Rabbi Tom’s Message: Finding our Lech Lecha Moment

Rabbi Tom Samuels

The traditional American synagogue model is showing signs of age. Over the past two decades, membership has declined across the United States, forcing many synagogues to merge or to close. And yet, most research shows that American Jews are desperately seeking community, spirituality, meaning, and purpose in their lives.

The traditional American synagogue model is showing signs of age. Over the past two decades, membership has declined across the United States, forcing many synagogues to merge or to close. And yet, most research shows that American Jews are desperately seeking community, spirituality, meaning, and purpose in their lives.

How can we reconcile this contradiction? If, as the research concludes, Jews are indeed seeking both spirituality and transcendence … if they feel that they cannot lead a meaningful life without this … then why are they not joining synagogues whose core mission has been to provide these very same ideals of community, spirituality, meaning, and purpose?

What I believe we are in fact witnessing is not a social cognitive dissonance, but rather a paradigm shift from an “institutional” to a “personal” understanding of spirituality. In other words, Jews, and in particular, young Jews, are not finding what they are looking for in the existing buildings and institutions that have defined Jewish life for generations of American Jews. They are looking for and finding it elsewhere. And in an increasingly secular America, all sorts of activities and subcultures provide the meaning that in the past religious communities provided. (Casper ter Kuile and Angie Thurstonand’s 2018 Harvard Divinity School Study, “How We Gather”)

My message is, first and foremost, do not fret! We, as a people, have been down this path many times before. We are not the first generation of Jews, nor will we be the last, to contend with meshing tradition and modernity, the old with the new, the past with the present. In fact, transitions, radical change, an ethos of iconoclasm, is at the very core of the Jewish experience and of our peoplehood. (Douglas Ruskoff’s 2004 book, Nothing Sacred: The Truth About Judaism)

In the Torah portion Lech Lecha, near the beginning of the Book of Genesis, Abraham hears a call:

וַיֹּאמֶר יְהוָה אֶל-אַבְרָם, לֶךְ-לְךָ מֵאַרְצְךָ וּמִמּוֹלַדְתְּךָ וּמִבֵּית אָבִיךָ אֶל-הָאָרֶץ, אֲשֶׁר אַרְאֶךָּ. “Go to yourself, leave your land, your father’s house, and go to a land that I will show you … and you will be a source of blessing.” 

The language used here is, at first glance, odd and inconsistent with the biblical text’s style up to this point. Abraham is literally told to “go into himself,” rather than to “go out there,” – beyond the familiar, away from your family, and towards somewhere out “there.” The indeterminacy of the journey. (Rabbi Irwin Kula’s 2007 book, Yearnings: Embracing the Sacred Messiness of Life)

The great medieval Rabbi and philosopher, Maimonides, suggests that Abraham wandered from place to place until he finally discovered “his” place. Abraham leaves for the desert – a harbinger for the path of the people that will come from him, whose journey from the known to the untamed, unpredictable wilderness is where he and they both encounter God.

The Hebrew word for wilderness is מִדְבָּר, Midbar, from the root .ד.ב.ר, or d-b-r, to speak. The connection between the wilderness and speech, Divine speech, is thus made: When we leave the comfortable, the familiar, when we head into the elemental terrain of the wilderness, we can encounter the voice of God, the Divine within. This is more than geographic or external. This is deeply soul-engaging and experiential. That locale where the Shechina, the Divine Presence, dwells. The “go into” with which God summons Abraham. (Rabbi Danny Gordis’ 1997 book, God Was Not in the Fire: A Search for a Spiritual Judaism)

In truth, Abraham’s final destination isn’t really all that relevant. It is the act of leave-taking itself – that painful, terrifying moment when Abraham leaves behind the known and the predictable for nothing more than a promise.

The Torah of our time is straining in a world where identity and affiliation are voluntary expressions shaped by choice rather than heritage. Communal boundaries are increasingly porous in our flat, networked society defined by access and collaboration, in which religious hierarchies make less and less sense. Individuals personally curate their own Jewish lives, drawing from an array of cultural, intellectual, social, political, ethnic, spiritual, sexual, and gender affiliations within and beyond the Jewish community. Diverse sources of authority and inspiration abound, shaping multifaceted, multi-vocal Jewish expressions in the global conversation about meaning, connection, and faith. (Rabbi Jay Michaelson’s 2007 Forward article, “DIY Judaism”)

Many shudder at the thought of “shattering” any part of the Torah, or at least, the traditions that they are used to, in which they seek comfort.

But we must remember the biblical story of Moses breaking the Torah at the sight of the Israelites worshiping the Golden Calf. At the end of this story, after Moses re-ascends Mount Sinai and brings down with him a second set of Torah tablets, the Torah tells us that the shards of the tablets Moses broke were kept in the Holy Ark, right beside the new, intact ones.

Among those shards lie such historic decisions as embracing matrilineal descent, banning polygamy, and requiring a wife’s consent to divorce, as well as more recent “fractures” of tradition initiated for the sake of Jewish peoplehood, like allowing converts to marry Kohanim, seminaries to ordain women, communities to enfranchise LGBTQ Jews, and Jewish cemeteries to bury non-Jewish spouses. (Rabbi Jay Michaelson’s 2004 Forward article, “The Myth of Jewish Authenticity”)

The disassembling and reassembling of Torah in every generation is part of the sacred narrative and destiny of the Jewish people. It’s the source of our continuity, not our dissolution.

The irony is that this is and has always been at the heart of the Jewish Way. It is where we come together, determined to support each other, challenge each other, argue with each other, and compromise for each other. We come together and create a Visionary Community with a Sacred Purpose that infuses all aspects of our lives. (Professor Steve Cohen’s 2010 study, “Sacred Strategies: Transforming Synagogues from Functional to Visionary”)

This is the Judaism that Jews crave and that we all desire. This is a Judaism that engages, integrates, and inspires the whole person. It is the world we inhabit and the world we would like to build.

Our Torah is called the Book of Life, Sefer Ha’Chayim. Judaism is something with which you get intimately involved. It is a relationship, a meeting place. It is where we meet Holiness in our everyday lives. It remains so, once and if we are ready to be serious about Judaism.

With this theology and this history in mind, what are we prepared to dismantle and reconfigure to help more Jews feel at home in Judaism and the Jewish community? To motivate young Jews to stay and to contribute to a shared vision of the future?How will each of us leave the familiarity of our “homes”?Challenge our complacency? Stretch our comfort levels, and thereby find, unravel the Nistar, that hidden strength to dive into the re-patternings, the realignments from which can arise new beginnings, creativity, self-actualization, towards God?

What is our generation’s Lech Lecha moment going to look like?

I leave us all with more questions than answers. After all, this is the Jewish Way.

B’Shalom,

Rabbi Tom, MCJC

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