Friday, October 28, 2011

Noah 5772 - Continuing the Jewish Conversation (or, the Exile of the Word)

The stories of Bereishit / Genesis are all so wonderfully, quintessentially human.  Tales of seduction and murder, betrayal and vengeance, bloodthirst and mendacity.  They remind us that to be human is to be imperfect.  And yet, imperfection does not prevent us from occasionally fulfilling a holy task.

Here is the paradox about Noah: he builds the floating storage unit that maintains human and animal life during the flood.  But Noah is a fundamentally flawed person, righteous only when compared to all the corrupt and lawless people that God destroyed.  And Noah carries out his mission successfully.  While God resets the Earth, wiping the slate clean, his imperfect assistant Noah preserves life.  

Among all the holy tasks that we have, one that each of us in this room shares is somewhat like Noah’s: to make sure that our grandchildren know that they are Jewish, and why.  

Noah, however, suffers from a spiritual affliction that the Zohar calls “galut ha-dibbur,” which we might translate as, “the exile of the word.”  This is what we must avoid in our own individual arks, on our own holy missions of preservation.

This is a concept that I heard this week while listening to a podcast of the NPR program, “On Being,” which features interviews with religious leaders, authors, and thinkers about issues of faith.  Recently, the host, Krista Tippett, traveled to Jerusalem to interview Jewish and Muslim leaders.  One of those interviews was with Dr. Avivah Zornberg, an author and Torah commentator who is interested in the intersection of Scripture and psychoanalysis.

In the course of the program, Dr. Zornberg compared the ark to a kind of floating prison.  The Hebrew word that we usually translate as “ark” is “teivah,” literally, a box.  According to midrash, Noah was confined in this box, and could not sleep because he was feeding the animals all day and night; and furthermore did not engage in marital relations with his wife.  The experience was so dehumanizing that Noah suffered a kind of trauma: when he emerged from this box, he was a damaged man who took up drinking, which did not turn out so well for him or his sons.

Noah falls victim to galut ha-dibbur, the exile of the word.  The Hebrew word dibbur, which is usually translated as “speech,” is really so much more than that.  Dibbur is communication, connection, everything that prevents a person from being closed up inside himself.  It is the way we connect to others.  On his journey, Noah loses his ability to connect.  His dibbur is exiled.  

How many of us can relate to the feeling that being Jewish matters, but we don’t exactly know why?  For sure, we all know fellow Jews for whom this is true.  This is an issue that relates to the larger question of, “In the future, who will be Jewish?”  The conversation about preserving Judaism and Jewish life, particularly outside the Haredi world, is one that perpetually roils the Jewish community.

I read this week an online article from an Israeli newspaper about how the former chief Ashkenazi rabbi of Israel, Rabbi Yisrael Meir Lau, was speaking to a group of high school seniors in Ramat Gan, Israel, where he stated, or perhaps overstated the importance of in-marriage among Jews.  “Intermarriage,” said Rabbi Lau, “plays into the hands of the Nazis.”  

Now this was a message that I heard often growing up in my little hometown in Western Massachusetts, a town in which there were about 9,000 people and very few Jews.  My mother made similar statements on many occasions, variations on, “We cannot give Hitler a posthumous victory,” and so forth.  I recall being somewhat anxious about the fact that, given that my prospects were fairly limited in this small town with, like, five other Jewish families, who on Earth was I going to marry?  (Talk about the intersection of Judaism and psychoanalysis!)

Back to Ramat Gan, a city in Israel with a population of nearly 150,000 that is almost entirely Jewish.  According to Wikipedia, Ramat Gan has 112 synagogues, a Buddhist temple, and a Scientology center.  Unlike in Williamstown, Massachusetts, and for that matter virtually all of America (some of you may be surprised to know that the Jewish population of Great Neck is NOT representative of this country), in Ramat Gan, it would be very hard to find a non-Jew to marry.

But what is remarkable is that during the course of this lecture by Rabbi Lau, many of the students in the room were upset by his remarks.  Some even walked out.  How dare he tell us, modern Israeli young adults, whom not to marry.

This reaction is, I suspect, a wee bit surprising to most of us, since (a) it hardly seems out of character for a rabbi, and especially an Orthodox rabbi, to talk about in-marriage as an ideal in Jewish life, and (b) because intermarriage has not been nearly as siginificant issue in Israel as it is here in the States.

(By the way, this is a good opportunity to point out that although roughly half of all marriages in the United States involving Jews nowadays are between a Jew and a non-Jew, all we have to do is hold onto 25% of the children born to inter-faith families for us to retain our numbers here in America. )

The real reason Rabbi Lau’s remarks surprised and angered these young men and women is because Israel has done a frightfully poor job of bringing secular Jews into the Jewish conversation.  In Israel, conventional wisdom states that you’re either Orthodox or secular, that you keep all 613 mitzvot or you keep none at all.

The conversation in America, thank God, is very different.


Close your eyes for a moment.  Think of what you did this morning as you entered this building and then this sanctuary.  Retrace your steps.

Did you put on a head covering?  A tallit?  Take a moment to peruse the flyers on the table out in front of the sanctuary?  Did you find a good seat?  Was it where you usually sit when you are here?  Did you immediately ascertain where we were in the siddur or humash?  Did you follow along?

Open your eyes.

We here in this room are filled with varying degrees of Jewish knowledge: how to read Hebrew, say, or when it is appropriate to enter the sanctuary or on what days it is inappropriate to use electronic devices in the building.  My point here is to raise our awareness of what we know about being Jewish; we are all carrying memories and learned behavior given to us by our parents, teachers, and peers.

Most of the Jewish world, however, has only identity, not memory or accumulated knowledge.  There is a large chunk of American Jewry for whom Jewish identity means bagels and lox or Chinese food on Christmas.  Many secular Jews who feel the need to identify as Jews have no clear sense as to why or how.

This is the current reality of American Judaism.  And right here, within the ranks of those who still identify with the Conservative movement, this is the battle that we are fighting perhaps more acutely than Orthodoxy or Reform.  

Rabbi Elliott Cosgrove. a colleague of mine and Rabbi Stecker’s who is the rabbi at Park Avenue Synagogue in Manhattan, was recently on a trip with other American rabbis to visit Jewish communities in the former Soviet Union, where nearly 2 million Jews remain after the exodus of those who left for Israel, Europe, and America after the fall of communism.  He wrote an article for the Jewish Week in which he viewed American Judaism through the prism of what remains in the FSU after nearly 70 years of denying Judaism to Jews:

Whether it is the decades following a totalitarian regime or the unrivaled blessings of 20th century American Jewish life, Jewish identity is being constructed on a tabula rasa that can no longer presuppose generational attachments and loyalties.

Memory has been replaced by identity. Even in the State of Israel itself, the Tallit has been replaced by the Israeli flag. Whether it is New York, St. Petersburg or Tel Aviv; Reform, Conservative or Orthodox, the mimetic modes of transmitting identity from one generation to the next are simply no longer in play. All Jews have become, in a sense, Jews who have forgotten that they were Jews.

Now, I think that Rabbi Cosgrove’s words are wise, but I also think that he is ignoring the fact that there are slices of the Jewish world where these “mimetic modes” are in fact still in play, as they clearly are with the two families that have brought their boys to become benei mitzvah today.  We may be a small segment of non-Orthodox Judaism, but we are still here.

Most of us in this room still have those memories.  We remember going to synagogue with our grandparents, or helping our parents clean the house for Pesah or that holy moment of lighting the Shabbat candles as a familiy.  Most of us still connect our Jewish identity with Jewish practice and Jewish knowledge.  We are, in some sense, on the modern ark, repositories of Jewish knowledge that we are carrying for later generations.

But it’s not enough just to be vessels.  The not-so-righteous Noah failed because of the exile of the word.

We cannot allow that to happen to us.  We need to continue to talk about being Jewish, to emphasize Jewish values, to maintain our traditions by creating the memories for future generations, the same memories that we have received from our parents and grandparents.  On some level, we are all in individual arks, vessels of dibbur, of conversation and connection.

To return to Rabbi Cosgrove for a moment:

It is incumbent upon forward-looking Jewish leaders to recognize that ours is an age when Jewish identity must be continually discovered, cultivated and justified for every single Jew every single day.

Merely having a Jewish identity is not really enough.  Judaism is something that must be internalized, that must be discussed and acted upon for it to continue to be transmitted to subsequent generations.  

We cannot allow our Judaism to be boxed-in like Noah, and taken out out only for special occasions and programs.  To do so will only result in galut ha-dibbur.  We must, as Rabbi Cosgrove said, continually cultivate that Jewish conversation.

And how do we do this?  Very simple.  

By talking to our children about topics of Jewish interest.  Here’s an idea: Pick a current events article, print it and hand it out around the Shabbat dinner table.  Discuss it and then look for the Jewish angle.  Play “Spot the Jewish value.”

Research and give to Jewish charities and Jewish communal and religious organizations.  Tell your friends about them.

Learn.  Study.  Re-read the Torah.  There is always more to learn.

Discuss the importance of having grandchildren who not only know that they are Jewish, but who are also given real memories of real Jewish life from birth to Torah, huppah, and ma’asim tovim, as we say when we name a newborn baby.

And, of course, don't forget the importance of ritual. Ritual creates powerful memories.
Let’s not resign ourselves to galut ha-dibbur.  Create the conversation.  Make the connection.  Transmit those memories. And keep talking.

(Originally delivered at Temple Israel of Great Neck, Shabbat morning, October 29, 2011.)

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