In this episode of the 18Forty Podcast, our host, David Bashevkin, reflects on 18Forty’s Jewish peoplehood episodes.
David reassesses 18Forty’s Jewish peoplehood topic from September 2020, which featured Rav Aaron Lopiansky, Laura Adkins, Bethany Mandel, and Samuel Freedman. Using highlight clips from those episodes, David explores what brings together a group of people to form a peoplehood, the ways the Jewish community is divided, and the effect these divisions have on the larger people.
Tune in to hear David reflect on 18Forty’s Jewish peoplehood exploration.
Jew Vs Jew: The Struggle for the Soul of American Jewry by Samuel Freedman
Ben Torah for Life by Rav Aaron Lopiansky
Sometimes Mashiach Is Not the Solution by Rav Aaron Lopiansky
A Letter in the Scroll by Rabbi Jonathan Sacks
For more, visit https://18forty.org/jewish-peoplehood/
Hello, and welcome to the 18Forty Podcast, where each month we explore a different topic balancing modern sensibilities with traditional sensitivities to give you new approaches to timeless, Jewish ideas. I’m your host, David Bashevkin, and this month, we’re still on our brief hiatus, but we don’t want to leave our listeners with nothing, so what we do during our hiatus as we’ll try to keep this up is we try to drop these wrap-ups of these big topics that we’ve covered in the past, and give you a taste of the different personalities, opinions, and ideas that we’ve covered in the past. As our listeners know, we are a topic-driven site. So instead of just interviewing cool and interesting people, though I think all of our guests are both cool and interesting, we’re driven by topics. And a lot of the topics in the past, maybe not as many people got a chance to listen to them, and we’re going to give you another chance now to review an amazing topic that we covered earlier in the year on Jewish Peoplehood.
Following this week we’re going to be dropping new episodes, so please stay tuned, and make sure you sign up for our emails. There will still be a little bit of a summer schedule, we’re not going back to the big topics until after the summer, but we will be dropping all new episodes, all new voices in the following week. So please stay tuned, sign up for our emails. This podcast is part of a larger exploration of those big, juicy, Jewish ideas. So be sure to check out 18Forty.org, that’s 1-8-F-O-R-T-Y.org. Sign up for our emails, make sure you check out all the backups, those are there. And you can also find our videos, articles, and recommended readings.
We often ask what it means to be a Jew in today’s day and age, but I think an equally important question, particularly in this time of modernity and social media, when we’re exposed to so many more opinions and approaches, is the question of, what does it mean to be a part of the Jewish people? We all have our individual identity, but I think what’s fraying, in many senses, is our collective identity. The Jews who we see and interact with, maybe we just see their opinions and we vehemently disagree with it, we don’t like it. And oftentimes, I’ll talk with myself personally, I spend a lot of my time posting on social media. Those of you, I’m sure our listeners may or may not know, I keep a fairly active Twitter account.
I’m not even going to tell you my Twitter handle, because I don’t want this to be misinterpreted as a plug. But I do want to say that part of the difficulty of social media is staying positive about all the different strains of Judaism. It’s very easy when you have an individual Jewish identity in your particular geographic location, and you stay in some homogeneous group. And I’m not even knocking that. Somebody once asked me in a different podcast, somebody asked me on an interview, how do we build Jewish unity? How do we connect to all types of Jews?
And I responded, and listeners might not like this, I said, “I’m not sure everybody is capable of that. I’m not sure everybody needs to be doing that.” I think for a lot of people, it’s just as important to just build a healthy Jewish identity on the individual level. But that’s become harder and harder now. We’re connecting to that large body, Klal Yisrael, the collective body of the Jewish people. You’re exposed to so many ideas and opinions that are disappointing, that are frustrating, that you argue with. And Jews have a hard time when they’re exposed to opinions not arguing back and not fighting back. And very often we can escalate and turn on ourselves. When you see something you don’t like, and you respond in an angry or frustrated way, then they’re going to respond with frustration. And like the famous words of Tosfos in Pesachim 113b, who cites the verb in Proverbs, in Mishlei, “kemayim panim el panim,” it’s like a reflection.
When people see you arguing with them, they’re going to argue back, and slowly but surely, a real fight is going to escalate. A real tear, a rupture, is going to appear in the very fabric of what it means to connect to the collective Jewish people. And there’s a quote from an author that I’ve become more and more enamored with over the year, he’s kind of been one of the voices in my head, and that is the Jewish voice of Franz Kafka, the great German, Jewish, Jewish-German man, probably depends who you ask quite honestly. And for those who know, there was actually a lawsuit whether or not we consider him Jewish first and then German or German first and then Jewish. You can read the great book, I think it’s called Kafka on Trial, I read it on shabbos a few weeks ago. Fabulous book. Whatever it may be, Kafka once asked himself, in his diary he wrote, “What have I in common with Jews? I have hardly anything in common with myself.” And I think this is a profound quote for two reasons.
Number one, I think if we’re all honest with ourselves, we have had moments in our lives – maybe it’s on a, I don’t know, on a flight, it’s on a park, it’s on a trip – and you see other Jews who are different than you, who practice differently than you. And you turn and you ask yourself, “What have I in common with these people? What links me? What connects me to that greater collective Jewish peoplehood that I now have to have some affinity with those Jews?”
And it’s a question that we most often whisper, we don’t say it out loud. But it’s a question that we’ve all asked ourselves, that sense of embarrassment that comes out with affinity. I think in many ways we’ve had it with our own families. Your kids might embarrass you, your wife might embarrass you. And sometimes your people embarrasses you, and leaves you asking, “What do I have in common with these people?” And I’m not saying, this isn’t a question just for those listening that you ask when you see something beautiful and uplifting. It’s very easy in those moments to feel connected to Jewish people. It’s very easy to feel connected when you see people helping one another, when you see people going to visit one another in the hospital or pray for one another. Whatever it may be, there are parts, there are moments when it’s quite easy. There are also moments when it’s quite difficult. And if we don’t at least acknowledge the fact that we’ve caught ourselves asking this question, then I don’t think we have any hope of answering it. But I think the second part of his quote is also important.
He wrote again, “What have I in common with the Jews? I have hardly anything in common with myself.” And I think the second part of that quote is really about building a sense of comfort and confidence with your own personal identity before you go out and try to connect to a broader collective identity. What I have found is that the people with the most confidence, the people with the most self understanding, with the most, so to speak in Kafka words, with the most in common with themselves, they understand themselves, they know themselves, are the people who are best equipped to then go out and connect to a collective identity.
When your individual identity is on unstable grounds, when you’re not sure where you stand, or where you stand gives you doubt, gives you concern, and you don’t really feel that sense of pride and comfort in who you are, it’s going to be much more difficult to look outwards and connect with others. It’s one of the earliest Torah ideas that we have from the Baal Shem Tov, the great founder of the Hasidic movement, where the Baal Shem Tov is commenting on a mishnah in Negaim, which talks about impurities that may appear on the individual body.
And the mishnah in Negaim says, “kol negaim,” all of the impurities that a person sees, “Kol negaim adam roeh chutz me’atzmo.” A person can assess the purity or impurity of what may be a skin ailment on their body except for themselves. You could understand, you could look at somebody else. You can’t look at your own, you can’t self assess your own ailments. And this mishnah, that a person can see all of the ailments, chutz me’atzmo, except for their own, can be understood on no less than three levels. On the simplest level, it is a comment on Jewish law. In Jewish law, you’re only allowed to assess those outside. You cannot self-assess. That’s a comment on Jewish law. On another level, this is a more ethical mussar idea, where a person can see all of their own biases except their own. That all of the imperfections and negativity, you have the ability to assess them, except your own biases. Those are always outside of your purview, they’re outside of your personal perspective.
But the way the Baal Shem Tov interprets this, and I always come back to this, and I think in many ways, it relates to this quote from Kafka is, “kol hanegaim adam roeh,” all of the imperfections, all of the negativity that you see, “chutz,” that you see outside in the world, that you see among the Jewish people, that you see in society, “me’atzmo,” ultimately are derived from yourself. They’re ultimately emerging and connecting from your own negativity that you have within yourself. And I think very often when we look at the Jewish people in that collective body, and we see Jews outside, and we’re frustrated, and we’re disconnected from them, it’s deriving from that question, that Kafka saying, “I have hardly anything in common with myself.” It begins with self-understanding, with your individual identity, before you’re able to really embrace your collective identity.
And this of course reminds me of a brilliant joke that I think I’ve repeated before. I tried to find the original clip, because he says it over much better than myself, but it’s from Rav YY Jacobson, who’s an unbelievable scholar and speaker and thinker. And he speaks about the difference between the way anti-Semites and Jews talk about the Jewish people. He says, If you ever ask an anti-Semite, somebody who hates the Jews, to talk about the Jewish people, they hate the Jewish people. They’ll go on, the Jews, they cause wars, and they have problems, and they’ll come up with all these negative things. And then you press them and you ask them, well, what about your dentist? Okay, he’s an exception, he’s a good guy. And then you ask them, well, what about your neighbor down the street? Okay, he’s a good guy, he’s not like the rest of them. But the general Jews, they’re the worst. You’ll ask a Jew to describe the Jews, they love talking about the collective body, they love talking about Klal Yisrael, and being connected to Klal Yisrael. But then you ask them about their neighbor or their dentist. Oh, I can’t stand the guy, I can’t sit next to him in shul. All of a sudden the breakdown is on the individual level.
And I think it’s a really profound idea. I think the struggle that most Jews have is, we like this detached, conceptual body called Klal Yisrael, called the Jewish people. But when it actually comes down, and you see a Jew next to you in line, you see a Jew going about their business in a way that you disapprove of, the way that you’re judging, a way that you don’t like, that’s where you distance yourself. That’s where the erosion takes place. And that’s why I’m so excited for the recap of these conversations.
We chose to approach this question of Jewish peoplehood with help from a variety of people from a variety of Jewish backgrounds. We spoke to Laura Adkins, who’s the opinions editor at The Forward. Formerly at the JTA, that’s where she was at the time. Now she’s the opinion editor at The Forward.
We spoke to Samuel Freedman, professor of journalism at Columbia University, and the author of a book that I must have quoted a thousand times. And if you haven’t read it already, I simply don’t know what to tell you. Jew vs. Jew: The Struggle for the Soul of American Jewry, was published 25 years ago, and it’s one of the most incredible lenses to understanding the struggles of connecting to Jewish peoplehood.
We also spoke with Rav Aaron Lopiansky, an incredible rabbinic leader and contemporary Jewish thinker. He writes in a lot of popular outlets, has published many rabbinic works and sefarim that are absolutely worth reading, and frankly, his thought, it really animates so much of the approach that I have when thinking about Jewish ideas. I’ve quoted him in articles of my own.
And finally, Bethany Mandel, a journalist and editor with a large following, and also a little bit of an unfollowing. Those who know know. On social media, she’s really incredible and thoughtful, and I really think she shared something wonderful. I’ll go through individually why we selected them, but let me just take a moment and explain that you might notice that most of these people have a background in journalism. Bethany, Laura, Samuel Freedman are all journalists. Rav Lopiansky is a rosh yeshiva, though he writes in Outlet, I certainly wouldn’t call a journalist. He definitely doesn’t identify as such. But three out of the four of our interviews were interviews with journalists. And I want to take a moment for why I think journalists provide an important lens. It’s those journalists who think seriously about Judaism and Jewish people, as these journalists all do, and are really on the front lines of reporting, and providing a frame for the opinions that are so often conflicting among the Jewish people.
And to me, these perspectives really give you a lens for what it means to have and be and belong to a Jewish people, a nation comprised so often by those that refuse to agree on the very basic questions of what it means to be a part of the Jewish people, that differ on the key components of what it means to be a Jew, to practice Judaism, and ultimately, to belong to a Jewish people. Which is why I am so excited to give you some of these highlights. Of course, checkout 18Forty.org for all of the full interviews, they’re all available on our site, 18-F-O-R-T-Y.org. But right now, let’s go through some of the highlights of our interviews on Jewish peoplehood.
I think one of the greatest privileges I’ve had while interviewing people on 18Forty is to speak with Rav Lopiansky. And the fact that he was willing to speak with me frankly is a testament not to 18Forty, but to who he is as a person. He is a rosh yeshiva who teaches in a major yeshiva in Silver Spring, Maryland, and he is a member and speaks in Agudah, and a more of a, let’s call it the right-wing Orthodox community. And I’m not sure that the wide swath of 18Forty listeners is his key demographic. And I was very taken – There are a few people who have begun the interview this way, and it’s always the people who I feel like I’m the most privileged to speak with. He began the interview by saying, If you don’t want to use this, if I don’t say anything helpful, then no pressure.
Rav Aaron Lopiansky:
I want to tell you, use your discretion. If you feel that whatever comes out is not what you want to present, if you feel it’s overshot, undershot, whatever it is, don’t hesitate. Use your discretion, you know the audience.
Now that’s a testament not only to his humility, but I think his commitment to being a constructive voice for the larger Jewish community. Not just his yeshiva, not just his umbrella organization, but he is out there on the front line sharing Jewish ideas in popular spaces. I asked Rav Lopiansky to come on for no less than three reasons, and I want to talk about them. Again, aside from the fact, I don’t need to make any excuses for having a giant of Torah and Jewish ideas on our podcast, but I asked him for no less than three reasons. The first reason that I had mentioned is, I think the way a lot of people in other communities, let’s say people who are outside of the yeshiva world and the yeshiva community, sometimes look with some sense of judgment. And I’ve caught myself with this, I’m not being overly critical.
I think any time… It’s very easy to be judgmental at people who look different than you and are not living your lifestyle. And I know that some people look at the yeshiva world, and their first frame is to be a little bit negative. And when I talk about looking at different communities in my public policy class, and specifically when people toward the… I don’t like using the directions left and right, but let’s call it people who are not members, affiliate, or experiences, or people who had negative experiences in the yeshiva world, very often looking in, you’re like, “Well, what do we need these people for? Why are so many people learning so often?” And the frame that I often use, and I think I used it when I introduced this the first time, to explain what makes the yeshiva world so important is from a movie that I absolutely love, A Few Good Men.
Colonel Nathan Jessup:
You want answers?
Lt. Daniel Kaffee:
I think I’m entitled.
Colonel Nathan Jessup:
You want answers?
Lt. Daniel Kaffee:
I want the truth.
Colonel Nathan Jessup:
You can’t handle the truth. Son, we live in a world that has walls, and those walls have to be guarded by men with guns. Who’s going to do it? You? You, Lieutenant Weinberg? I have a greater responsibility than you can possibly fathom. You weep for Santiago and you curse the Marines. You have that luxury. You have the luxury of not knowing what I know: that Santiago’s death, while tragic, probably saved lives. And my existence, while grotesque and incomprehensible to you, saves lives. You don’t want the truth, because deep down in places you don’t talk about at parties, you want me on that wall. You need me on that wall. We use words like “honor,” “code,” “loyalty”. We use these words as the backbone of a life spent defending something. You use them as a punchline. I have neither the time, nor the inclination, to explain myself to a man who rises and sleeps under the blanket of the very freedom that I provide, and then questions the manner in which I provide it. I would rather you just said, “Thank you,” and went on your way. Otherwise, I suggest you pick up a weapon and stand the post.
And this analogy is something I heard from someone who actually left the yeshiva world, somebody who grew up in the Hasidic community, a former guest on our program, Shulem Deen. And it was that notion that people on the outside looking in, they don’t realize how much the larger Jewish community benefits from the world of the yeshiva. And I always think, “You want me on that wall, you need me on that wall.” And that invitation to pick up a weapon and stand the post when we benefit so much, whether it’s from kosher meat, shechita, the amazing works of Torah that come out that the entire world benefits from.
You look at ArtScroll gemaras, look at the entire enterprise of ArtScroll. Look at all of the Jewish culture, Jewish music that’s produced from this world. Very often, we look at that world and we use words like “insular,” “separated,” and we don’t always appreciate the fact that we want those walls in many circumstances. We need people manning those walls, who are creating a world of Jewish ideas and culture that I think, if you’re really honest with yourself, spills forth and really uplifts and connects with the greater Jewish community. So that’s why I don’t like using even the term “insular”. Yes, I think most yeshivas, they’re not exactly in the center in Times Square, but what makes them so beautiful is that I think the ideas that are incubated in yeshivas do very often bubble up and uplift the entire collective Jewish community.
Aside from Rav Lopiansky being what I think is one of the most constructive and uplifting representatives of the yeshiva world nowadays, I asked him for a second reason. And I promised you three, so this is number two. He wrote a book called Ben Torah for Life, which is aimed at people who spent time learning Torah in yeshiva, and then left and went into the professional world, into the business world, and have a hard time connecting their sense of self that they fostered and developed while they were in yeshiva to who they are now. Admittedly, the work, and most of his works, are targeted to a male, decidedly male yeshiva audience. But I actually found this book incredibly uplifting even for somebody who had never been in yeshiva.
But there’s a specific analogy that he has in the book, which is why I wanted to bring Rav Lopiansky on the program. And that is, in the introduction, I believe, to Ben Torah for Life, he talks about the notion of the 12 tribes of the Jewish people. And oftentimes we think of this as, we look at other Jews, other communities, other ways of observance, and we say, “Ah, there are 12 tribes, there are ways for… There’s room for each of our practices. There is room for each of our distinct and separate approaches.” But he almost flips the analogy on its head and it almost returns back to our discussion of Kafka, Kafka’s line, “I have hardly anything in common with myself,” which I think could almost be the epitaph in his book, Ben Torah for Life. Though I don’t think he would begin the book with Franz Kafka, that would be my suggestion.
But he turns the analogy on itself by saying the notion of 12 tribes of distinct ways of practice is not just true when we look outwardly at the collective Jewish people; it is also true and something that lives inside ourselves. Meaning when a person looks at the complexity of their own Jewish identity, when they look at their own Jewish story and how it unfolds over time, at different periods in our lives, and sometimes simultaneously all in one moment, we can each embody all of the 12 tribes. We have moments in our lives where we have the focus, discipline, and commitment of the tribe of Levi, who was known to spend their entire time learning Torah. We could have times in our lives where we embody other tribes that were out in the world and doing business.
And the notion of 12 tribes is not something that we need, or exclusively use, to justify our understanding of the Jewish people; it is also a lens through which we can understand ourselves, and understand the different moments and periods in our lives, and how ultimately, they all cohere into one Jewish individual. That at each moment and each period in our lives, we can embody, sometimes separately, sometimes together, each of the ethics and norms of those 12 Jewish tribes.
And I found that I get absolutely phenomenal in the way that I look at my own life, certainly in the way I look at other people, that different periods – Look, they’re in a Shevet Levi, the tribe of Levi, moment in their lives. And maybe that’s not going to be the rest of their lives. Maybe this is two years, maybe it’s 20 years, and they’re going to go on and do other things and embody others values of the different tribes. I definitely, in my own life, have embodied different tribes. Some good moments, some bad moments. But I really found that idea a fantastic lens for bridging our collective Jewish identity to our individual identity.
And then finally, the moment that I interviewed him was when COVID was just bubbling up. It was during the summer, he was already in Israel at the time. And he wrote an article in a popular Orthodox magazine called Mishpacha Magazine, where I was once upon a time a writer, and once a writer in Mishpacha, you’re always a part of the Mishpacha Mishpacha. You can stop listening now for that joke, I wouldn’t blame you, not a bit.
But he wrote an article, which had a somewhat sensational title, called Sometimes Mashiach Is Not the Solution, where we were at this period thinking about Corona and saying, the only thing that can take us out of this moment is that ultimate redemption. And he wasn’t discouraging people from longing for that messianic redemption. Instead, what he was reminding people is for a more sophisticated and mature notion of what that redemption is all about. And one of the things he wrote was the notion of the redemption restoring the wholeness of the Jewish people. And very often, particularly in the Orthodox community, Jews, we rightfully take pride in our achievements, and in our commitment, and the vast, vast majority, at the same time that we are taking pride and patting ourselves on our back, much of the Jewish people is struggling, is evaporating. And the people who have dropped out, who have assimilated, or have gone off, are very much a part and members of Klal Yisrael.
And this is what I found so moving: that Rav Lopiansky was reminding the readership of Mishpacha Magazine, “Stop patting yourselves on the back. Stop thinking that you’re talking about Klal Yisrael when you use those words.” He said it with a bite. “When you use those words, you’re very often just thinking of your own community and leaving out 80% to 90% of the Jewish people.” In his words, we tend to think of ourselves, the Orthodox community, as Klal Yisrael, and the others as a reservoir, as potential additions, when really it’s the other way around.
And I thought that that reminder of where the Orthodox community is situated, and how the wholeness of the Jewish people, the wholeness of our connectivity is yet to be realized, to be a really important reminder of what it means to be a part of the Jewish people. So again, the three reasons why I asked him, and then obviously this is in addition to just who he is and what he stands for, but was as a representative for that positive, healthy outlook for the yeshiva world, and the words of a Colonel Jessup, “We need them on that wall.” Secondly, his incredible introduction to Ben Torah for Life. And lastly, that fantastic article he wrote about what it means to restore the wholeness of the Jewish people.
I’ll say one other word, and I know this introduction is too long, but this is a part of honesty. If my conversation with Rav Lopiansky, you take a moment to listen to the full thing and it feels limited to you, it feels like it avoids some of the broader questions of Jewish peoplehood, then you’re absolutely right. I think this interview was a great example of my room for growth as an interviewer, as an asker of interesting questions and a facilitator of discussions. And sometimes, conversations like these remind me of how much I’ve grown and how much I still need to grow. Interviewing is an interesting art, as we spoke about in our anniversary episode, and walking this fine line between the particularities of the interviewees’ interests and the broader questions that we’re thinking about is a dance that I’m still learning to perfect. So this conversation did tend toward Rav Lopiansky’s book, to a very specific demographic of the Jewish people that gets a lot of attention, meaning yeshiva age men, and less about the questions that I think, in retrospect, I should have steered the conversations to.
That’s obviously a reflection on my interview skills and not the breadth of Rav Lopiansky’s experience. I’m still learning, and I hope you forgive me for airing this out in the very interview. I’d like to believe that I’m trying to model that growth in public, though sometimes I’m probably just self-lacerating. Is that okay? I hope it is. That’s enough of my self-lacerations and self-reflections. Let me share what I found so fascinating in my interview with Rav Lopiansky.
I think the first clip that I really appreciated is the way he approaches the 3D image of what it means to be a part of the Jewish people. He draws this amazing analogy of looking at a 2D poster of the world, those maps that you would see in elementary school classrooms.
Rav Aaron Lopiansky:
Let’s first take a mashal, and this is where I was learning in school and in geography, I don’t know if they still teach geography, but in those days the geography, they explained why a real map of the world is impossible. Because the world is a globe, it’s a ball of some sort. When you want to flatten it out you’re going to lose something. So you either have, if I remember correctly, there were three possible maps. You either lost the correct shape, or the relative sizes – that’s why Greenland can look like a small thing when it’s huge and so on – or you can have these orange slices where things are fairly accurate, but they’re disjunct, and those are the really annoying maps, where they have these slices.
I know exactly… I can never read them. I know exactly what you’re describing.
Rav Aaron Lopiansky:
They always say that’s the most accurate… I couldn’t look at it, it looked horrible. It’s very unpleasant to the eye. And basically the point is, you cannot take a 3D thing and make it 2D without losing something.
And this idea of seeing the Jewish people in 3D, I think very often we collapse the breadth of the Jewish people into something that we just find more digestible, and that’s not always a true reflection of the breadth of what Jewish people is or should be. And that’s why I really appreciated his words of what it means to be, in Hebrew, an “adam gadol,” a big person. And this is what he had to say about that definition.
Rav Aaron Lopiansky:
We have to begin to define a big person on personal terms. In other words, to be able to understand that if you’re able to control your actions through your ideals and your seichel, you’re a big person. If you’re able to do things that you know you should do even though you don’t feel like doing them, you’ve become a bigger person. If you don’t feel a need to publicize yourself, and you’re happy with what you’re doing because it’s the right thing, even if no one knows about it, gadlus adam means being a very big person.
So if I am now – I’m just going to pick an age: I’m 30. And no job in the Torah world is open for me, or is suitable for me, and now I’m going to have to go to law school, or get into a business from the bottom, and it’s going to take me three, four more years, it’s a lot of hardship and sacrifice. But I know what I sacrificed for, and I know what I accomplish. I’m a big person. I know masechtos. I know big things. I’ve gained control of myself. So at least I know what it’s meant for.
I love the way that Rav Lopiansky urges us to consider more intimately and realistically, in a way that is somehow more ambitious in its deep humanity, our own goals. What it means to be a big person, as he puts it, is a matter of personal growth, not just of ideas, knowledge, and scholarship. If this feels obvious to you, it may not be for so many, especially for those that live in a community that places a premium on the knowledge of Torah. And what he’s talking about, cultivating those individual values, I find extraordinarily refreshing. I think Rav Lopiansky hopes for a Jewish community, a Jewish people or peoplehood, that places a greater emphasis on that personal growth and authenticity and decency in a way that allows for greater individuation, greater diversity, and yet greater unity at the same time, being able to have that 3D map of what it means to embody our collective Jewish spirit. And I think too often because of our own 2D images of ourselves that project outwards when we look at the Jewish people, it feels very flat. But as we grow and develop our own sense of self, our own largeness, our own ability to contain multitudes, I think when we look outwards and think of the Jewish people, that map, that image, will be 3D as well.
My next conversation with Laura Adkins really brought a smile to my face. It’s that simple. She’s quite young, I hope she doesn’t mind me saying this, but I was just immediately struck at her maturity, and I think she in many ways serves as the model for what it means to be a Jewish op ed editor, a job that I wouldn’t wish on my very worst enemies. Imagine your 9:00 to 5:00 job is being the chief negotiator for whose opinions get voiced and whose do not. She has a remarkably rich journalistic instinct and a remarkable sensitivity and compassion, demonstrating a compassionate journalism that cares deeply, and invites all of us to care more deeply. And I’ve submitted to her, and I enjoy working with her a great, great deal. If you’re wondering, and you hear a low hum in the background, that’s because my mower man, the gardener – my son calls him a mower man – for some reason decided to mow our lawn as I’m doing this introduction. At every point in my conversation with Laura, whenever I’d attempt to push Laura to be more critical, more cynical about the aspect of working in the field of Jewish opinions, she always responded with a deeper well of critical compassion, humility, and goodness.
As an opinions editor, at the time of this interview, she was at JTA. Now she’s at The Forward. Laura was a gatekeeper of sorts to what opinions get that voice in the public discourse, and more broadly, a thoughtful participant and observer in the opinions and sensitivities of the American Jewish community. To get a sense for what this perspective looks like, listen to Laura’s thoughts on living a centered Jewish life while immersed in the halls and mirrors of contradictory Jewish opinions that can be opinion journalism.
You are the opinion editor at the JTA. You are navigating so many opinions from personalities and ideas that do not cohere with one another, they contradict. A lot of the contributors and people who you choose to publish, they probably couldn’t even be in the same room with one another. They really, really disagree on fundamental issues. How do you keep your own centeredness in your Jewish values when you’re negotiating with so many contradictory, and oftentimes mutually exclusive, opinions on issues related to Jewish life and the Jewish people?
Laura E. Adkins:
First of all, I would push back about the idea that people can’t be in a room together. I actually think the more we force people into rooms together, the more we see one another’s humanity. It’s very easy to tear down a straw man, or a steel man, or this idea in our heads of the Trump supporter, or the Hillary supporter, or the Orthodox Jew, or the settler, or the Israeli, or insert your preferred bogeyman. But when we’re actually forced to engage with one another – both the ideas of one another and actual people behind those ideas – it makes it a lot harder to be blustery. I almost think of it in my head sometimes as pulling together the same way I would plan a Shabbat meal. With a Shabbat meal, it’s literally just, we’re having dinner together, we’re going to be civil to a certain extent, we’re going to eat, and have a lot of fun.
The standards for the opinion section, I think, are: you have to be interesting, you have to be reasonable, and you have to be offering a novel idea. It doesn’t threaten my Orthodoxy to run a piece challenging fundamentals of Orthodoxy. In many ways, my personal views are irrelevant, except insomuch as they shape my understanding of the topics that people are trying to explain. I don’t think objectivity is real for opinion writers, and I think that drawing out the writers’ lived experience is actually helpful. Maya Angelou, the wonderful poet, once said, “People don’t remember what you said, they remember how you made them feel.” And I think that’s certainly true in opinion pieces.
I can’t tell you enough how much I love that line that she quotes from Maya Angelou: “People don’t remember what you said, they remember how you made them feel.” It’s a deeply fitting sentiment, not just for the way we think about Jewish peoplehood in general, because I think that is an enduring ethic, but on an individual level, it’s a fitting sentiment for Laura herself to share. One that demonstrates what she brings to our conversation about Jewish peoplehood.
I think the sentiment is deeply important. It’s not about pretending a false unity or similarity, but rather a deep curiosity about the person behind the beliefs, under the opinions. And I think her ability to do this, and what we spoke about a little bit, was her very own journey towards a more engaged Jewish identity. She did not grow up in a major Jewish community. She really grew up – I’m going to forget, you can listen to the full interview – a little bit in yehupitzville – I hope she doesn’t kill me for saying that or describing it as such – and then moved and went to college at NYU, and became more engaged in the Jewish community, and then the Orthodox community.
And just, I’m always so struck at her maturity, at the way that she has this cadence and rhythm, this naturalness to Jewish identity that very often people who come to Jewish life, observance, engagement later on in life, it takes them a very long time to learn that rhythm. Not Laura. And she brings that perspective to the challenges and opportunities of religious faith itself in the contemporary era, and how we might communicate more honestly and openly about religious faith. Here’s how she put it in what I found a very moving way.
Laura E. Adkins:
Look, I think it’s important to be real about the challenges. I think there are a lot of challenges. And I think to shorten it, I think what I draw strength from is the fact that humans are human, and God is transcendent. And we can acknowledge that Jews are human and fallible and also tap into all the good things that Judaism has to offer. When I’m dealing with personal challenges, I think my example would be the same as any person. I have amazing friends, I have great relationships with my family members. I run long distance, I play lots of instruments, I watch Netflix like a lot of people do. So I think just being honest with yourself about the realities of things, and not putting people on pedestals, is really helpful for when they fall. I would not endure something that I’ve seen, I think within the last few decades in the Orthodox community, this almost idolization of rabbis. People having pictures of rabbis in their living room. I have a very complicated feeling about it because, on the one hand, a lot of these people did amazing things, and on the other hand, if your relationship to Judaism is contingent upon the actions of man… Man is fallible. So I’m looking now at my picture of several rebbeim that I have on the seforim shelf, but it’s a picture from the Talmudic story of the rabbis who went out into Gan Eden and one died, one went crazy, one became a heretic, and Rabbi Akiva was saved because he kept in mind, what can I bring back to the real world to help other Jews elevate themselves?
I think a lot of people, if you said, “You have an opportunity to go to Gan Eden,” they would just say, “Amazing, enjoy it. Have fun, just soak in paradise.” And I think in that same way that grounding oneself to the reality of, life is not Gan Eden, and we have to bring back the wealth from our tradition, because life is real. Life is not Gan Eden. And if you keep that in mind when you’re tapping into our tradition, that you are going to meet real life challenges… I recently did an in-depth study, or an in-depth class, through Nishmat of the book of Iyov with someone who had lost a son in a terrorist attack. And for a lot of people, that would shake their faith to the core. But I was just so moved by Rabbanit Henkin’s ability to engage with the messiness and the deep dark incomprehensibleness of this world but not lose faith. So maybe it’s a dark answer, but I think I draw strength from just keeping in mind that real life is not paradise, and being Orthodox does not mean you’re not going to have significant real challenges.
I don’t know of an op-ed editor or writer who does a better job of balancing a deep affinity and commitment to the Jewish people while still having a critical lens that never feels cynical, never feels opportunistic or sensational. And I really think that everyone should become familiar with the work that Laura is doing, because it is so essential for depicting the mosaic of Jewish ideas and personalities and communities. And she does it with what seems to be such effortless love for the Jewish people that I’m just so indebted to, A, her coming on. She’s grown as a person, as a person of note, even since the 12 months or so since we spoke. And please check out her work, whether it’s in The Forward, or online, on Twitter. She’s absolutely fantastic, and somebody I find incredibly inspiring.
But I think the idea of balancing a critical lens and what it means to be able to criticize the Jewish people while holding in hand that core Jewish identity, I don’t know anybody who’s had to negotiate that in a more difficult way, in a more public way, than Bethany Mandel. Bethany, aside from being a seasoned journalist and a very public face on Twitter – and you can of course check her out there – Bethany is a convert. And not only is she a convert, but her experience in conversion was nothing short of traumatic. The rabbi who oversaw her conversion process, Barry Freundel, was later indicted for filming women as they immersed undressed in the mikvah, which was one of the most traumatic incidents, in my opinion, in the last centuries of Jewish rabbinic leadership.
And part of what we spoke about was how she was able to piece together her individual Jewish identity after suffering such a traumatic disappointment from Jewish leadership. And I really admired the fact that, I wouldn’t say that she emerged unscathed, but she emerged with her Jewish values intact, and in many ways preempted the changes in the world that we saw at the very beginning of COVID, where all of Jewish institutional life moved into our home. That’s in many ways how she approached Jewish identity, and that’s what I asked her about. In our discussion talking about how she frames the trauma that she went through, not just in conversion, which is a very difficult process, but specifically to be converted with a rabbi who was indicted for one of the most heinous crimes related to religious life, how does that affect her home life, her children, her individual Jewish identity? And I was really heartened by what she had to say.
Bethany S. Mandel:
So my kids don’t know anything about it. We have mentioned to our kids that there are multiple bad people in this community, because it wasn’t just Freundel. And so we have run into one of them before, and so I’ve pulled them aside and said, “There’s some bad people, and that is one of them. And if you see that person again, do not make eye contact with them, and walk away from them.” And as far as more generally, I don’t know when I’m going to tell them about it. My oldest is seven, almost seven. I mean, maybe in the next three or four years I’ll have to tell her, but I think that it’s a conversation that is similar to a conversation that I would have with her in general. There’s some bad people in this world, and you always have to keep your guard up. And I think the nice thing about our Judaism being 100% in our home is that there’s no ripping the rug out from under that. So Judaism to them will never be a rabbi, it will never be a synagogue, because Judaism is the thing that they grew up with in their home.
I love that idea that she ended with, that Judaism being a hundred percent in our home, there’s no ripping the rug out from under that. And though obviously, I personally am very involved in Jewish institutional life, I do think even for those who haven’t suffered from trauma, and even those who are very engaged in Jewish institutional life, there’s a lot to learn from that in the sense that never using the Jewish community or the Jewish institutions, organizations that you’re affiliated with to be the sole lens through which you bring Judaism into your life.
If Judaism is not something that is alive, that has an energy, that’s well, that is apprehensible in the confines of your own home, then you may already be setting yourself up for disaster, because I don’t know of a single Jew alive who has never been disappointed in one way or another from some Jewish institution or Jewish controversy or Jewish whatever. And if it’s not grounded in the foundation, in your very own home, if your individual Jewish identity does not have that strong grounding and foundation, you may be setting yourself up for disappointment.
And I have found for myself that I’m exposed to so many people, ideas, institutions that I disagree with, that I’ve almost come to appreciate and say, “Look, I disagree with every Jewish institution. There’s no Jewish institution, job, organization that perfectly captures my approach to Judaism.” The only thing that can do that, the only thing that can capture what Jewish life means to me, is me. And having that responsibility can feel daunting, it can feel hard, but it is also liberating. It is also energizing to take control and responsibility for what Jewish life is going to look like in your life.
And I remember, it’s a conversation that I come back to over and over again that I once had with my wife in the early weeks that we were married, and I voiced to her disappointment. It probably had to do with, I don’t know, my in-laws, something, Shabbos, and I just felt like the Shabbos, the feel of Shabbos in our home in those early weeks of marriage was not what I had imagined it would be, and not what I had hoped it would be. And my wife responded to me, and it stayed with me ever since, said, “So do it differently. Stop blaming everybody else, blaming the shul, blaming your in-laws, blaming the community, blaming your parents. Take control and create a different Shabbos environment that you want, that you think is exciting.” And the moment I took control of that, and created the Jewish experiences that did reflect my values – and it’ll never be perfect, obviously – that was the moment of a liberated, energized Jewish life that derived and remained anchored in my home.
An area in which Bethany is definitely quite vocal online is politics. And I think over the last few years, the intersection of political communities and Jewish communities has been a dividing point, and something that I think, with a few exceptions, may be one of the scariest things I’ve found about some trends in the Jewish community. I believe deeply that Jews of any political affiliation should feel comfortable in our Jewish institutions in Jewish life, and I think there were moments where that was not so. And one of the things I asked her as somebody who is so active in politics was how she felt politics should intersect with our religious identity. And I was surprised in many ways, given her affiliation and how vocal she is on political issues, I was surprised and appreciated her answer.
Bethany S. Mandel:
I don’t think that politics and religion should mix. I think that it’s a recipe for disaster. I think that institutionally, as far as the OU is concerned, they should push school choice. But outside of that, I don’t think that they should mix it all. I think that it has the potential, and I’m saying this as someone who grew up Reform basically, and who was driven away from the Reform movement because of the incestuous relationship that the Reform movement has with progressive and liberal politics. And I’ve heard this from a lot of people who are Reform. They’re driven away from Judaism because of the politics. And I know lots of liberal Orthodox people who feel uncomfortable in a lot of Orthodox settings, and that shouldn’t be the case. You shouldn’t have MAGA hats at shul and you shouldn’t have people doing Biden fundraisers either. It should just be a place where everyone feels comfortable, and there should be no intersection between politics and the bimah in any way.
And that’s something that I think that our community here in Silver Spring does very well, because they make those guard rails really distinct, because people here work in politics on both sides, and they don’t want to make anyone feel uncomfortable or unwelcome. And so they have very, very bright lines about the speakers that they invite. We will never be speakers, we will never be scholars in residence, where we live. And I think that that’s right. And I think that it should be like that everywhere.
Agree or disagree, and many people will do both, I really appreciated that answer. I don’t want anyone to walk into a synagogue, a beis midrash, a Jewish organization, and feel that they are on the outskirts simply because of their political party. That’s always something that’s worried me. I think that we need to figure out a way where we can coexist religiously, even if we can’t coexist politically.
We can’t turn our synagogues into the house of representatives and to Congress. We need to figure this out. And I’m hoping over the last year or so that we’re getting closer to that. But I’ve been wrong before, I’m one of the worst political pundits in history. So please do not take my word for it on that. And I think more than anything else, the struggle of the frustrations and negativity that everybody grapples with when you’re dealing with national, or these major Jewish institutions or organizations, what I asked her is, how do you preserve your positivity? How do you preserve your optimism, your affiliation with the beauty and the joy of Judaism, even when you feel so deeply disappointed with Jewish institutions? And on this as well, it returns back to what she spoke about earlier, I absolutely loved her response.
If somebody were to come to you and say, “Look, I’m struggling with so many of the issues, like cynicism and negativity with the Orthodox life, with Jewish life more generally,” where would you turn them towards to find optimism and joy? Where do you turn?
Bethany S. Mandel:
I mean, me personally, the thing that has made me in the last three to five years feel most connected to Judaism is my kids. Learning about Judaism and seeing Judaism through their eyes has been really powerful. And not just Judaism, but also spirituality. And I’ve never been a spiritual person. I came to Judaism through books, and I’ve never been spiritually, I don’t like davening, and I still don’t like davening, if I’m honest. And that’s just not… that’s not how I connect. But in teaching my kids at home, if we’re out on a nature walk and we see a spiderweb, part of our homeschool studies is to get close, and look at it, and observe it, and draw it, and understand it. And those things in nature have given me such a spiritual basis that I never had. And so we’re outside and we’re looking at these spiderwebs, I’m like, “Look at this work of art that Hashem created for us.” Thank God that we have the time and the inclination to stop and really enjoy it and look at it, because this is God.
The design of the spiderweb and the design of the leaf and the geometric patterns on all of these things, this is God. And there’s no denying that there’s something that makes all of these things perfect, and makes them usably perfect. A spider web isn’t just there to observe, but it’s part of this whole cycle, and this doesn’t exist without Hashem. And so having that window into spirituality through the eyes of my children has been incredibly powerful, and just talking about Judaism with my kids. Because when you have conversations like that, they echo it. And so I would say these things about spiderwebs, but then my kids would stop and say, “Look at this flower that Hashem made for us. Thank God that Hashem made this.” And I modeled it, and then they regurgitate it in a beautiful, innocent way that can only come from a child.
And that is Bethany Mandel. It may not be the Bethany that you interact with online though. I interact with her, she’s absolutely wonderful. But that’s really what’s great about her real family life, is that it is grounded, it is intact. And because it’s intact, it is much harder to rupture and erode. And too often, we deputize Jewish institutions and organizations – who do amazing work, this isn’t a knock on any of them – but it’s a realistic understanding that very often, we give over too much of our Jewish lives to the institutions, the schools, the organizations, to shape our very religious identity. And we shouldn’t be deputizing them for how we create and inject Judaism into our lives. We, of course, can lean on them. They have incredible services. And we need to show appreciation, both financial and in words, or whatever it is.
But I think sometimes we are over-reliant on that collective Jewish identity to determine our personal Jewish identity. And while Bethany’s approach to this may be somewhat extreme, but in all fairness, what she went through was extreme. But I think at the core of it, of her ensuring that her home, that her individual life remains in many ways not swayed by the daily give and take and bickering and fighting that we see in Jewish organizational institutional life is something that I find heartening, instructive, and something that, in many ways, I bring into my own Jewish life.
Which finally brings us to Samuel Freedman. And I can honestly call him a rebbe, a teacher of sorts, because I’ve been through his book so many times, I teach it in my classes, though I was never actually blessed with being in one of his courses or studying directly with him. He’s always been incredibly generous anytime I’ve asked him to teach or present to one of my classes or to join on an interview. And his book, Jew vs. Jew: The Struggle for the Soul of American Jewry, profoundly influenced the way I think about telling stories about the Jewish community and in understanding the very dynamics that drive Jewish community.
I’ll just leave you, before I introduce the specific clips, I’ll leave you with the final paragraph. And it’s not a spoiler. I’ll leave you with the final paragraph that he talks about in his book. “Being part of the unbroken flow of Jewish history demands more than saying you are. It demands a pattern of obligations and responsibilities, a web of mutuality that many modern American Jews find imprisoning and choose to reject. So one part of American Jewery has flourished outside the old walls of identity, and gazes back only in nostalgia, if at all. Another part tries to rebuild them, or at least to rescue what was valuable within them, even at the cost of a certain estrangement from America. It is tragic, yes, that American Jews have battled so bitterly, so viciously over the very meaning of being Jewish. It is more tragic, perhaps, that the only ones fighting are the only ones left who care.” And that is a haunting final line, that the only ones fighting are the only ones left who care, which is why I was so excited to speak with Samuel Freedman, and talk to him a little bit about where he finds that sense of connection to the Jewish people. And his answer was quite poignant.
Samuel G. Freedman:
That’s the 64 thousand, or 64 million, or 64 billion dollar question, isn’t it? I think you have to look at organizations that have been successful. I mentioned Chabad, but another one, American Jewish World Service, is a good example of an organization that Ruth Messinger brought from being moribund into a tremendously active organization on Jewish social justice issues, and have to look, what did an organization like that do right? What are some of the vibrant, independent minyanim doing right? You have to look at what works and try to learn from it. That’s one piece, because I do think that the people who don’t care at any given moment still could be lit back up.
To some extent, you can never have a complete answer to that question, because what gets into someone’s soul, you can’t program from the outside. Who has the potential yid inside, and something makes that pilot light shoot up into bigger flame. If people knew what you could do to do that, everyone would do it. It’s like Springsteen once said about rock and roll, “If it was so easy, everybody could do it.” But beyond what’s ineffable in those personal awakenings, again, you have to model on what has worked. To go to the two examples I’ve cited, Chabad’s genius, which comes from the Rebbe, is, doing any mitzvah brings Mashiach closer. So don’t judge people for what they don’t do, get them to do something, and make it fun so that they’ll want to be part of it, so that they’ll want to increase their involvement, not out of guilt, but out of joy.
And I think what Ruth Messinger did really well at American World Jewish Service, she’s now retired, but the organization is still quite strong, is knowledgeably work with Jewish text. Get beyond this, “Well, being involved in social justice is a Jewish thing to do,” but instead drill down and try to educate people who came to her more out of a political point of view than a religious one, and say, whether you know it or not, there’s textual basis for this vague feeling you have, and here is the textual basis. Knowing the texts, whether you choose to believe in a divine being or not, knowing the text as part of our intellectual patrimony can only make you better at the social justice work you’re doing, and it will let you know in a deep way why it’s the Jewish thing to do.
The book Jew vs. Jew came out over 25 years ago. And I, every time I speak to him, have been urging him to write a sequel. What makes the book so incredible is that he talks about the divisive issues that really tear apart Jewish communities, but anytime he talks about an issue, it’s always coupled with a story about an actual community that he’s reporting on that was torn apart, or grappled with the specific issue that he’s coming to highlight.
It’s really creative structurally, which is why I urge so many people to read it. It’s not just a sociological take of important issues; it’s a book of stories of actual Jewish communities that were torn apart. And the exercise that I would ask our listeners is, in the 25 years since it was published, what would you put as the five animating issues that have divided up communities, and what are the specific communities that you would use to highlight how these issues have come to light? Please email me on this if you’re listening, and I will send them all to Samuel Freedman, because we do need a sequel on this. And if he won’t write it, then gosh darn it, maybe I will. But what are the local issues that arose in Jewish communities that are related to those big, intense issues that the Jewish community is still grappling with? Give me a specific communal issue that tore apart, I have my own list, but I don’t want to cheat and give you your own. But one of the questions that I asked him in the 25 years that intervened since he published this book was, what did you get wrong? I asked Samuel Freedman, “You covered so many issues so brilliantly, and you have this amazing epilogue of where you think the Jewish community is headed. What did you miss?”
Samuel G. Freedman:
Well, first of all, what I missed is I drastically misread where things were going with the peace process, and that was clear within a few weeks of the book coming out. The book came out in August of 2000. And as we know, by the end of September on the civil calendar, the Second Intifada had broken out, and that was the end of the peace process. And we’re still living with the aftermath of that. Anyway, that’s what I missed right away. But a couple of other things. I really missed the significance of Chabad as a movement, and that’s a positive. I mean, Chabad has been one of the great phenomena within the American Jewish world in turning people on to Jewish practice, in being bridge builders between all different kinds of American Jews, in being this great example of community organizing.
And I don’t know if I was too affected by the fact that the rebbe had died not that many years earlier, and there was a prevailing view – which turned out to be completely wrong – outside Chabad that the movement could not really flourish without him. The opposite has been true. So I definitely wish I had put in more about Chabad. I think I didn’t really see the pace of egalitarian worship and independent minyanim in the Orthodox world or Conservadox world happening at the pace it’s happened. I think I correctly foresaw that female ordination in some kind of Orthodox or quasi-Orthodox setting was going to be… was coming down the road, and it was going to be very divisive within the Orthodox community.
But I don’t think I foresaw how rapidly that was coming, how quickly it would be before you’d have Yeshivat Maharat, and before we’d have independent independent minyanim like Darchei Noam on the Upper West Side. So the pace of that took me by surprise. And I don’t think I foresaw how quickly issues of LGBT inclusion were going to play out within, first the Conservative movement, and then the Orthodox. And I think actually that’s been in its way a pretty positive story.
The issue isn’t totally resolved I think to the satisfaction of all queer people, but if you compare the massive ruptures that have happened in the Roman Catholic community and in the Evangelical Protestant community over gay inclusion, what’s happened within the Jewish world has been much more positive, nourishing, embracing. Not perfect, but it has not blown apart, and I think that’s the case where, I think as it says in the Sherlock Holmes stories, it’s the dog that doesn’t bark that you should pay attention to. So that’s the dog that didn’t bark.
And then the last thing I would say that I missed, which again is a very positive thing, is the boom in multicultural Jewish identity. That for reasons, both by greater amounts of voluntary conversion, by which I mean not someone converting with a metaphorical gun to their head in order to marry someone, but converting out of a sincere and deep spiritual search. The acceleration of that in the Jewish world, plus the effect of multiracial adoption, the massive number of Chinese children, black children, whether American born or from elsewhere in the African diaspora, Latin American children who’ve been adopted by Jewish families, and need to be then converted. So for both of those reasons, you have this real, steadily growing population of Jews of color. And that’s been a really thrilling development and an enriching one. And it’s also a really important counterweight to, again, the usual worrying about intermarriage, and people who are leaving the Jewish fold, and what’s going to happen to us in the future. And unfortunately, little attention tends to be paid for who’s coming into the fold. And even if the numbers aren’t comparable, the fact that there is a substantial inflow means something, and that’s another, key event of the last 20 years, or key trend.
These are the stories Samuel missed. Part of what is so exciting to me about the Jewish journey, the Jewish story, is that it is something of an unfinished product, the choose your own adventure kind of story. And shout out to all those people who loved reading those choose your own adventures in sixth grade. I absolutely love them as well, it was these interactive books, choose your own adventure. But the Jewish story is a story in which the way our community, our stories, and our narratives change and adapt, grow and unfold, are all part of the fundamental fabric of our story, our growing, great text, the great book of the Jewish people. And I’m reminded very much of the words of Rabbi Sacks of blessed memory, who we lost this very year. I’ve come back to this quote from Rabbi Sacks from his book, A Letter in the Scroll: Understanding Our Jewish Identity and Exploring the Legacy of the World’s Oldest Religion countless times, probably on this podcast as well, but allow me to read his words in our final wrap-up of our approach to Jewish peoplehood.
Rabbi Sacks writes, “The Baal Shem Tov, founder of the Hasidic movement in the 18th century, said that the Jewish people is a living sefer Torah, and every Jew is one of its letters. I am moved by that image and it invites a question, the question: will we in our lifetime be letters in the scroll of the Jewish people? At some stage, each of us must decide how to live our lives. We have many options, and no generation in history has had a wider choice. We can live for work or success or fame or power. We can have a whole series of lifestyles and relationships. We can explore any of the myriads of faith, mysticisms, or therapies. There is only one constraint, namely that however much of anything else we have, we have only one life, and it is short. How we live and what we live for are the most fateful decisions we can ever make. We can see life as a succession of moments spent like coins in return for pleasures of various kinds, or we can see our life as though it were a letter in the alphabet.
“A letter on its own has no meaning, yet when letters are joined together to others, they make a word. Words combine with others to make a sentence, sentences connect to make a paragraph, and paragraphs join to make a story. That is how the Baal Shem Tov understood life. Every Jew is a letter, every family a word, every community a sentence, and the Jewish people through time constitutes a story, the strangest and most moving story, in the annals of mankind. That metaphor is, for me, the key to understanding our ancestors’ decision to remain Jewish even in times of great trial and tribulation.
“I suspect they knew that they were letters in this story, a story of great risk and courage. Their ancestors had taken the risk of pledging themselves to a covenant with God, and thus understanding a special role in history. They had undertaken a journey, begun in the distant past, and continued by every successive generation. At the heart of the covenant is the idea of emunah, which means faithfulness, or loyalty, and Jews felt a loyalty to generations passed and generations yet unborn to continue the narrative. A Torah scroll that has a missing letter is rendered invalid, defective. I think that most Jews did not want theirs to be that missing letter. I am a Jew,” writes Rabbi Sacks, “knowing the story of my people. I hear their call to write the next chapter. I did not come from nowhere: I have a past. And if any past commands anyone, this past commands me. I am a Jew because only if I remain a Jew will the story of a hundred generations live on in me.
“I continue their journey because having come this far, I may not let it and them fail. I cannot be the missing letter in the scroll. I can give no simpler answer, nor do I know of a more powerful one. And this to me is Jewish peoplehood. The idea of looking at life, not as a succession of coins that you can exchange for pleasures, but as looking at each moment in your life as a letter, each year perhaps as a sentence, and ultimately connecting the work that you do in your life, connecting your family, connecting everything in your individual life to that great and grand story of the Jewish people.”
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