We are the most powerful country in history. But we have been humbled by a microscopic virus.
We are the most vibrant Jewish Diaspora in history. But we have rendered ourselves impotent by ignoring the call for higher purpose.
If this past year goes down in infamy, it may be because we fell victim to our own success – and failed in ways that we never imagined possible, both as Americans and as Jews.
America’s spirit of individualism became the petard upon which we hoisted ourselves at the expense of public health and the common good. My right not to wear a mask trumped your right to live free from exposure to a deadly virus. My right to gather in large groups trumped our collective right to contain a pandemic and prevent community spread.
The Jewish community’s spirit of collective responsibility allowed rudderless institutions to crowd out the grassroots ideas and the leadership that we needed during the pandemic. Our Diaspora lionized larger-than-life Jewish professionals doing, rather than empowering lay people to try new approaches altogether.
We need a new way – which inspires individuals to care about the collective good and organizations to care about the individuals they serve. American individualism has run its course, as has Jewish institutionalism. 5781 can be the year in which we break the bonds that we have created for ourselves and rebuild the social ties fundamental to a just society.
In 1987, one of the great minds of our people, Rabbi Dr. Irving Greenberg, published a series of articles about “The Third Great Cycle of Jewish History.” He suggested that the dialectic of powerlessness and power wrought by the Holocaust, followed so quickly by the founding of the State of Israel, would push American Jews into a new historical era altogether. It would be defined by new organizations driven by lay leaders – and the chance to move closer to self-actualization as a community. He reflected:
The unfolding new era is characterized by a change in condition, from powerlessness to power; a change in the theological and religious paradigm, toward greater secularity and divine hiddenness; and the rise of new institutions. Therefore, these forces are generating a change in the type of leadership the Jewish people requires…. The laypeople are emerging as the dominant group of the third era.[i]
Greenberg envisioned a pluralistic, deistic, lay-empowered Judaism. He was right – but also several decades ahead of his time.
Since the publication of his essays, we have seen the retrenchment of legacy institutions. Seminaries. Denominations. Federations. Even many synagogues. These organizations have long been the lifeblood of the American Diaspora, coming into existence as a collective declaration that we would survive and integrate. But they failed to articulate a purpose beyond themselves or adapt to the reality that we had succeeded beyond our wildest dreams as a community of immigrants. All the while, they crowded out innovation and sapped valuable resources.
Over the past decades Jews have voted with their feet, gradually leaving institutions behind, but bearing with them the damaging notion that it was either those Jewish institutions or nothing at all. As of 2013, a meager 31% of Jewish adults said that at least one member of their household was affiliated with a synagogue.[ii]
Rather empowering the people they sought to serve, many Jewish organizations articulated the belief that they must survive at all costs. Their logic went that if they as organizations failed, the American Diaspora would fail – and that if the American Diaspora would fail, Israel would fail, and the Jewish people would cease to exist. They professionalized away Jewish life, taking important roles away from laypeople and petrifying the sense of purpose that made the Jewish community so worthwhile in the first place.
This year will prove to be one of radical change and loss for legacy institutions, as the pandemic and resultant financial crisis accelerate the speed of their decline. One in five American houses of worship is likely to close its doors for good in the next twelve to eighteen months – and synagogues are likely to follow that trend.[iii] Some say that as many as one in four New York area synagogues will merge or close in that same timeframe.
What a painful marker of change for our community. But we need not approach it with despondency alone. Through the loss of ossified organizations, we might create space to begin realizing the prophetic vision of an empowered people, which consecrated itself through covenant.
The entire arc of our history as a people has been about the devolution of spiritual power from a supreme prophet to a caste of priests to a cadre of rabbis – and now, in this new epoch, to all of us in increasingly equal measure.
Each year, we read of God’s promise to the Israelites who were assembled at the foot of Mount Sinai:
וְאַתֶּ֧ם תִּהְיוּ־לִ֛י מַמְלֶ֥כֶת כֹּהֲנִ֖ים וְג֣וֹי קָד֑וֹשׁ אֵ֚לֶּה הַדְּבָרִ֔ים אֲשֶׁ֥ר תְּדַבֵּ֖ר אֶל־בְּנֵ֥י יִשְׂרָאֵֽל׃
“You will be to Me a kingdom of priests and a holy people….”[iv]
This section of Exodus comes from Parshat Yitro, the Torah portion about Moses’ father-in-law Jethro. Jethro gives Moses a master class in delegating power to more people and empowering them to make ethical decisions and co-create their future as a liberated people.
Moses does not simply heed his father-in-law out of respect, but deeply internalizes the message. In a moment of internal strife, which we read about in Numbers 11, God bestows prophecy upon seventy elders who are gathered to share in the responsibility of conveying Divine wisdom to the people. Somehow, two additional people, Eldad and Medad, began speaking as though prophets, as well.
Moses’ successor calls on him to restrain Eldad and Medad from acting as prophets without the formal designation. But Moses retorted:
וַיֹּ֤אמֶר לוֹ֙ מֹשֶׁ֔ה הַֽמְקַנֵּ֥א אַתָּ֖ה לִ֑י וּמִ֨י יִתֵּ֜ן כָּל־עַ֤ם יְהוָה֙ נְבִיאִ֔ים כִּי־יִתֵּ֧ן יְהוָ֛ה אֶת־רוּח֖וֹ עֲלֵיהֶֽם׃
Are you wrought up on my account? I wish that all of God’s people were prophets and that God placed the divine spirit within each one.[v]
Moses had the humility to recognize that his role as the leading prophet was one of too much weight and power – one that kept others from experiencing the Divine for themselves. In sacred partnership with God, he disbursed his power more widely – and wished that one day even more people could share in it.
Perhaps that day has finally come. Today, spiritual power comes not from Divine designation, our lineage, or the fancy titles we acquire with effort. Spiritual power comes from the Torah learning that we do, the ritual practices we take on, the leadership roles to which we aspire, and the way we treat our fellow human beings. The essence of leadership is not the exercise of power, but the articulation of Jewish purpose in compelling ways that we can live out together. It resides not in prophets, priests, or rabbis, but in all of you.
If there is one thing that the Covid-19 pandemic proved for our community, it is the strength and outright brilliance of East End Temple’s lay leadership. Institutions adapted sluggishly to the reality of being together while apart. You did not. Rabbis abortively attempted to use new technology. You did not. Institutions reached out impersonally. You reached out to people you knew through a vital web of relationships that you had created.
Within a week of the March 13th shutdown in New York, you populated our community calendar with book talks, cooking lessons, virtual Shabbat lunches, and social gatherings at a distance. You pioneered volunteer programs that took into account our physical safety, and you curated one of the world’s largest virtual Passover Seders. You created virtual trivia nights, minyanim, and racial justice book clubs. You stepped up, and we continue to thrive in this hybrid space of in-person and online gatherings because of your tireless efforts. You are rising to create the Jewish future.
It is high time that Jewish professionals and the lumbering institutional mainstays caught up with you. I could envision no greater professional purpose than in working with you towards my own obsolescence over the course of my career. Like the firefighters or prosecutors who want to live into a society in which there is no work for them, Jewish professionals should stop acting like a special interest group and start acting like counselors, boosters, and support staff for the lay leaders.
There is so much for us to do together this year, and as much as I am filled with trepidation, I am also filled with hope because of each one of you.
Within this new, empowered approach to Jewish life also resides the prospects for an empowered approach to civic life. The Jewish people were among the first to create a social contract, which they called a covenant. Conversion to Judaism means joining our social contract to care about fellow Jews, continually improve our own patterns of behavior, learn ancient wisdom, and grapple with Divine uncertainty.
As has become evident, it is not merely the Jewish people who need to renew their social contract, but the American people, as well. In fact, the word for the United States in modern Hebrew, Artzot HaBrit, is the “lands of covenant” – the lands unified in purpose.
Individual freedom at all costs has cost us dearly this year. Concentrations of unchecked autonomy have led to a kind of anarchy – of the sort we saw in packed parties, airplanes, and swimming pools in the middle of the pandemic. If we are to remain a society marked by freedom, we need an ethos of collective responsibility and a stated purpose that binds us together.
It means more than donating generously, voting regularly, and sharing ideas on social media. It means learning deeply and stepping into roles of public influence. It means registering others to vote, advocating for the candidates you care about, or becoming a candidate yourself. It means rallying remotely and pushing for fair elections that can be held in-person, as well as through a functioning postal system. It means demanding to know where your tax money goes – and pushing for change accordingly in the organizations it funds. It means exercising your autonomy for the greater good, not selfish frivolity.
This has been a year that has laid bare the systemic and long-term failures of our government and religious community. It has been painful to watch and worse still to experience firsthand. But the answer to both quandaries is right here, right now. It is you.
After we mourn our losses, may we reclaim our purpose and power as citizens and Jews. May we renew our vision for spiritual and national life, working tirelessly as individuals united by a purpose that we articulate together.