our journey. In communal prayer we move both backwards and forwards in time, honoring and celebrating the past, while reaching out towards the promise of the future.
3. Does the Jewish people have a unique vocation among the nations? Do you affirm hope in a “messianic age” (יְמֵי הַמָּשִׁיחַ)?
There is an inherent dialectical tension in Judaism between the particular and the universal. In Genesis we are told that all b’nai adam/earthlings are created b’tzelem elohim, in God’s image, yet during the revelation at Mt. Sinai recorded in the book of Exodus, God says to Moses that B’nai Israel, the Children of Israel, if they follow God’s commandments will be “a special treasure to Me above all people… a kingdom of priests and a holy nation.” (Exodus 19:3-8) This tension between the particular and the universal evident in Torah is deepened in Rabbinic Literature.
I find most poignant the rabbinic legend of how God went about giving the Torah to humanity. According to the Midrash, God went from one nation to the next, offering each the Torah as a divine gift. But, when they found out what was in it, they all declined to accept it less their behavior be constrained by God’s law. Israel was God’s last “customer” and they too said “no thank you!” Apparently, God had had enough rejection for one day and in frustration, Adonai lifted Mt. Sinai up over the Israelites’ heads; either they were to be buried by the mountain or take the Torah. Given their options, the Israelites chose the Torah and thus became God’s chosen people! (Talmud, Shabbat 88a)
In other words, Jewish Tradition greets the concept of “choseness” with ambivalence. Yet, the Tradition never rejected the idea all together for if nothing else, “choseness” was a hopeful light at the end of the dark tunnel of Jewish history; Israel would bear the burden of its special place in God’s plan knowing that someday God would make good on God’s word and we would be as we were promised, an am segulah, God’s treasured people. (Deuteronomy 14:1-2)
Still, the question remains, is there something special about the Jews? Does God have a special plan or a unique role for us? This question seems beyond our reach to answer though we can note with some pride the outsized impact we have had in so many areas of human development over a number of centuries. Whether or not divinely ordained, our mere survival, stateless for much of our existence, is in itself a testament to our tenacity as a people. Some have argued that our mission is to bring monotheism to the world. Others have suggested we are to be the spokespeople for the oppressed. Of all the understanding of “choseness” that I have encountered over the years, I prefer the teaching of Rabbi Chanan Brichto, z”l who I heard say once that, “anyone is ‘chosen’ if they choose to live a holy life.”
I see messianism in all its forms as an antidote to despair over the human condition. It is no coincidence that messianism emerges as a force in Jewish history when conditions for the Jewish people were the most difficult and/or tenuous; we “go messianic” when life is so harsh that our only hope seems to depend on divine intervention on a grand scale. The idea of a messianic age may have seemed plausible to our Reform forefathers in the early 20th century. The fantastic rise of science and the Industrial Revolution offered the brief illusion that we could solve all our problems and create heaven on earth. But, by mid-century, two world wars, the Shoah and the threat of atomic annihilation shattered the illusion of infinite progress and made bankrupt for many, the idea that human progress could lead to the near perfection of the world and the end of history as we know it.
I am more likely to pray as our tradition teaches, for the messiah than I am to long for a messianic age in as much as a messianic age suggests that humanity through progress will perfect itself. If I “go messianic” at all it is to pray, cry out, beg (!) for God to enter history on a grand scale like in our mythic past and, with a “mighty hand” and an “outstretched arm,” free us from the Egypts of our age and take us – and by “us” I mean all of humanity – home in the fullest sense of the word: Bayom hahu y’hiyeh adonai echad ush’mo echad/On that day, God will be one and God’s name will be one.
Any obligation we might feel to enter into dialogue with members of other faith communities arises from our liberalism and not traditional Judaism. To be sure, there has always been a concern from within the tradition for darchei shalom which literally means, “ways of peace” but is better understood as “good relations with the gentiles.” Halacha, Jewish law, even allows certain practices that might otherwise be seen as questionable or even forbidden for the sake of darchei shalom. Nevertheless, a desire to get along with our gentile neighbors does not add up to an obligation. Even as a liberal Jew I do not feel obligated to be in dialogue with other faith communities. My desire for interfaith fellowship and discourse comes from my commitment to pluralism and my belief that God is most present in the space in- between people when they meet each other as “thous,” manifestations of the divine. Some of my most profound religious experiences have arisen from interfaith dialogue when we approach each other from a place of respect and intense interest. Nothing clarifies my own beliefs more than encounters with other faith traditions or belief systems (i.e. Buddhism or philosophy). I also share the tradition’s concern for darchei shalom; ignorance breeds hatred and thus good relations with the gentiles is usually fostered by interfaith dialogue.