It was in the days after the tower of Babel that the angels said to God: “Ribbono shel Olam, Master of the Universe, can’t you see? Human beings are good for nothing! You already gave them a second chance, promising never to send an all-destroying flood again; but, still: Look, how they behave! You placed them in this world to be a guardian over it and to do your work in it, but they are only concerned about themselves. What are you going to do?” The angels had been bothering God about the creation of humankind from the start,1 but despite all of humanity’s failings, God was not ready to give up. After all, it was only humankind whom God had bestowed with the gift of being made in the Divine image, with the ability to continue the work of creation. Giving up on humankind would mean giving up on the prospect of ever finishing creation and that was simply not an option for God!
As the angels were of no help, God decided that the solution to the problem had to be found by observing human beings. One day, God saw a young boy helping an elderly lady carry her basket home from the market. God was pleased to have found such a kind young man and resolved to keep an eye on him. The next day, the boy went back to the market where he encountered another elderly lady with a heavy basket of shopping. But instead of stopping to ask if she needed any help with her basket, he just walked past her. This elderly lady was just as frail as the lady from the previous day and so God wondered why the young man would help just one of them. The only difference that God could determine between the ladies was that the first lady was the boy’s grandmother, whereas the second lady was just another woman living in the same town. And suddenly God realised that human beings behaved towards one another in different ways. There were only few people who helped everyone indiscriminately. Most human beings showed their most altruistic selves only to those with whom they had a relationship – be it through kinship or friendship.
So God decided that maybe the solution to the problem with humankind was to enter into a more personal relationship with them: “I will offer human beings a personal covenant with me so that we become true partners in bringing blessing into the world.” And, God called out to all humankind.2 But nobody would listen. It was as if human beings were just incapable of hearing the Divine voice. Some time went by before God noticed a man, who for no good reason, took his family and started on a journey towards the land which God was promising to give to those who would embrace the covenant.
“Finally,” God thought, “someone is ready to embrace my covenant!”3 But the man and his family reached Haran and they settled there. God was patient and kept calling out to the man, who seemed to have stopped listing: “Lech– Go forth, you have already left your home country; now it is time to leave your father’s home! Don’t you hear, Lech Lecha – go to yourself, find your authentic self, learn who you are meant to be.4 Understand that without you I cannot complete my work!”
It was then that Abram chose to listen.
Our tradition teaches that Abram was the first Jew and we could argue that after him the Jews stopped having a choice about whether to be Jewish or not. Born a Jew always a Jew, and neither our religion nor outside society gave us a choice about it.
But today we have a choice again. We can no longer take it as a given that Jews will continue to be Jews just because they were born as Jews.
Just a few weeks ago, on the eve of Rosh Hashanah, the Israeli novelist Yoram Kaniuk won a legal battle in front of the Tel Aviv District Court, allowing him to change his religious status from “Jewish” to “none” in the country’s Population Registry.5 While this may seem like a radical act, it is just an overt expression of what we are observing in the Jewish world all around us. That while few will make the active choice not to be Jewish anymore, many more are failing to make the choice to be Jewish.
Of course, this is not a uniquely Jewish problem but a more general crisis of religion that we are witnessing in the Western World. The sociologist Peter Berger writes: “One of the most obvious ways in which secularization has affected the man in the street is as a “crisis of credibility” in religion. Put differently, secularization has resulted in a widespread collapse of the plausibility of traditional religious definitions of reality.”6 Subjectively, human beings tend to be uncertain about religious matters. Objectively, we are confronted with a wide variety of religious and other reality-defining agencies, such as science, that compete for our allegiance or at least attention.
What then has Judaism to offer that can entice Jews today into allegiance? Of course, each of us will be able to come up with a myriad of answers, for all of us have made our choice for Judaism. To name but a few, Judaism makes us partners in a great cultural heritage, it offers a philosophy of life, can teach us how to judge between right and wrong, and how to order our priorities. It can give our life “meaning and purpose, pattern and rhythm, beauty and joy.”7
But is this enough to convince Jews to be Jews? Rabbi John Rayner, z’l,8 suggests that to ask what Judaism can do for us is maybe the wrong question. Because while an individual may be able to get along without Judaism, the more important question is: “Can the world get along without Judaism?” And so he suggests we should ask: “What can Judaism do for humanity?”
To which he responds that Judaism “has proclaimed the sanctity of life, the dignity of the individual, the essential equality of all human beings. It has taught humaneness and compassion, demanded social justice, and clung tenaciously to the hope that ultimately these ideals will find fulfillment in a golden age of universal peace.” And even though he ackowledges that other religions now teach similar things, he stresses that this does not absolve us of our responsibility. For “Judaism is a civilising force in human history, and though it is not the only one, the world cannot afford to lose it. … Freedom, justice and compassion may sound like platitudes; but they are the stuff out of which civilisation is made: on them depends all possibility of progress, and from them hangs, as by a thin thread, the very continuance of our own precarious existence. That is why the world needs Judaism. And that is why the world needs Jews.”
So we must pay heed to God’s call, just like Abram, our ancestor, did so many years ago, “Lech lecha, lechi lach – go to yourself, find your authentic self, learn who you are meant to be. Understand that without you God’s work cannot be completed!” Let us choose Judaism so that you and I and our children and children’s children can make our contribution to the redemption of humanity and the world.
May this be God’s will.
1 See the midrashim in Genesis Rabbah 8:5 and in the Babylonian Talmud Sanhedrin 38a.
2 This idea is based on the suggestion in the Midrash, Sifre Deuteronomy 343, that God offered the Torah to many other peoples before offering it to Israel.
3 Ibn Ezra comments that God must have already called on Abram when he was still in Ur as the command to leave the place of birth does not really make any sense, if it is uttered when Abram has already left is place of birth. Rashi disagrees with this interpretation.
4 The Chasidic Rabbi Mordechai Yosef Leiner also known as the Mei HaShiloach teaches that God is instructing Abram to go forth and find his authentic self and to learn who he is meant to be.
5 See for example: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2011/10/03/yoram-kaniuk-israeli-writ_n_993251.html
6 P. Berger, The Sacred Canopy (1966) p. 127.
7 John Rayner’s phrase (J. D. Rayner, A Jewish Understanding of the World (1998) p. 10).
8 The following quotes from John Rayner are from “The Importance of Being Jewish” delivered on Yom Kippur, 28th September 1971; published in J. D. Rayner, A Jewish Understanding of the World (1998) p. 8-11.
The views expressed in this D’var Torah do not necessarily reflect the position of Leo Baeck College.