Rabbi David Segal, Aspen Jewish Congregation
16 September 2012
Wheeler Opera House
Immigrants and Iconoclasts
“Get out of here” was, more or less, the first thing God said to Avram, as he sent him toward his destiny to become Avraham -- the first Jew, the father of our people and faith.
More precisely, God said:
Lech lecha, mei-artz’cha u-mimolad’t’cha u-mibeit avicha, el ha-aretz asher ar-echa /
“Go forth from your homeland, and from your birthplace, and from the house of your father to the land that I will show you.” (Gen 12:1)
The moment of our People’s conception began with a command to leave home, to leave behind the familiar, to become an emigrant. Abraham, we know, would lead a different life than his parents, in a foreign place, with different values and practices.
In the Torah, the transition between Abraham’s family tree and his call to go forth in the next chapter is jarringly abrupt. Our tradition, as it always does, found ways to fill in this gap, and to answer the burning question: Why did God choose Abraham? What made him special, worthy, ready?
To answer these questions, the rabbis produced one of the greatest midrashim of our tradition, found in the collection Bereishit Rabbah. It has become probably the most famous biblical story that isn’t in the Bible.
Abraham's father, Terach was an idol-manufacturer. Once he had to travel, so he left Abraham to manage the shop....
One time a woman came with a basket of bread. She said to Abraham, “Take this and offer it to the gods.”Abraham got up, took a hammer in his hand, broke all the idols to pieces, and then put the hammer in the hand of the biggest idol among them.
When his father came back and saw the broken idols, he was appalled. “Who did this?” he cried. “How can I hide anything from you?” replied Abraham calmly. “A woman came with a basket of bread and told me to offer it to them. I brought it in front of them, and each one said, ‘I'm going to eat first.’ Then the biggest one got up, took the hammer and broke all the others to pieces.”
“What are you trying to pull on me?” asked Terach, “Do they have minds?”Said Abraham: “Listen to what your own mouth is saying? They have no power at all! Why worship idols?”
~Bereishit Rabbah 38:13
Abraham the monotheistic hero! So our tradition has colored this midrash, that we read it as proof of Abraham’s vision to see through the emptiness and vanity of the evil of idolatry. Abraham was worthy of God’s call, therefore, because he rejected the sinful ways of his idol-worshiping parents and community.
I’d like to offer a different gloss on this midrash, another way of seeing Abraham’s merit, and then hold that up as a mirror to us as we look toward the next generation of Jewish life.
What if the problem in Abraham’s hometown wasn’t that people worshipped idols per se, but that their worship was stale and uninspiring, that it offered its adherents nothing transformative, nothing to comfort them when disturbed, or disturb them when comfortable.
What if Abraham wasn’t merely a zealous monotheist -- as our tradition paints him, one-dimensionally -- but rather a true iconoclast, ready to make room for a new spirit by toppling the idols of his father?
In true Jewish fashion, Abraham wasn’t simply about “out with the old, in with the new.” Even as he decimated his father’s inventory, he still managed to go into the family business, in a way, himself. In the Torah’s description of Avram and Sarai as they depart for Canaan, we find that they left “with all the people [or souls] they had acquired in Haran” (Gen 12:5). The peshat or surface meaning is simply that they traveled with a number of servants. But Rashi has a more interesting idea: These were the people, he says, whom Abraham and Sarah brought under the wings of the Shechinah, by converting them to Judaism! (Rashi on Gen 12:5.)
Abraham rejected the religion that his father was hawking, but he also went into the business of bringing religion to others. And isn’t that always how one generation treats the previous? We smash the idols of our fathers, and yet we realize that they may have been onto something.
So too in our family histories. We’re here because someone in our family tree heard a call like Abraham’s -- “get out of here!” -- and got out of wherever “there” was, becoming an immigrant and embarking toward “a land that I will show you.” For us in this room, in this community, that Promised Land meant the shores of the New World, America. Of course, Judaism would never be the same after putting down roots in the soil of American religious freedom. But the dream of those immigrants, the yearning in their hearts that pulled them past the Statue of Liberty, through Ellis Island, or whatever their port of entry, into a society whose language and customs made them feel, at first, uncomfortably Other -- their motivation was a vision, a hope, of making a better life for their children.
Here we are, several generations into the American Jewish experience, and experiment. Can there be any doubt about the success of our immigrant ancestors’ efforts to create a better life for us, their children? Can there be any doubt, as we sit here in the Wheeler Opera House, in the center of Aspen, CO, celebrating our Jewish holidays?
Yes, there’s still anti-Jewish bigotry, but it’s marginalized by the mainstream of Americans who no longer tolerate systemic anti-Semitism. And you don’t have to look too deeply into the communications of the American Jewish establishment to realize that, apparently, we think far less about those who hate Jews than we do about those who want to marry Jews! Intermarriage is more of a hot-button issue than anti-Semitism, and that speaks volumes to how far we’ve come. Jews in America are far more prosperous, secure, and comfortable than at any time or place in our history.
But, in that prosperity, we are haunted by the unintended consequences of achieving our immigrant ancestors’ dreams. Making a better life for our children, when so many of us come from such privilege, cannot be enough anymore. Or maybe we need to redefine, in Jewish terms, what a better life means now.
We still operate on the immigrant mission of achievement, success, and acculturation. Now those goals have become the stale idols of our age. Once these were the stuff of a noble vision held by refugees fleeing religious and economic oppression. Now, I fear, this once worthy mission of our people here has become an empty quest for success.
What our time calls for -- what we need to replace those idols with -- is striving for a life of purpose, principle, meaning, and impact.
To be sure, security and prosperity will be an element of this new vision, but they can no longer be ends in themselves.
To be sure, security and prosperity will be an element of this new vision, but they can no longer be ends in themselves.
We need to reform our Jewish mission statement -- we must commit to making lives holier, fuller,
more meaningful, more just. And, dare I say, more Jewish!
As Rabbi Peter Rubinstein and Cantor Angela Buchdahl of Central Synagogue in Manhattan
like to say, about Jewish life, “If it ain’t broke, break it.” There are many ways to break out of the outdated, while staying true to the essence of our tradition, and make Judaism relevant, engaging, and even necessary, in our time.
Here are a few that we, and others around the country, are trying.
1. Getting outside our shul walls.
Like Adventure Rabbi and the NextDor project of Synagogue 3000, we know that religious engagement will suffocate if it stays too tied to being inside a building. All the more so in our surroundings! Our Mountain Minyans bring skiers together for Shabbat on the slopes, as well as hikers and bikers in the summer. See also, of course, our 2nd annual 2nd-Day Rosh Hashanah at Maroon Bells Amphitheatre! You haven’t heard shofar ‘til you’ve heard it outside in the mountains. Later this fall, we’re throwing a Sukkot Festival at Rock Bottom Ranch, with apple pressing, warm cider, snacks, and games. Our community is already active outside. All we have to do is open the door to let Judaism out to meet you!
2. A commitment to inclusivity.
We have no barriers to membership. Financially, that results from our new Sustaining Membership program that allows everyone to pay what you can. (Thanks are due to Carol, Jordan, Lisa, and our Membership Committee for all their work on this.) We also openly embrace and welcome LGBT, multi-cultural, and interfaith families. Some of our most involved members are non-Jewish partners and parents. They support their children through B’nei Mitzvah, they play in our rock band, they bring their kids to tot shabbat, they join their Jewish partner when called to the Torah. There are more non-Jews living in Jewish homes than at any time in our history. The Jewish world is just beginning to make sense of that new reality. We like to think of it as an opportunity.
3. Life cycle and learning for life lessons.
Our Torah study, B’nei Mitzvah process, Hebrew School, and other educational opportunities are designed to make Judaism a relevant guide for wherever you find yourself in life. How many Jewish couples want a rabbi for their wedding, but don’t want the ceremony to be “too Jewish”? How many B’nei Mitzvah students roll their eyes in boredom because their parents make them go through it? How many Hebrew school kids whine about it, only to be told by their parents, “I hated it too, but you have to go just like I did”? We strive to show all of them -- all of you -- that the framework, stories, and rituals of Jewish tradition are not designed to burden or harass you. Their purpose is to enrich your life, to help calibrate your moral compass, to build a community around you whose presence you can count on in times of good and bad. (Thanks to Jessica, Cantor Rollin, Lee, and our Education Committee, we are doing this here.)
4. Building a better world.
Tikkun Olam is still a growing edge for us. (Thanks to Daryl Gelender for all your work
to kickstart us in this area.) Many Jewish organizations find that Jews connect to each other and to tradition powerfully through volunteering and advocacy. There’s been talk here about a community garden, the produce of which we could donate to local needs. In December I’m taking a group of high school students to DC to learn about how our government works, and how to speak truth to power as a Jew. They’ll each get to present an issue they care about to their congresspeople and senators as the culmination of the weekend retreat. Remember, too, not all our people, Jews or Americans, enjoy the same prosperity and security with which so many of us have been blessed. We bear a responsibility to help those who struggle by contributing our time, money, and care to make positive change in America and the world. It’s yet another way to reclaim our legacy.
There are surely other ways I haven’t named, haven’t even imagined yet! The point is, if we fail to use the rich array of Jewish spiritual and moral tools at our disposal, in new and creative ways, we will find Judaism to be as cold and lifeless as a statue in an idol shop.
* * *
Perhaps we are not destined to emigrate -- at least not geographically. But like birds facing a coming winter, we must migrate in our Jewish engagement, to weather the winds of change.
Underlying all the approaches I mentioned is a fundamental paradigm shift: from Jews as customers of synagogues, to Jews as citizen-owners of a sacred community. It’s not easy to shift culture. It requires an investment in people and relationships, and an understanding that programs must come second. So as one of my resolutions for 5773, I am committing to having 50 one-on-one conversations with you, our community, by Passover -- to get to know you and your Jewish journey, to learn about your interests and passions, to build a stronger web of sacred connections. I will also be recruiting other leaders to commit to their own goals of one-on-one relationship building, to broaden and strengthen our community. Some of you are out there already -- here I am, being publicly accountable to you in setting these goals.
I believe with all my soul that we can do, and are doing, great things in this valley. We can make our ancestors proud, and be worthy as their heirs.
I believe we can even make inroads into the 60+% of American Jews who are labelled, somewhat ominously, as “unaffiliated.” They can be the Abrahams of our day, too -- they look at the idols of organized Jewish life and find nothing engaging or inspiring -- if they look at all. Mostly they just walk away, not even caring enough to smash those idols.
My charge to you as this New Year begins is: please, smash our idols, with zeal!
Help us sweep away the stale and staid and outdated, and make room for a fresh, vibrant Judaism, still steeped in tradition, but primed for the next generation. Help us tear down our institutions, so we can rebuild them together, better -- more inspiring, more transformative, more visionary.
And then, like Abraham, don’t stop at smashing idols: Set out for somewhere new. Be a pioneer to a new frontier of Jewish exploration. A leader for and with your fellow Jews to territories not yet known.
Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, one of our greatest modern Jewish leaders, wrote:
“To have faith does not mean...to dwell in the shadow of old ideas conceived by prophets and sages, to live off an inherited estate of doctrines and dogmas. In the realm of the spirit only he who is a pioneer is able to be an heir. The wages of spiritual plagiarism is the loss of integrity.... Authentic faith is more than an echo of a tradition. It is a creative situation, an event.
~Abraham Joshua Heschel, Man is Not Alone, 164-65
I repeat: “In the realm of the spirit only he who is a pioneer is able to be an heir.”
That, precisely, is the legacy of Abraham. Our legacy. Questioning our inherited wisdom is precisely how one merits inheriting it. We show ourselves worthy of our forebears by doing things differently than they did -- just as they did things differently in their day.
Are you ready to accept the challenge of caring enough about your Judaism to get your idol-smashing hammer out of storage, dust off the cobwebs, and get to work? Are you ready to be the heir to a tradition of change, an old-new faith that manages to be reborn l’dor vador, from generation to generation?
Out of the ruins of those idols, are you ready to build something new founded on a transcendent vision, a holy purpose worthy of a kingdom of priests?
Are you ready to go?
Then, lech lecha, let us all go forth, to a year of idol-shattering, of immigrating, and of the pioneering spirit that has sustained our People during all our many wanderings.