Sermon: My Jewish World—Yesterday and Tomorrow
Rabbi Jonathan Miller
June 16, 2017/Parashat Sh’lach L’cha
I want you to imagine the horror. It is 1944. Your neighbors rounded you up with your family in Hungary. They put you in a ghetto, and 24 hours ago you were crammed into a boxcar by SS troopers with dogs, whips and big leather boots shouting in German. You are exhausted, thirsty, hungry–and some Jew standing next to you says, “Hey, you know what? Ten years from now, we Jews will have a country of our own in Palestine. And the Germans will buy oranges and roses from us and Jewish airplanes will land in Frankfurt and Munich with Jewish businessmen and tourists traveling as welcome guests in Germany.” You would look at him with disgust and disbelief. His vision of the future would sound cruel and mocking considering the pain that you are suffering.
In anticipation of my retirement, I want to share with you my assessment for the future of the Jewish people and our place in the world. Now, let me assure you. I used to think myself an expert in the Jewish condition. When I was young, I believed with an unwarranted degree of certainty that I understood the past and had a clairvoyant view into the future. Now that I am in the ebb of my career as your rabbi, I believe very little in my ability to prognosticate. Prophecy is the province of fools and children. I am neither. So tonight, I want to look both backward and ahead, not as a prophet or as a fool or as a child, but as your rabbi.
My early rabbinate was defined by Jews reacting to the Shoah. My lifelong advocacy for Israel and the American Israel relationship is a reaction to my feeling the trauma of Jewish powerlessness. After the Shoah, Jewish powerlessness is no longer tenable. In my historical memory, Jews were forced into boxcars and incinerated in ovens because nobody cared about Jews.
I confess that I have become a whole lot more cynical in this last stage of my active rabbinate. I hate to say it, but the good people’s neglect of our brothers and sisters in Europe no longer comes as a surprise to me. We were and are mostly indifferent to the suffering Cambodians, Rwandans, Africans in Darfur and the Congo, Rohingya of Myanmar and the Bosniaks in Srebrenica, inner-city kids strung out on crack and white under-employed opioid addicts, and Christians suffering in the Muslim world. Neglect and indifference to suffering is unfortunately the common state of human affairs. Thousands of pitiful Jews were transported to their slaughter every single day. And allied bombers flew over Auschwitz and refused to bomb these railroad tracks which brought them to their death. Why should we be horrified by their indifference to our suffering?
I know that I sound like a grumpy old man. But if few people were going to be concerned for the suffering masses, I at least would be concerned for the suffering of my people and my community. I make no apologies for focusing my efforts on my own. I have focused my efforts on teaching about Judaism, our history and our people because I am convinced that this will make us better people, more empathetic people, more impactful people, and more humane people precisely because we are Jews and have had our unique experience in history, both ancient and modern. I have focused my efforts on the Jews in the Soviet Union and the forgotten Jews in Ethiopia and the victories we have had asserting our power and agency in history so that we would never be powerless again, so that we would never be dependent on the kindness of strangers upon whom we cannot depend. Zionism is our return to history and power and agency and self-determination, values that we cherish in others that we must embrace for ourselves. My rabbinate has been in large part a reaction to the stories we told when we were helpless. I no longer want the Jewish people to be helpless.
I am appalled by the rising waves of anti-Semitism in Europe, which cannot seem to shake off its chords of hatred for Jews. And I am puzzled that my children’s generation does not seem to be overly concerned about what happened to our people when we were defenseless some decades ago. The next generation of Jews does not seem to see the need to devote its energies to Jewish self-defense and self-assertion into history and world affairs in the same way that my generation has felt the calling. When I see a fighter jet emblemed with a Magein Daveed, I am filled with pride. When my children see the same fighter jet, they yawn and think, “Ok, there is another military plane from another powerful military force.” They have no sense of awe or wonder at the transformation of the Jewish people.
It is very easy to ring our hands and consider the Jewish endeavors of strengthening our ethnic bonds and self-defense as passé. But I see this as a singular success in Jewish history, aided by the State of Israel and a muscular world Jewry. Not that the battle is ever over, but we ought to declare victory that Israel is secure, that our place in the United States is strong and affirming, and that around the world Jews are more capable of defense and free movement than ever before since the days of Judah the Maccabee. As we continue to fight for our people, we are fighting on the winning side.
There are storm clouds on the horizon. Jews never look into the future with a sense of foreboding. A happy lot we are! I am concerned that anti-Jewish hatred never seems to disappear. I am concerned that we do not know how to navigate through the shoals of post-denominationalism—that the movements that defined our Jewish identity do not matter as much moving forward as they did in the past. I am concerned that it feels as though Jewish knowledge and commitment is on the wane. I am concerned that Jews are falling away from Jewish practice.
But I am hopeful about the future. I want to share with you three rainbows that shine through the storm clouds.
The first rainbow:
Never before in human history has Judaism been so appreciated. While we worry about anti-Semitism as well we should, Jews are the most admired religious group in America. Interfaith dialogue is the only way forward from the religious wars that threaten to bring us back to medieval days. We Jews sit as equal partners with the great religions of the world at the interfaith table—not because of our numbers but because of the unique gifts of Judaism—monotheism, sabbath, a single set of moral commandments, principles of repentance and forgiveness, belief in the afterlife and the world of the spirit—these are more appreciated now than ever before. God’s promise to Abraham is the model for God’s promise to all people. Before this era in history, we stood alone. We no longer stand alone. In our interconnected world, nobody gets very far by themselves. People who are not Jewish love and care for us, and they expect us to love and care for them in return. This is both an obligation and a responsibility.
The second rainbow:
We have entered an era where the denominations within Judaism no longer hold us captive. I am not sure what it means to be a Reform Jew today, or Conservative, or Orthodox. I am not even sure what it means to define ourselves as Jewish. The dividing lines that were so integral to my self-definition do not mean as much to me today as they did in the decades which nurtured my rabbinate. They will become less important in the future. I am grateful to the Hebrew Union College which provided my father, my son and me with a way to enrich ourselves Jewishly, achieve ordination and serve our people and our God. I am grateful to the youth groups and summer camps which gave me a place to express my yearnings. I met my wife at a Reform movement summer camp. But more and more, Judaism is being expressed beyond denomination and institutional loyalty.
Beyond the movement’s platforms, I find it much more difficult to define a Reform Jew or a Conservative Jew or a Reconstructionist Jew or an Orthodox Jew. We are moving into post-denominational times. Being Jewish, acting Jewishly, living Jewishly—these are measuring sticks of how we should assess ourselves.
We can learn from all Jews, and Judaism has much to offer us. Guided by my Reform Jewish upbringing, I find inspiration in the Jewish teachings offered by people and institutions that are not only bound up with Reform Judaism. In a certain way, every American Jew in the 21st Century is a Reform Jew. We live in an era of freedom and accessibility. Websites and social media and dialogue across the Jewish spectrum inspire us all to be better Jews. Being a better Jew–that should be our measuring stick. In whatever way Judaism speaks to me, can I take from the wisdom of our people and be a better Jew, better today than yesterday? Can I yearn to be better, to be more, to be fuller in my Judaism—and can I find the way to being better as I seek knowledge, community and practice? Being Reform or Conservative or Orthodox are not means unto themselves, but rather means to the end of making our Jewish lives fuller and more complete.
The last rainbow begins with a challenge:
My generation of Jews looks at the generation we have spawned with a bit of trepidation and unease. Who are these kids that we have raised? Why can’t we get them back into the synagogue and engaged in Jewish life? I do not have the answer. If I did, I would bottle it and give back to you. But I still have high hopes for the future.
In December 1985, I walked the streets of the former Jewish ghetto in Riga, Latvia. It was bitter cold. My friends and I looked up at the second story of an old apartment building, and our guide, Lev Fabricant, a Soviet refusenik, told us that that was the residence of Simon Dubnow, who developed a new academic discipline, the philosophy of Jewish history. On two days in late 1941, 25,000 Jews were taken from the Riga Ghetto, marched into the forest where Latvians would picnic in nicer weather, stripped naked in the dead of winter and forced to kneel at an open pit where they were shot in the back of the head. Simon Dubnow was an old man. He could not make the walk from the ghetto to the forest. So, the Nazis did him a kindness and shot him in his study.
Dubnow studied the transformational stages of Jewish history—the moments when it seemed that all was lost and Judaism and the Jewish people would disappear. He examined the Biblical period and the rabbinic period. He watched the ebb of some communities and the flowering of others. He asked himself the question that I ask myself today at this critical juncture in my career: Will we survive and thrive, or will we be the last generation of Jews? Dubnow, who watched his community march to their death from the window of his study, wrote in his seminal work, The Survival of the Jewish People, “We, the people of Israel living today, continue the long thread that stretches from the days of Hammurabi and Abraham to the modern period. … We see further that during the course of thousands of years the nations of the world have borrowed from our spiritual storehouse and added to their own without depleting the source. … The Jewish people goes its own way, attracting and repelling, beating out for itself a unique path among the routes of the nations of the world… .”
Later, a few years before his murder as the winds of Nazism blew ferociously across Europe, “”I am agnostic in religion and in philosophy… . I myself have lost faith in personal immortality, yet history teaches me that there is a collective immortality and that the Jewish people can be considered as relatively eternal for its history coincides with the full span of world history.”
Like Dubnow, I believe in the creativity of the Jewish people. I believe that we can and will find a way to promote new spiritual paths to assure Jewish continuity. With all our challenges, we are stronger today than we have ever been.
I am sure about the Jewish future, even though I do not know how we will get there. Of course, there will be detours and we will lose some battles and we will win some surprise victories. But God did not bring us from Abraham to this day for us to lose the battle now. In every generation, we have responded creatively to the challenges of our day. Sometimes we have made mistakes. Sometimes we have pinned our future on false hopes. But we have always arrived at the future, and the world is better for it. Our children and grandchildren will find new ways, creative ways to enrich their lives as Jews and find their way to make the world better. I don’t know the answer. But I know that God who guided our people will continue to bring us Providence and direction, and we will get to the Promised Land.
This week’s Torah Portion describes a perilous bump in the journey from Egypt to Israel. Moses wants to prepare Israel for the conquest of Canaan. Before the days of satellites and drones, the Israelites knew nothing about the land that was to be theirs. With eager anticipation, each tribe appointed a representative to scout out the land and bring back a report. They agreed: this land, their future, was very good. It flowed with milk and honey. The fruits and the wheat and the barley were luscious. But then they diverged. A majority said that they could not conquer the inhabitants of the land. They were too great and too mighty to be overcome. They were giants–giants. And we, let me quote from the Torah, “We seemed like grasshoppers in our own eyes, and we looked the same to them.”
Grasshoppers. The Israelites gazed into the future and saw themselves as grasshoppers, little people, bugs and vermin. Their adversaries were giants. But how could that be? Read the verse carefully. These putative leaders faced the challenge of their future, the conquest of Canaan, and all they saw about themselves was their fear and their inadequacy.
Grasshoppers–what a remarkable image. Grasshoppers are small and insignificant. They are barely noticeable. They hide in the tall grass of summer and vanish in the winter. Grasshoppers cannot work together. They have no leaders or vision. The future, filled with giants, will overcome them.
As we face the unknowable future, my fear is not for what comes next. My fear is how we see ourselves. Will the next generation, like the generations of Israelites, believe that we can face our challenge and respond creatively? Will we stand tall and work together? Or might we shrink in the face of the challenges ahead and hide ourselves in the tall grass, out of sight? Do we believe that we are doomed? Or do we believe, as the non-religious historian Simon Dubnow so aptly called it, in the “collective immortality” of the Jewish people?
This is our challenge. Look ahead. The future is unknowable. But what we do know is that God has freed us from Egypt. God sustains us every day with manna from heaven. God has promised us a future of blessing. We are here, today, after having somehow conquered the incredible challenges that we have faced as a people over the decades. And we are ready.
Our greatest enemy is our failure to believe in ourselves, in our creative energy and in our collective immortality.
As I prepare for my leave, I want to share with you this vital message. I will repeat this message again when I conclude. In my lifetime, we have come through the desert. We have seen our enemies. We have vanquished empires. The hand of God has sustained us and urged us on. The only enemy that can defeat us is ourselves and our fears. As your rabbi, I will pose the question: Are we grasshoppers living in the land of giants? Or are we the children of the living God, the children of immortal Israel?
The Promised Land is just yonder over the ridge. Go and conquer it. It is yours. Go and conquer it. God will carry you forth on the wings of eagles and bring you to the Promised Land. Go and conquer it.