B’reshit barah elohim et hashamayim v’et haretz
In the beginning G-d created the heaven and the earth.
So begins the Torah. The story of creation offers many important considerations, including its relevance to us at this moment. It suggests that G-d’s creation was flawless and without mistakes. Over the centuries, however, many of our greatest scholars have returned to this single word. While the traditional translation of B’reshit is “in the beginning,” others have suggested that we should change the translation to “in a beginning” to better reflect the Hebrew pronunciation. This change from “the” to “a” removes the exclusivity that we were the first beginning and raises the possibility that there were other attempts at creation before us. What would it mean if we were not the first?
A few verses further, we read “and G-d saw the light, that it was good.” G-d could have created the Earth in a single moment but chose, instead, to move in phases. After each step, G-d makes an assessment to ensure the result was good. What would the next sentence have been if G-d was not satisfied?
In fact, there are many biblical stories where G-d is not satisfied. Adam and Eve ate the forbidden fruit and G-d intervened. In a world devoid of righteousness, G-d caused a flood killing all life except Noah’s family and the animals they saved. Sodom and Gomorrah were full of sinners and were destroyed, sparing only the righteous Lot and his family. Throughout the Torah, G-d frequently intervened. These are just a few dramatic examples of G-d making an assessment that a situation was not up to a high enough standard and that a change was necessary. As I read parshiot B’reshit and Noach the past few weeks and look ahead to Vayera this Shabbat, it made me reflect on the discussion we have been having about the “Call to Action.” Since my initial post 20 days ago, I have had many discussions with my peers.
We want to be not only children – banim – but also builders – bonim. We want to participate with you in the building of a vision of a great Jewish community. We went to Hebrew school and occasionally synagogue, but found them dull. There were fewer exciting models for us in the Jewish community, little opportunity to give expression to our youthful ideals. In contrast, the larger world was exciting, a labyrinth of mystery and challenge. Perhaps it was a sign of our health that we were not attracted to a Jewish life devoid of intellectual and spiritual energy.
A vague sense of Jewishness can no longer compete in an open market of identities for Jews three or four generations removed from substantive Jewish experience. We know the historical generative powers of Jewish education and its stimulation of a meaningful Jewish life. We want to build a Jewish community that is creative and not one that must concern itself with mere survival. I know that it is easy to criticize and hard to create. I realize that each suggestion involves countless intricacies of which has made the community stagnant.
Ironically, neither of the past two paragraphs were my own. Instead, they are the words of Hillel Levine when he addressed the General Assembly of the Council of Jewish Federations and Welfare Funds in November, 1969. Levine was not invited to speak, but was given the podium after his friends and colleagues held a sit-in, disrupting the conference and demanded that he be heard. He was faced with a community focused on the same pessimistic, crisis generating calls as today. Take the infamous 1964 article “The Vanishing American Jew” which identified a loss of Jewish identity, interfaith marriage, and low birthrates as challenges facing the community. Those issues align nearly perfectly with the challenges identified by the original cosigners.
Jonathan Sarna in his book American Judaism: A History says that during this period baby boomers “channeled their feelings of rebelliousness, assertiveness, and alienation into domestic programs aimed at transforming and strengthening American Jewish life” (318). He later notes that “talk of a ‘Jewish revival,’ a ‘reawakening of American Jewish life,’ and a ‘revitalization of Jewish tradition’ began in the 1970s across the spectrum of American Judaism” (323). In his class, Sarna regularly reminds his students that to understand the future we must understand our past because it will repeat. I referenced what Hillel Levine said because I believe that his beliefs and comments remain true and align closely with the current discussion 46 years later. History is repeating itself and the community must again be adapted.
In reviewing responses to the “Call to Action,” 13 of the 20 commentators expressed a desire to focus on “the value proposition we see in Jewish life.” These authors focused on ideas such as the soul, mind, meaning, purpose, inspiration, commitment, community, in addition to explaining “what is Judaism and why does it matter?” Six clearly mentioned the need to be a more welcoming community to include those with disabilities, those in interfaith, inter-racial, or single-parent families, as well as all “non-traditional” families. Four respondents did not see a sense of crisis of survival as the most efficient or effective way to advance the Jewish community. Authors also touched on less frequent topics. The responses so far represent a variety of generations but about two thirds are northeast based and they are nearly entirely authored by men. We still have more voices and perspectives that should be heard.
As the response from the Lippman Kanfer Foundation for Living Torah so nicely put it, “the initiators and signers of the Statement on Jewish Vitality have achieved one of their objectives: re-opening a robust discussion about the condition of American Jewish life today and what strategic responses that condition calls.”
B’reshit and many other Torah stories demonstrate that even G-d had to change course, at times. As a community, we have had this discussion many times without seeing it to its full potential. In a few days many of us will be traveling to Orlando, FL for the URJ Biennial; Washington, DC for the JFNA General Assembly; or Chicago, IL for the UCSJ Convention. Unlike 1969, I do not believe anyone intends to hold a sit-in at the GA. Instead, let’s continue this discussion across generational, geographic, denominational, gender, and all other lines in person or on social media with the hashtag #C2A.
Like creation, this process cannot happen in a single moment but must be done in steps. Levine’s piece offers us a reminder of the calls from the past, as we consider the path for the future. Let us ensure that this beginning does not become just “a beginning,” but is remembered as “the beginning” that shifted the community in the start of the 21st century. In the words of Hillel Levine, “You will see some of us here in the next few days. We hope we will have a chance to speak to you.”
David Manchester is a Ph.D. student at Brandies University’s Heller School for Social Policy & Management where his studies focus on socio-demographic research, as well as program assessment and evaluation in the American Jewish community. He also works as a Graduate Research Associate for The Cohen Center for Modern Jewish Studies. David will be attending the GA and is interested to meet with anyone who seeks to continue the discussion. His original post “An Argument for Optimism” can be found here and he can be reached at Davidman@Brandeis.edu or on twitter @djmanchester.