Bradley Shavit Artson
Rabbi. Philosopher. Author. Teacher.

Building a future worthy of our past

For many of you, as for me, the political is always personal. So I hope you will allow me to start on a personal note. Although I am now a Conservative/Masorti rabbi, I was fortunate to be raised in an extraordinary Reform community – Congregation Emanuel in San Francisco; and within that beautiful sanctuary, to have been shaped and molded by Rabbi Joseph Asher, z”l. I am going to frame what I’d like to talk about – which is the future that we are attempting to construct for the Jewish people – by visiting our recent past through the eyes of a truly extraordinary rabbinic leader.

Joe Asher grew up in a strictly Orthodox home in Wiesbaden, and he fled Germany with the rise of the Nazis. Despite having been forced to leave, he was, in the profoundest sense, a German Jew every day of his life. He served in the Australian Navy, where he wisely changed his name (had they captured him bearing the name of a German Jew it would have meant certain death). To save his life he went from “Ansbacher” – which was his family name – to “Asher”. To me, God speaks in an Australian-German lilt.

Let me share three stories that typify three aspects of Rabbi Joe Asher. The first: when I was a rabbinical student at the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York, he used to take me out to lunch whenever I would visit San Francisco. At his insistence, we would always go to Fisherman’s Wharf to a seafood restaurant. He would always bemoan his failures: one of his students went to the Orthodox Chabad; two went to Conservative Judaism’s rabbinical program. “What did I do wrong?” he would say. When his Shrimp Louie was served, he would skewer a shrimp, lean over the table, point his fork at me, and say: “Go ahead, Brad, and eat it. God doesn’t care, and nobody’s looking!”

Second Joe Asher story: When I finished the Confirmation program at Congregation Emanuel, they organized (and probably still schedule) a congregational trip of the Confirmands to Israel – a six-week trip, which at the time we could not afford. It was Rabbi Asher who personally raised the funds so that I could go with my classmates and I could take that trip to Israel.

I will never, ever forget the front page of the San Francisco Chronicle featuring a large photograph of my rabbi endorsing and having breakfast with Presidential nominee, Senator George McGovern. Whether you think it would have been better for for the nation had McGovern won that election is entirely beside the point. For Rabbi Asher, if you didn’t stand for justice, you were not a religious Jew.

A few decades later, we live in a most interesting time. Denominational identity no longer means what it meant in the recent past. It may well be that we are the most fluid generation of Jews in the history of our people. We do not live where we were raised; our parents often don’t live where they were raised; we choose partners as we want, in categories our parents didn’t even know were categories; and the level of our freedom extends to our geography, our labels, and recently, toward transcending of religious labels too. We live in an age in which I think it is still useful that some institutions have denominational labels, but many vibrant institutions and an increasing number of individuals do not. You may be a member of the Reform congregation or a Conservative congregation, but that does not make you a Reform Jew or a Conservative Jew. More and more we take seriously that we are Jews first, and that we utilize denominational labels as we need them. We don and shed them, depending on our needs at the moment and the institutions that allow our spirits to flourish and our communities to be strong. There is a complex relationship, then, between our identities, our communities, our religious labels, our relationship to Israel. All of these components lack the certainty and simplicity that they possessed when I was a young congregant of Rabbi Asher.

In addition to this thinning denominational commitment, I think it fair to observe that American Jews maintain the shallowest cultural identity and the shallowest Jewish education of any population of Jews in the history of our people. That is not to glorify the good old days (I am happy not to be living in the “good old days!”), but our awareness of the riches of Jewish literature, Jewish thought, Jewish art, Jewish creativity, is paper thin at best. And yet, there are these wonderful, delicious, hopeful paradoxes that beckon to us. We live in an age in which ArtScroll and others have published the entire Talmud in English translation (the paradox, of course, being that a 100 years ago the people who wanted to read the Talmud did not need an English translation, and the people who would have needed an English translation were not interested in reading the Talmud)! We live in a period in which there is a recognizable hunger for a heritage that was almost lost, but not quite; in which people are seeking tools to help them walk through the doors, not pretending to be a kind of Jew they no longer are, but as themselves, to enter the portholes. The caliber and the number of students who enroll at my institution — American Jewish University — and at other fine institutions of Jewish learning testifies to the continued vitality of Jewish tradition and of Judaism to attract great minds and courageous souls.

Once upon a time intermarriage was a certain ticket out of Jewish engagement; it no longer intentionally means that; neither from the people who intermarry, nor from the communities who are looking for creative ways within the parameters of their ideologies to welcome people and to bring them in. This openness, too, is new. And, of course, there is a growing array of institutions that deliberately reject denominational pigeonholing; that seek aggressively, to be just Jewish, in their own way, and they also are achieving remarkable success along with the denominational institutions that continue to redefine themselves, reshape what it means, and to serve the Jewish people as a whole.
So how do we meet this new challenge? How do we offer the leadership that our people crave and need? Here I would like to speak, specifically, to my fellow graduates. I learned three overriding lessons from my rabbi, Joe Asher. The first is, do not lie. Don’t pretend to believe what you know to be false; don’t pretend to teach what you know to be repugnant. It does not matter who says we should believe it, or who said you should think it – You may not lie. Hotmo shel Ha-Kadosh Baruch Hu emet – The seal of the Holy One is truth, and God cannot abide in a place of falsehood. It falls to us to articulate a Judaism of integrity; a Judaism which is steeped in the resources we have inherited or chosen; a Judaism that is authentic and true to what is of abiding value in our heritage; and at the same time, to be unafraid to learn the lessons of what it means to be alive now, today. Which means to learn truth from teachers, whom you might not think, teach a generation of clergy of social workers, of educators. If we are to lead, we must lead from our hearts; we must lead with integrity.

Lesson #2: Judaism, more than a creed, must learn to transcend itself. When you look at the great transformations in Jewish thought, the single most disturbing one, to my mind, is the shift between the Medieval and the Modern periods. If you read the great minds of the Medieval period – Rav Saadia, Rambam, others – you encounter Jews who ask broad, universal, human questions, and they mobilize Jewish tools to address those challenges. But when we switch to the modern period, we suddenly are exposed to great minds that ask little Jewish questions, while mobilizing universal tools to answer those questions: How can we enter the general culture? How can we survive as a people? What does it mean to be American? Let us say, frankly, that that modern experiment, necessary in its time, has run its course and is unworthy of the future. If Judaism is not a tool to become profoundly human, if it is not our entryway, our porthole into humanity, into all of creation, then it is unworthy of its legacy. We must be willing to stand for a Judaism that addresses broad, universal, human concerns, one which mobilizes the great resources of the Bible, of Rabbinics, of Hassidut and Kabbalah, of Jewish Poetry, Philosophy, and Art, to be able to allow us to be fully human.

As I learned from my rabbi, Rabbi Asher, every day of his life, to be a good Jew means to be intoxicated with justice. It means that the suffering of any living being, of any human being, of any nation or group, is self-evidently a Jewish concern. We must be rooted in a Torah of personal compassion and robust love that gives us the strength to stand up to the Pharaohs of our time and say: Let all peoples go!

Can we reach beyond short-term denominational triumphalism to foster and celebrate the rich diversity of Jewish life across the denominational and observance spectrum?

Can we resolve, in the spirt of that diversity, to lend our support to our Orthodox sisters who seek to provide leadership and teaching, within Orthodoxy? They are our allies. I look forward to the day when I can give pointers to the Governor of California on how he can perform a gay wedding ceremony. And I look forward to being able to tell him, “Never mind. I will sign the State certificate myself!”

A sacred Torah, a Torah scroll that misses a single letter, is pasul. If it has every letter, but one is not there, it cannot be used in a synagogue. I look forward to the day when people with special needs are full members of our community, and we see them as the treasures they are.

My brothers the Medieval Jews understood that to mobilize a robust Jewish life took every resource available, so they produced great art, great architecture, stirring music, wonderful poetry. We must do no less than they. I grew up at what I thought as a child was the most beautiful sanctuary in the world. Congregation Emanu-El in San Francisco is one knockout of a building! Now that we have completed the Shapiro Sanctuary at American Jewish University, I will concede to you that Temple Emanu-El in San Francisco is one of the two most beautiful sanctuaries in the world! But I do note with some perplexity the fact that I worship now in what is a social hall, where we pull up folding chairs and we sit around the circle, and I wonder why is it that I have to choose between elevated beauty and spiritual integrity. Why can’t I worship in a pretty place? Why must I choose between being stuffy, and being elevated? We as future leaders must address ourselves to the integration of the two: to be able to worship b’hadrat Kodesh, in the majesty of holiness, although perhaps a slightly more accessible, more haimish, majesty than my childhood allowed.

I invite us all to strive to fashion a Jewish life that is rooted in a Judaism that is not parochial so that, in the stirring words of the Union Prayer Book, “All created in Thine image recognize that they are brethren, so that one in spirit and one in fellowship they may be forever united before Thee.”

Let our reach exceed our grasp, so that we can hold the grandest aspirations of Jewish tradition – a world at peace; humanity liberated and in harmony; a day – again to quote my favorite passage in that prayerbook, – “….when corruption and evil will give way to purity and goodness. When superstition will no longer enslave the mind, nor idolatry, blind the eye”.

Ours, like every age, is a time of great uncertainty of opportunity, of staggering selfishness, or inspiring devotion; of bold and ruthless partisanship, and of boundary-breaking conversations. I bless you, and all of us, that we step into the breach with courage, with vision, with hope, affirming that what we choose will create new possibilities; that what we do will sustain lives and create an ancient and ever-new civilization. That what we affirm will define us no less than how we engage. Lo alecha ham’lacha ligmor – “It is not up to us,” said Rabbi Tarfon, “to complete the task. Yet neither are we free to desist.”

About the Author
Rabbi Bradley Shavit Artson is the Roslyn & Abner Goldstine Dean of the Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies of American Jewish University, and is the Dean of the Zacharias Frankel College of University of Potsdam, training Conservative/Masorti Rabbis for Europe.
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