One response to our modern Jewish dilemma might be found in an ancient teaching. Theres a story in the Talmud, written between 200-500 CE, that illustrates what I think it means to be both a thoughtful and committed Jew (Eruvin 13b). It begins: Rabbi Abba stated in the name of Shmuel: For three years there was a dispute between the House of Shammai and the House of Hillel. The former said The halachah (Jewish law) is in agreement with our views and the latter contending, the halachah is in agreement with our views
. I love this story already. For three years the students of Shammai and the students of Hillel argue about their different approaches to Jewish law! Thats great.
Can you imagine? Every day they wake up, say the Shema, wash their hands, eat a little pita and humus, kiss their wives goodbye, and then head off to the beit midrash to argue! And they do this for three years! Every morning (well except maybe on Shabbat) and no one seems to mind! No one is interested in giving up, in calling it quits, in saying enough already why dont we just part ways and call it a day. No. Not once does the text hint at any sense of weariness, anger or disrespect. Actually the opposite seems to be the case, it appears that they would have gone on debating indefinitely.
Why do I love this text? No one likes to argue but it does describe a world I yearn for: A world where people are committed to remaining in the discussion and living with the contradictions of life. This past January I sat with my teacher Rabbi David Hartman in Jerusalem studying this text. I turned to him and said I dont live in the world of the Talmud. For three years they argued and didnt leave?! I live in a world in which people walk out on everything and everyone. People leave their spouses, their children, their place of birth. People change their nationality, their religion, their workplace. Now sometimes its for good reason. Thank God divorce is an option, after many years of struggle it is sometimes the only choice. And thank God for the converts to Judaism - who continually touch and strengthen me by their joy and dedication to our people. And thank God for the freedom to move far from our places of birth to seek fulfillment in life. My own father left Iran to come to America to study, find a wife and set up a new life for himself. I left New York City to learn in Michigan, Jerusalem and Los Angeles and then 10 years ago came back to our city of angels to work at Temple Israel, find my husband and raise children. If the these freedoms werent available to me as a modern Jew I wouldnt be here today. As Arnie Eisen of Stanford University teaches we Jews didnt walk out of the ghetto, we ran out of the ghetto.
But with all this said, I yearn for a shared loyalty among the Jewish people and among each of us at Temple Israel. I yearn for the expectation that none of us will walk away from the Jewish table. That no matter where we move or what interests we pursue, we are here for good. That something outside of our own satisfaction in being with each other and doing things that make us feel good compels each of us to remain practicing our Jewish religion - because if and when that pleasure disappears or wanes, were in trouble. And we see this every day. I know one family in Florida that left its synagogue because their wasnt room for their child in the synagogues Mommy and Me. Or another in New York who left because they didnt feel any further need for the synagogue after their sons Bar Mitzvah. Or another person in Ohio who got angry at the cantor and left the community. We live in an individualistic society. We seek self-fulfillment.
The conservative NY Times columnist David Brooks used the term T.V. clicker generation to describe this trend. If we dont like what we see, we just change the channel. Click. And its off. Dont like your job, click - work for the competitor. Dont like what your kids are saying, click - ignore them. Dont like your religion, click - just throw out that menorah. Clicking is fun. Theres a sense of freedom in it, but we certainly pay a price.