By Rabbi Rachel Timoner
This week in Torah we begin the Book of Leviticus, Vayikra. The covenant has been established. Now G-d calls to Moses, commanding him with instructions for how the people are to engage with G-d on a continual basis. They are both to draw near and remain at a distance. Near the end of the Book of Exodus, Moses has come down from the mountain after intimate encounter with G-d. Rays of light emanate from Moses’s face from the encounter, but never can Moses come into contact with the Holy One. At the very end of Exodus, we’re told that Moses is unable to enter the Tent of Meeting when G-d’s presence fills it. No one can come into contact with the Divine and live. We see here feelings of intimacy, connection, belonging, and identity; we see a desire to draw near and to serve G-d, but we also see separation. Humans must remain socially distant from G-d in order to survive.
We are a people who have prized separation. Whether by decree or by choice, we have grown up over centuries a people apart. There is an impulse throughout our tradition to differentiate and separate, to fence off our Torah and ourselves. Whether it’s the laws of kashrut, the separation between Shabbat and the rest of the week, the Deuteronomic admonishment against emulation of the seven nations, or contrast between Jews and the foreign nations in Masechet Avodah Zarah or the first paragraph of Aleinu, our instinct to look out for Jews first has deep roots.
That’s why there’s a venerable school of Jewish thought that the only reason to engage in the civic life of the larger, non-Jewish society is to protect ourselves and our interests. At a recent convening on Judaism and American Democracy organized by Lippman Kanfer Foundation and the Shalom Hartman Institute, dozens of Jewish leaders and philanthropists of all kinds gathered to consider whether investment in the future of American democracy was a worthwhile priority for the Jewish people.
We gathered in late February, rattled by the precipitous rise in antisemitism, anxious about the slide toward authoritarianism, troubled by presidential permission for xenophobia. We now know that those were innocent days, when we did not yet understand that a virus would soon come to endanger us all.
At one point in the day, I was with a small group tasked with imagining the conditions by which both Jews and American democracy would be safe and healthy fifty years from now. After much discussion, my group came to the conclusion that the single best measure of Jewish safety in the future will be an America that continues to welcome refugees and immigrants. An America that closes its doors to the other is likely to soon close its doors to us.
This is why the choice between separation and engagement is false. Our people can land in a variety of places on the spectrum between separation and assimilation, but no matter how separate we are, our safety and well-being depend upon our engagement with the larger project of American democracy. There is no healthy future for Jews in America without a thriving democracy, without protection for minorities, without welcome and tolerance of the other. In addition, there is no healthy future for our people without a healthy future for all humanity and the earth. If nothing else has proven our profound interdependence with all other life, surely the coronavirus has.
In Vayikra we see this dynamic play out. The people and G-d are separate from one another. They cannot touch, they cannot enter each other’s realms. But they are in covenant – they understand that they are mutually bound, in relationship and interdependent. They understand that they must be continually engaged with one another. No matter how much we differentiate and separate ourselves, engagement in American democracy is not an option for American Jews. It’s an imperative.
Rabbi Rachel Timoner is Senior Rabbi of Congregation Beth Elohim in Brooklyn, NY, a member of the Commission on Social Action of the Reform Movement, and a founder of Reform California, RAC-NY, and New York Jewish Agenda. In 2016 and 2017, she convened #GetOrganizedBK with City Council Member Brad Lander, engaging thousands of Brooklyn residents in mass organizing for democracy and human rights.
This is the final piece in a four-part series reflecting on the Judaism and American Democracy Convening hosted by Lippman Kanfer Foundation for Living Torah and Shalom Hartman Institute of North America.