Keynote address delivered at the
64th UAHC Biennial Convention
October 31, 1997
It is a very special privilege to share this platform with Shimon Peres, whose contributions to the Jewish state even before Oslo were so momentous and whose pioneering work in clearing the road to peace has been—and, God willing, will continue to be—of transcendent importance. Though the completion of that road remains our most urgent concern, my assignment this morning calls for a shift in geography and focus. I've been asked to explore with you the winding road to social justice, on which this movement, the Reform Jewish movement, has chosen since its inception to walk and, more specifically, to examine the reasons why, despite all the challenges and all the disappointments with which that road is littered, the pursuit of justice remains so central, so essential, to us.
Why justice? Surely there's no need for me to begin with a recitation of the endless list of cruelties and miseries, of human pains and human sorrows, from land mines in Afghanistan to oppression in Tibet, from terrorism in the Middle East to poverty in these United States, and so on, ad very nearly infinitum. No matter how insulated we ourselves may have become, we are altogether too sophisticated and it is too late in the day for us to require yet another rendition of the heartbreaking details of cruelty and indifference and of the pain that is their consequence. Let us instead simply stipulate the assertion that too many of God's children remain left out and locked out. And if detail is required, let us rest the argument with one entirely unsentimental statistic: In the United States of America, nearing the dawn of a new millennium, 24 percent of all children under the age of six live in poverty. One out of every four.
We may not always know the precisely relevant statistics, but as every generation of Jews, including our own, has known, this world, our world, is badly fractured, and every generation of Jews, including our own, has understood that the heart of the Jewish enterprise is the repair of its fractures.
Yet in every generation, there have also been those who have questioned the propriety of that historic commitment, who have insisted that "as Jews" we have other priorities and other interests, that if it is justice we feel disposed to pursue, there is nothing distinctively Jewish about that pursuit and, therefore, it ought to be conducted under other banners.
And it follows that in every generation, including our own, it is necessary once again, and more than once, to make the case for a specifically Jewish devotion to the mending of our fractured planet.
So, Why the Jews? My preferred way of responding is by telling Jewish stories, stories of where we have been and what we have done, stories that reach back to our earliest beginnings and stretch all the way to our own time. All those stories, from Abraham's dazzling challenge to God to our own more modest interventions on behalf of social justice, are part of the Torah we need to be studying. What they show is that the thread of social justice is intricately woven into the fabric of Jewish history's multicolored cloak, that it extends from the most ancient "then" to the ever-urgent "now," and that none can plausibly challenge its rich authenticity. It is not the only thread—but seek to pull it out and cast it aside, and the fabric of our history unravels.
Alas, our time this morning is too short to allow the leisurely telling of instructive and inspiring stories. Instead, I am bound to speak directly and explicitly to the question of Jewish interests, to the question of why a community so justifiably preoccupied as is our community with pressing internal problems, with recurrent threats to its body and constant threats to its soul, should raise its eyes from the urgent work of defending its own interests to the larger challenge of repairing the world.
And the answer to that question, directly and explicitly, is this: The Jewish community has no more urgent interest than the energetic pursuit of its values. Our values are not merely grace notes to our lives; they are our purpose, they are our announcement of who we are and what we are about. And that is exactly why our energetic pursuit of them is in our urgent interest, now more than ever. For the central American Jewish problem of our time is not anti-Semitism, nor is it intermarriage specifically or assimilation more generally. It is the problem of boredom, the fact that for very many American Jews, the experience of being Jewish does not seem to be about anything—not, at any rate, about anything that matters very much. Many Jews are simply unable to fill in the blank in the sentence that begins with the words "It is important that the Jews survive in order to ...." In order to what? In order to survive? Lots of luck: Send out an invitation to the young that reads "Please come survive with us," and see how many RSVP.
We need no focus groups or questionnaires, much less gimmicks and slogans, to fill in the blank. We need only turn to the chronicles of our people, to which of life's many roads it has most often chosen to walk and which grand visions have most consistently inspired it. I can think of no single statement to which more Jews through the centuries and even today would subscribe, no sentence that more accurately and comprehensively captures the most fundamental Jewish insight, than that this, our world, God's world, is not working the way it was meant to—and that to be a Jew is to know that, somehow, you are implicated in its repair.
Accordingly, the completed sentence reads, "It is important that the Jews survive in order to help repair this oh-so-fractured world."
But if that sentence expresses the value we hold most dear, then our overriding interest is to ensure its correspondence to our behavior. For if we persist, as we do, in presenting ourselves as a community of grace and distinction, as a people with considerable ethical achievement behind it and considerable ethical ambition before it, as a people of rodfei tzedek, our young will want and deserve the evidence to support our presentation. There must be truth in Jewish self-advertising. Otherwise, it is not merely a conceit; it is an indicting reminder of the gap between what we accomplished yesterday and what impels us here, now.
Here, now, there are worthy battles to fight. There is mending to be done, healing, fixing, repairing. That is the Jewish calling, our historic vocation. And the education we offer our young—and, I am pleased to say, increasingly our adults, too—is, therefore, a kind of vocational education.
Like all vocational education, its purpose is to develop competence—in this case, Judaic competence. What does it mean to be "competent" as a Jew? Though literacy is an essential element of the definition, Judaic competence cannot and must not be defined exclusively in terms of mastery of texts or of rituals. Jewish knowledge is a tool; to have the tool is not yet to use it. The Torah was given to us not only to study but also to do. Judaism is not only our passive birthright; it is our active conviction, and to be a competent Jew means to act on the Jewish conviction.
These days, there appears to be some confusion about that in our movement. The confusion, it seems to me, is based on a profound misunderstanding of the nature of Judaism and of the implications of the call we now hear so urgently repeated and so appropriately, the call for this movement to engage seriously, enthusiastically, in Torah study.
There are those who purport to hear in that call an invitation to resign from the work of the world, to retreat to the beit midrash. And little wonder. In a world so chaotic as ours, it is tempting to view religion as a much-needed oasis, a place to escape to from daily stress. Come to the serenity of the sanctuary, contemplate there the enduring questions of life and its meaning, refresh the spirit, experience awe and wonder, immerse yourself in ancient texts and age-old rituals, become a holy people.
But all that, appealing as it sounds and often is, is not Judaism. The rich religious culture that we have been bequeathed and that we are privileged to bequeath to our children and they to theirs is not a contemplative culture. There is study, to be sure, and there is ritual, and there is prayer; there is solace, and there is wonder. All these matter; they matter profoundly. But in the end, it is not the services we attend that will sustain us; it is the services we perform. For us, Shabbat was never meant as a stopping place; it was meant as a resting place, a place to regather our energies to take up again, and forever, God's work in this world.
And what is that work? Do we not know? Have we not been told? It is the work of clothing the naked and feeding the hungry, of embracing the stranger and freeing the captive and smashing the idols; it is, in short, the work of justice. That is the Torah that we are instructed to do. That is the Torah that drives us.
A competent Jew is necessarily a driven Jew. Until quite recently, we saw ourselves as driven by the slave master's whip, by the tales of our endless persecution—driven, as it were, by a nightmare. But to study Torah is to learn that the Jewish story is not as simple as that, that it is not our disasters that have sustained us. Ours is the story of an ever-restless people, a people always, always on the move, not only to a promised land but also to a promised time, the time of a world made whole. To be a Jew is to remember not only what has been but what can yet be. To be a Jew is to remember tomorrow. And, therefore, what drives us as we make our way through the desert we are still crossing is not the nightmare but the dream.
Others, of other faiths and none, share our dream, and I am happy for that; the world's fractures are compound, and the work of mending requires a grand alliance. But I permit myself to believe that we hold a special place in the ranks of the menders. We are unique in that we have known slavery and freedom, election and rejection, exile and redemption; we have been both victor and vanquished, impotent and powerful, strangers and natives. And because of all that, our testimony on behalf of a world of dignity and decency has singular weight. For this is what we testify: Though we hear still the hiss of the slave master's whip and of the canisters of Zyklon-B as the gas is released, God comes to us, and we to God, not in the wind and not in the earthquake and not in the fire, but in the still, small voice that echoes through time, asking us "Where are you?" and then, just a handful of verses later, "Where is your brother?"
The vocational education of the Jewish people comes to help us answer those questions responsibly. It is meant to teach us that to the question "Where are you?" the one correct answer is, "Here I am; hineini." Over the many centuries, we have developed a rich curriculum for that education—a curriculum that includes our holidays, our literature, and our reading of our people's sacred texts. And the great contribution of Reform Judaism has been its understanding that it is every generation's privilege and obligation to review and revise the Jewish curriculum—not the ultimate and unchanging aims of a Jewish education but our pedagogic strategies.
Sometimes our revisions have gone too far. So bent were we on singing a new song unto God that we abandoned compelling melodies of old, including our language itself. We see that now, and we set about to recapture some of what was once thought obsolete. But as we ponder our ongoing revisions, be they pointed toward tradition or toward innovation—both, quite obviously, are necessary—we would do well to resist the temptation to overcorrect for yesterday's imbalance and to bear in mind the purpose of the Jewish curriculum. The literacy we seek is meant to enable the life to which we aspire.
It follows that our people, and especially our young people, need to learn not only what can be learned in the classroom or in the sanctuary, though surely they need to learn all of that; they need to learn as well what can only be learned from personal involvement in a community that is both nurturing and daring, that is both joyful and infinitely serious, a community that sponsors both study groups and soup kitchens.
I want to offer two brief illustrations of what I mean when I speak of "a community that is both nurturing and daring."
A community that announces its devotion to justice but fails within its own precincts to practice the mentshlichkeit it so ardently advocates in the public square will not endure. Its sterility will defeat it. Can we not finally take just one central mitzvah from our tradition—say, for example, the mitzvah of bikkur cholim, of visiting the sick—and do movement-wide what some of our congregations have done, namely, make of that mitzvah a calling card of our congregations, a card of our calling? I do not mean just routine visits to our friends and neighbors who are ill. I mean endeavoring to see to it that we are there for every family that experiences the dislocation of serious illness. I mean making room in our congregations for programs for health and healing. We call ourselves rachmanim b'nei rachmanim, the compassionate children of compassionate parents. Assuredly, we want also to be the compassionate parents of compassionate children—compassionate children who, having grown up in a congregation where the pain of those with whom we pray is part of our ongoing and skilled concern, will surely understand that the house of worship can also be a home, their home.
A second example: Fifteen months ago, the president of the United States proposed that we ensure that every child knows how to read by the end of the third grade. That program, on which Congress will very soon be voting, depends on the mobilization of one million volunteer tutors throughout the country. Some of you already know that our community, the Jewish community, was the first to respond to that challenge, pledging to mobilize one hundred thousand literacy volunteers over the course of the next five years. And the Union of American Hebrew Congregations was the first Jewish organization to endorse the program and pledge its full participation in the national Jewish Coalition for Literacy. In fact, once word of the program began to circulate, we received dozens of calls from people around the country, asking how and where they could become involved.
The work of the Coalition is in its early stages now. This year, ten cities will be involved; next year, twenty-five more. Soon enough, all of us all over the country will be asked to lend a hand. I hope and pray that our response will be: "Here we are, a community that knows in its bones the value of education, a community that has a virtual surplus of literacy; here we are, send us." And I fully expect that our movement and its members will be the sturdy backbone of that response.
The work of justice, which is the work of mending, assumes many forms. Caring for the sick is part of it, and so is teaching the young. Quite often, it leads us to the halls of government, there to press for policies and programs that promote equity and decency and honesty, that proclaim liberty throughout the land to all the inhabitants thereof. Our advocacy agenda is different in style from our agenda as a caring community but no different in its underlying concern. Those who become engaged in bikkur cholimwithin the congregation are allies of those who labor in the political arena to reform a health care system that leaves forty-two million Americans with no health insurance. Those who spend an hour or two a week tutoring young children are confederates of those who find it unacceptable that our nation's schools are crumbling and that our nation's teachers are so radically undervalued.
There's advocacy, and there's direct service, and there are deeds of loving-kindness. There is no shortage of work to be done, and, as we are taught, the day is short. It is tempting in the extreme to evade the hineinithat is expected of us. But for myself, I say to you that when the spirit flags, when I am tempted to ask "Why the Jews?" "Why this movement?" "Why me?" the answer leaps out of the pages of our history. Try to imagine these last hundred years of pursuing justice in America without the Jews, as if none of us had ever come to this country, and you'd have to write a very different, a much diminished history of our country and its efforts to redeem its promise. Try to imagine the Jews ungraced by a devotion, bordering on obsession, to social justice, and our heroic saga becomes a farce, our past and our future are betrayed. And try to imagine the Jewish devotion to social justice without this movement at its helm, a movement for whom the pursuit of justice is a way of life, a movement that systematically inducts its young into that pursuit, a movement that day after day, time after time, leads America's Jews in their common quest. Subtract this Union from the pursuit, and the pursuit falters. It is as simple as that.
And if the effort should falter, what then happens to the downtrodden? And what then happens to us?
So though the work be endless and the day be short, we persist. We persist because mending the world is the authentic Jewish calling. We persist because those among us who have taken up the work of mending know that there is no greater joy, no deeper satisfaction, not for this people, not for this movement, than the doing of that work. We persist because we know that though it is not incumbent upon us to complete the work, it is not right, it is not wise, and in the end we simply are not free to desist from it. We persist because 24 percent of the children under the age of six in these United States live in poverty, and a proud and compassionate people of rodfei tzedek will not make peace with that.