Friday, September 30, 2016

Parashat Nitzavim

          Shabbat Shalom! I regularly listen to a podcast called Judaism Unbound. It is a project of the Institute for the Next Jewish Future, and it is hosted by Lex Rofes, a rabbinical student with the Jewish Renewal movement, and Daniel Libenson, the founder and president of the Institute. The first few episodes went through the Books of the Torah and talked about current Jewish themes based on each one of those. The second section of the podcast was dedicated to New American Judaism: issues of intermarriage and new synagogue models, generational gaps and reimagining what it could mean to be Jewish today, specifically in the United States. Now, they’re on a stretch of episodes interviewing new Jewish artists and the very physical elements of the reimagining that they started to touch on a couple months ago.

          This week I was catching up on the last few episodes, and I listened to their interview of Nina Paley, which aired on September 9th. Paley is an artist and filmmaker, and a very secular Jew. Her current work in progress is called “Seder-Masochism” and it is, as you might have guessed, about the Passover story. She tells Dan and Lex during the podcast interview that when she was growing up, the only Jewish thing her family did was the Passover Seder. Her father was a fierce atheist, so they never went to synagogue and she never had any religious education. But they had a Seder. In working on her current film project, she says she has become a “born-again atheist” because she finds the story of the Exodus so horrendous and violent that she cannot accept a God that is so wrathful or a religion that celebrates such particularism.

          As you might imagine, as a rabbi and a person who does believe in a loving Judaism and has faith in God, a lot of her answers and the ferocity with which she said some of them were a little jarring to me. Many progressive Jews in the modern world don’t believe in a personal God or a benevolent deity that directly interferes with the lives of humans. I’ve known quite a few that were comfortable saying they didn’t really believe in God at all, but still identified strongly as Jewish. But there was something about her tone in the way she talked about being an atheist that suggested a strong feeling of separation between herself and the organized Jewish world. Nonetheless, she continues to self-identify unquestioningly Jewish in ethnicity and culture.

Then she said something about the Golden Calf story that really grabbed me. The Golden Calf story isn’t exactly a part of our Passover narrative, but shortly follows it in the wilderness of the Exodus book. She says she identifies very much with those characters that accept the Golden Calf. She sees her own rejection of Judaism and atheism reflected in that story, and remarks that “People like her” have been a part of the Jewish people from time immemorial and they still are. There is and always has been space for people like her in Judaism, no matter how much the Jewish establishment wants to pretend like there isn’t or wasn’t. And I really liked that, because I do think there’s room in Judaism for a broad spectrum of beliefs and identities and that someone who identifies that strongly with being Jewish in their families or at a Passover Seder, should see themselves reflected in our ancient texts.

Now, you might be wondering why I didn’t save this for Parashat Ki Tissa, when we read the story of the Golden Calf as part of our regular Torah readings. But during the podcast she also asks the question, “Where are we standing now?” She’s talking about the Exodus story and standing at Sinai and the heretics who stood before God and worshipped a Golden Calf instead. But this week’s Torah portion, Nitzavim, also is about standing before God. That’s how nitzavim is usually translated, in fact: standing. “You stand this day, all of you, before the Lord your God; your captains of your tribes, your elders, and your officers, with all the men of Israel.” Everyone is standing together at the precipice of entering the Promised Land. From the great leaders of the community, down to the water carriers and woodchoppers, they will all enter the Promised Land together, and they are all equally responsible for upholding the covenant. They are told that Torah is not far off, the covenant is not in heaven, a relationship with Judaism or God is not beyond the sea. It’s all right there with them, and it’s right here with us. Whether we read the Torah and self-identify with Abraham or with Lot’s family, whether we see ourselves as Levites or as the people who worship the Golden Calves. Whether we think we would have been allowed into the Promised Land or been in the generation that was forced to die in the desert, we are all here now. We all stand together here this day, wondering what it means to be a Jewish American in the world today.

Now, we are about to enter the High Holy Days. We have already begun our season of teshuvah by standing together as a single unit and saying some selichot prayers. Sunday evening begins Rosh HaShanah, and we might find ourselves asking, “Where are we standing now?” Are we standing at Mount Sinai, receiving the Ten Commandments? Are we dancing with the Golden Calf? Are we standing at the precipice of the Promised Land? Are we burying ourselves in a wilderness of idolatry and mistrust? On Yom Kippur morning, we will read this portion again, “Atem Nitzavim hayom culchem lifnei Adonai Eloheichem,” You are all standing here this day before the Lord your God. May we find ourselves at that time standing exactly where we want to be, with a clean heart and a purified soul.

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