President’s Sermon, “Shabbat Behar – Bechukotai” | Shabbat Morning, May 21, 2017
By Rabbi Daniel H. Freelander, President of the World Union for Progressive Judaism (WUPJ)
These past fourdays, I’ve lived and breathed from inside this amazing Progressive Jewish bubble. I was never bored, I met fascinating people, and I gained a deeper awareness of the breadth of our Jewish world.
I have loved celebrating Connections 17 here in our Beit Shmuel Jerusalem home. This is exactly why these buildings were created! Rabbi Richard (Dick) Hirsch is kvelling over this conference of Jewish learning, music and vitality on the campus that he worked so hard to build.
From this amazing space, we look out upon the walls of the city Yerushalayim, revealing both past and present. We can’t help but gaze into our past, and want to honor those who came before us. We remember the pilgrims and chalutzim. We remember the dreamers and the soldiers.
And as we gather, in this new era of the Jewish people, we reflect on those creative and brilliant forebears who reshaped and reformed Judaism time and again.
From the beginning, Judaism has evolved. From the Judaism of Abraham and Sarah to the Judaism of Moses and Miriam. From the heritage of the wilderness to future of the Promised Land. From the priestly cult of the Second Temple to the synagogues of Rabbinic Judaism. From Torah to Talmud, and Talmud to responsa, and responsa to enlightenment. From slavery to full gender and egalitarian equality. Two thousand years of creative adaption.
Two thousand years of creative adaption. Not merely to survive. Two thousand years of creative adaptation to make a difference in the world. To live knowing and demonstrating that each life matters. Each person is holy. To absorb the new wisdom of each era, and then grow into more than we were a generation earlier.
We are the rishonim and tanaaim of our time. We are the Israel Jacobsons and Abraham Geigers. We are the inheritors of the imperative for innovation. When we look back, we do so in order to look ahead. We do not merely perpetrate the past. We are not rule enforcers, afraid experiment and change. We are inventors, engineers, entrepreneurs – the essential Jewish risk takers of the 21st century.
Rabbinic Judaism is just shy of 2000 years old. Reform Judaism will celebrate its 200th anniversary later this year. Our World Union has just marked its 90th year.
And we know: change is inevitable. Planned change is brilliant.
Here in Jerusalem, we consider how much has changed. How intentionally has change been managed, even anticipated? And how have we Progressive Jews been shaping the future of Jerusalem? Of Judaism world-wide?
Here in Jerusalem, we celebrate with all Jews the jubilee of release since 1967. Fifty since the Six Day War! Fifty years since the re-embrace of all of Jerusalem!
And I recall, when 50 years ago, a week or so after that war, I traveled with my Temple youth group to Philadelphia. There, we saw the magnificent Liberty Bell. There, we read the words emblazoned on its face. Words from Leviticus, from this week’s parashah, Behar. “U’kratem dror ba’aretz lechol yoshveha!” “Proclaim liberty throughout the land – to all its inhabitants!”
“…To ALL its inhabitants…” That afternoon in 1967, my friends and I debated the meaning of that phrase. Some drew parallels between the Jubilee year mandate to free slaves, and the abolition of slavery in the US just 100 years earlier. Others thought of the Vietnam conflict: was the United States proclaiming freedom there or imposing its own ideology?
Still others spoke of Eretz Yisrael, where the threatening enemies had been vanquished just days earlier. For them, u’kratem dror was a release from fear. How liberated we young Jews felt, free at last from the Arab threat, and free from the image of the weak and helpless Jew! We were warriors, tanned and strong, courageous and vital!
And today? As we celebrate the jubilee of our Jerusalem, what is our liberation? Have we achieved the benefits of a true release from fear?
How will we know? We will know when our actions spring forth from our faith. When we reconcile diverse truths.
In our Jerusalem today, what do we make of the competitive narratives of Israeli and Palestinian? In our home communities, how do we reconcile our the role of interfaith families and of the non-Jew in our synagogues? Do our actions match our values? Do our communal decisions echo the imperatives of Torah?
This I know. There is no “release” without respect for the other. Without embrace of the other. We cannot be free if those we live with are not free. The oppression of our time is the fear of the stranger. The fear in our time is towards the ‘other’ one who might move next door and try to change us by becoming part of us – the Arab, the non-Jew, the person of color.
This is the fear that calls for release. This is where we must bring our brilliance, our imagination, our innovation and action. Like our forebears who stood up and spoke the questions that needed addressing, the future will depend on our leadership.
We vision the fulfillment of Yerushalayim shel maalah: a vision of wholeness and peace. Where each Yerushalmi is a good neighbor. Where the words of Pirkei Avot ring true: “No person could ever say in Jerusalem, There is no room for me.” (Pirkei Avot 5:5 )
We believe in ourselves as or lagoyim. We seek to uphold the highest ethical and moral standards for the world. We dream of an Israel that is a symbol of harmony and co-existence, of truly shining with glory and joy because it’s so evident that God’s presence is in our midst!
Yet, on this Yom Yerushalayim in this very year of proclaimed Jubilee, we are surrounded by Yerushalayim shel maata: an ordinary and profane Jerusalem. This is not yet a golden city, but one of discrimination and separation. It is ripe with resentment and fear. There is no little joy, and a creeping sense of loss.
Most of us are not Israelis. We cannot dictate the day-to-day corrective course. But wherever we live, we are Jews, and we must model the antidote to the ‘fear of the stranger.’
To consider this, we must look within ourselves, our own communities. Before we judge others, we must examine ourselves. We must ask: are we opening or closing doors? Are we Progressive Jews an or lagoyim? Or do we pull down the shades and sit in darkness?
Just as some Hareidi want to close us out, afraid that we will stain their Judaism, do we unintentionally seem to close our own doors to those who seek a meaningful Jewish life? Like our more traditionally observant brethren, do we, too, fall into the trap of declaring, “There is only one way to really be Jewish?”
Halachah, that innovation of Rabbinic Judaism, means walking, moving forward. Are we progressing? Or are we harnessed by the fear of judgment by others? That fear continues to prevent our release.
We know how it feels to be shut out. And we know how it feels, how uplifting it is, when we can live as Jews with pride and certainty. Thursday’s Kotel experience and last evening’s spirited Kabbalat Shabbat prove to us that when we march forward, we shape the Jewish path that will draw 21st century Jews.
Our WUPJ congregations must lead the Jewish people. Not merely lead our own progressive Jews. We must lead the Jewish people. We move forward. We dream and innovate. We are the ones to guide the Jewish people into the future because our theology, our philosophy, our way of life resonates with profound meaning and integrity.
In Jewish life what counts is what we do. How we enact our values and ethics. Every day. Bloodline merely defines inheritance. Choice inspires the future.
I want to present you with three urgent initiatives to ensure that future. Each calls for a change in our perspective. Each is grounded in today’s truths.
The first is an absolute commitment to increasing the level of post Bar/ Bat Mitzvah engagement. Without doubt, it is intense Jewish experiences after Bar/ Bat Mitzvah years that propel young people to Jewish life well beyond their teen years. Without doubt, lacking these experiences cripples the development of a mature Jewish identity. Without doubt, the most powerful teen experience is embedded in being here, in Eretz Yisrael. Here is where our young people find themselves amidst a majority that reshapes their sense of self. Here is where they study the real issues facing Israel and world Jewry. Here is where they shape the personal Jewish identity that they carry forward.
I call upon us to develop a strategy and methodology that will bring EVERY Progressive Jewish high school student to Israel. We will need many resources, from serous funding to great educational tools, and rabbis and madrichim to inspire our teens. They will study the complexities of the REAL Israel, of Yerushalayim shel maalah and Yerushalayim shel maata. And they will return home as leaders, prepared to speak to Israel’s future – and to live as or lagoyim.
Our second initiative derives from the new demography of the Jewish people. Clear trends and data compel us to strategize a new welcome.
Here’s the backdrop: There will be fewer Jews in Europe and South America, but more in the Far East, the Iberian Peninsula and Israel.
We will need to build and nurture new communities where Jews are now choosing to live. We must go to them – in the Far East, on the Iberian Peninsula, here in Israel and not wait for them to seek us.
Similarly, we are faced with the strangest opportunity: It’s now considered ‘cool’ to be Jewish! Thousands of individuals are coming each year to us, seeking conversion. They like what they see. They like what we do. They like who we are. Yet, we greet them with ambivalence, even confusion. “Why,” we wonder, “would someone wants to become Jewish?” And here is where fear blinds us; and yes, let’s name that fear: if so many of these strangers become part of our communities, will they change us? Will their backgrounds and cultures influence and worse, dominate us? Will our communities look different in twenty or fifty years because of them?
Our own fears are similar to those of traditionally observant Jews who are terrified that our egalitarian and liberal philosophy will ruin Judaism.
We need a jubilee from our xenophobia, our fear of strangers. Every personal experience we’ve had demonstrates that we grow stronger and more vital when we draw different people in. Even our Jewish gene pool is enhanced, enriched, and strengthened.
So our third initiative? We’re going to need to embrace publicly the new definition of Who is a Jew. In most of the world, 40-60% of married Jews in their 30’s are partnered with individuals not born Jewish. Will those partners be allowed “in”? Will they have full access to everything wonderful that our synagogues and communities offer? Or will we suggest to them – and to their children, be assured – than they are “less than.” Is this the Jewish way? “In our Yerushalayim shel maalah, this is what must be proclaimed: “There was always room for me in Jerusalem!”
So who is a Jew? Progressive Judaism must champion that one’s lifestyle trumps one’s bloodline. We must publicly promote conversion, and we must also embrace our non-Jewish families. We must market publicly, resoundingly, proudly that non-Jewish spouses are welcome fully in synagogue life.
To paraphrase Daniel Birnbaum: We have Jewish skills, rabbis, congregations, and learning. We have teamwork, and great congregational leadership. Could we have a little more confident attitude?! A little more optimism and positive energy?!
Do we want to increase our membership base, or make it more difficult for intermarried Jews to consider participating in our congregations? Some of our communities have addressed this on a policy level, but not yet really proclaimed it through public marketing. Our ambivalent attitudes show the truth, that we’re demonstrating a kind of ‘don’t ask, don’t tell.’
What are we afraid of?! Let’s stop looking over our shoulders. Look forward. Trust that we have the wisdom and the experience. Trust our proud heritage of innovation! Trust that we know what we’re doing!
We must open our doors as wide as possible. Anyone who enters will want to help us further our powerful and impactful vision of a meaningful Jewish life.
Bechukotai is the second of this week’s double portion. God cautions us deeply about the consequences of our choices. Before us are placed the curses and blessings of consequence. Let us choose well. Let us seek release, true jubilee, from fear. Let us lead others into the Promised Land of our future. Let us shape the Yerushalyim shel maalah for everyone.
As we complete the study of Leviticus this morning, we recite, Chazak, Chazak vnitchazek. Let us be as strong as possible! Chazak – have courage! Chazak – have vision! Indeed, let us grow from strength to strength. Then, nit’chazeik – everyone will be strengthened!