I have spent the last two decades engaged in a rigorous debate within the academic community about the role of the earliest rabbis, Chazal, within Jewish and Roman society of the Land of Israel. Applying modern methodologies for Talmudic inquiry and incorporating close examination of archaeological and other relevant sources, I have attempted to arrive at a historically accurate depiction of the place of the ancient rabbis within their world. Instead of the current revisionist view that has eliminated the voice of the rabbis, or the traditional one that all Jews were beholden to the rabbis and were their followers, I have presented a middle ground that places our sages within the unfolding, real story of how Jewish life survived and was transformed in the wake of the Destruction of the Temple and the disastrous revolt led by Bar Kokhba in 132 C.E.
In a sense, I am grappling with the “voice” of our ancient rabbis and the role that it played in preserving the ideals of our tradition in antiquity.
I have faithfully stuck to the period I specialize in.
As readers of my June 14 blog post, “The Voices We are Beginning to Hear” (https://blogs.timesofisrael.com/the-voices-we-are-finally-hearing/) know, in recent days I find myself looking for the voice not of our ancient rabbis but of our contemporary spiritual leaders, particularly our theologians, for some wisdom and insights from our tradition that inform the turbulent last number of years of our existence in America.
I received many encouraging responses, particularly from my grown children’s generation, for whom the piece evidently resonated. Apparently, many of their generation are looking to my own for the same insights – for voices that bravely confront the evils and hypocrisy of our society and demand that injustice be addressed, which in turn would mean a better future for themselves and their children.
All of this should also resonate with any child who came of age in the sixties, those who like me belong to the baby boomer era. In fact, my earlier essay was especially about us – the baby boomer Me Generation that morphed into and spawned a narcissistic age in which the prevailing attitude seems to be, if everything is right by me, if I manage to achieve and get what I want, and at least some policies emerging from Washington are in my interest or fit my political viewpoint, then all else is right with the world and everything is essentially OK.
Of course, it is not OK.
For decades there have been unmistakable signs that selfishness, greed, and personal attainment were undermining our ability to see beyond ourselves. More recently, Americans have been pitted against each other and even our own Jewish communities have become victim to the racism frequently stoked by the President and reinforced by statements and policies that send home the message that there is a quintessential authentic “American,” a notion that all Jews should dread. Meanwhile, nasty, uncivil discourse, deception, and outright lying have become the norm while education and the pursuit of knowledge and truth have been devalued.
We have gone from what some have argued was an extreme emphasis on political correctness to political and civil incorrectness, and we are now seeing our daily life changing in every way for the worse.
Our children and grandchildren are living in a period in which there are few if any role models willing to stand up for common decency and for the rights of others. Their futures are not only threatened by climate change and economic uncertainty, but also, most troubling, by the decline of the very social ethic that is at the heart of the Jewish prophetic tradition and American idealism.
Perhaps what I should have emphasized more in my earlier blog post is not the need for voices from without but for those from within. Waiting for the prophetic voice (or voices) of our times may be pointless, when we already know what that voice will say. Perhaps it is we baby boomers who need to summon up the idealism of our youth and seize the present moment when so many of our children are suddenly tuning in to prejudices and injustices that just do not seem to go away.
Now more than ever is the time to remind ourselves and them that what college they attend, how much money they make, and how much acclaim they achieve are all immaterial. What matters is that they know the meaning of menschlichkeit and strive to attain it in their own lives and in society at large.
At the same time, both the Torah and Graham Nash’s song imagine an intergenerational dialogue, not a one sided one. As Elie Wiesel points out in his 2011 essay entitled “The Children of Prophets: Intergenerational Transmission and the Ethics of Tradition,” the concept of teaching the next generation that appears later in Deuteronomy 6 (verse 20: When in time to come your children ask you, ‘What mean the decrees, laws, and rules that the Lord our God has enjoined upon you?’) is one that involves give and take in order to learn lessons that can be applied in new ways.
As Wiesel puts it, “By delving into the diversity of opinion that characterizes intergenerational dialogue, we challenge the deepest recesses of our intellect and activate our individuality, using the words and ideas of those who came before us to articulate opinions that are uniquely our own – which is precisely what the new generation demands.”
So, while we should continue to listen for the emergence of inspirational and brave “prophets” in our times, ultimately it is the individual and collective voices of all of us that need to be raised and be brought into conversation.
Rabbi Joachim Prinz, a leading rabbi from my native Newark who had been expelled from Berlin after criticizing the Nazi Regime from his pulpit, spoke immediately before the reverend Martin Luther King delivered his famous speech at the March on Washington in 1963. The words of Rabbi Prinz, a refugee who found safe harbor in our country in 1937, point to our mutual and personal obligation to voice our indignation and address injustice:
“In the realm of the spirit, our fathers taught us thousands of years ago that when God created man, he created him as everybody’s neighbor. Neighbor is not a geographic term. It is a moral concept. It means our collective responsibility for the preservation of man’s dignity and integrity.
“From our Jewish historic experience of three and a half thousand years, we say…
“…America must not become a nation of onlookers. America must not remain silent. Not merely black America, but all of America. It must speak up and act, from the President down to the humblest of us [my emphasis] … for the sake of the dream, the image, the idea and the aspiration of America itself.”
Elie Wiesel once spoke of the persecuted Jews of the Soviet Union as the Jews of Silence.
Those “refuseniks” wanted desperately to find and use the voices that were denied them to achieve their freedom. Knowing this, many of us American Jewish baby boomers raised our voices and fought in their behalf.
How ironic and tragic it would be if we who enjoy the right to speak become Jews of Silence?
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