Va'era: More Justice, More Jews!

[D'var Torah given to Kehilat Moreshet Yisrael, Jerusalem, December 28, 2013]

In this week’s parasha, Va’era.  G-d instructs Moses to assure the Israelites that G-d has heard their cries.  G-d speaks the famous lines that we know from the Passover Seder, as represented by the four cups of wine, “I will free you…deliver you…redeem you…and take you.” (Exodus 6:6-8). 

Imagine the scene when Moses communicated this message to the Israelites.  Given that we were – and still are -- a “stiff-necked people,” at least some of the Israelites must have been deeply skeptical.  You can almost hear the crowd heckling Moses: “All of a sudden He remembers his covenant?!  Where has He been all these years?  Why now?  What’s his real agenda?”   

Actually, we don’t have to speculate or even look at sources to learn G-d’s agenda.  G-d was forthright about it.  He didn’t redeem us in mercy or compassion, and certainly not in love.  G-d says (Exodus 9:160  “I have spared you for this purpose: in order to show you My power, and in order that My fame may resound throughout the world.”  

Evidently, G-d needed us to suffer in Egypt; he needed a powerful and obstinate Pharaoh as a foil, to show us and the world what He could do.   

G-d then proceeds to administer the plagues, or, blows.  Rather than inducing Pharaoh to repent, He drowns the Egyptian army.   Later, He can’t even forgive his most faithful servant, Moses, for a momentary lapse and let him enter the Promised Land. 

Indeed, if we think beyond the Exodus to the rest of Tanach, we recall many 
other incidents of Divine jealously, threats, punishment, and retribution – not only against our enemies, of course, but against us.  “Let G-d choose someone else to be His people,” goes dark Jewish humor. 

Many generations later, some Jews – who called themselves Jewish Christians, would internalize the view that the “Jewish G-d” of the “Old Testament” is one of violence and wrath, whereas the “Christian G-d” of the “New Testament” is one of love.  And G-d knows we suffered immeasurably for “rejecting” this supposed G-d of love.  Of course, Christians historically used selective evidence – just as we do when we give G-d unqualified praise. They downplay the mercy and forgiveness which is also in the Old Testament – beginning with the fact that G-d didn’t kill Adam and Eve for directly disobeying His command, nor Cain for murdering Abel and half of all future humanity.  

And when Christians say that “G-d is love,” they don’t talk about parts of their “New Testament” such as Revelation 19:11-16, in which Jesus will arrive on a white horse to make war, his eyes like a flame of fire, his robe dipped in blood, a sword in his mouth to strike the nations – non believers such as Jews -- ruling them with a rod of iron. 

So, why am I talking about all this? Because half of the Jewish world lives in Christendom. Thank G-d they’re not persecuting us and, mostly, not actively trying to convert us.  Still, half of all Jews are breathing what I call “Christian air,” rather than the “Jewish air” we breathe in our land. 

Because breathing is automatic, they don’t often think about it or, certainly, think that there is a problem or alternative. And they are not going to move here.   Moreover, the non-Orthodox, who are still the majority in the Diaspora, don’t have strong Jewish educations, observance, or theology.   So, they can’t help but unconsciously internalize, to some extent, the predominant Christian view of their friends, and increasingly of their Christian wives and husbands, parents, and soon grandparents, that Christianity is about  “love” whereas Judaism is about, not just dry, ritual law, but anger and retribution.

We know from our own experience, as dramatically confirmed by the recent Pew Report, that young, non-Orthodox Jews outside of Israel are losing their engagement with Judaism and their sense of Jewish affiliation.   

•    Almost 1/3 of self-identified Jewish Americans born after 1980 say they are Jews of no religion.
•    Among those who do identify Jewishly, less than 1/3 say that they are raising Jewish children.   That’s astounding. 
•    42% of those who self-identify as Jews believe that having a sense of humor is more essential to their Jewish identify than traditional Jewish values. 
•    72% of non-Orthodox Jews during last 8 years married non-Jews.   Not surprisingly, they don’t see this as a problem.  But 83% of children of mixed marriages marry non-Jews, and 92% of the grandchildren of intermarriages are Christian. 

Simply put, more and more non-Orthodox Jewish youth don’t care about being Jewish or even self-identify as Jews.  Increasingly, they don’t care about Judaism, the Jewish people, or about Israel.    

What do they care about, if anything, other than social relationships and future career?  What are they passionate about?  I suggest that it’s what young people have always been interested in: justice, in all of its forms.  “That’s not fair,” is the eternal cry of the young.   And in their minds, unfortunately, Justice and Judaism are two very different things.  

This disconnect is a tragedy for our people.  But here’s the “Good News.”  This emotional, if not conscious, disconnect also carries with it the seeds of great opportunity. Committed and educated Jews know that justice is the paramount concern of the “Jewish G-d” and of Judaism.  Think of Abraham challenging G-d: Will not the judge of the world act justly?  Think of G-d commanding us: “Justice, justice will you pursue!”  Over and over, the Torah commands us not to oppress the widow and the orphan – that is, anyone less powerful -- for we were slaves in Egypt and know how it feels.”  “Love your neighbor as yourself.”  “Do the right and the good.”  Hillel’s “What is hateful to you, do not do to others.” And on and on.  

Judaism is perfect for the temperament of the young, Jewish and non-Jewish!  The statistics about American youth’s disaffection from Judaism are dismal, but we can begin to change them.  Not, perhaps unfortunately, mainly by showing them the beauty of Shabbat; encouraging them to learn Hebrew, Torah, and t’fillot; teaching them our history, our tradition, and so on.  We have to get their attention and interest first, earn their respect, generate enthusiasm before these things other things can take root. 

I propose that a critical and very promising strategy is to speak to our youth in the language that they can, will, and want to hear…the language of justice.  The fundamental, eternal Jewish language of justice.  The message that G-d is not “love,” rather, G-d is “She who seeks and demands justice.”  The justice that they want to see, to help bring about.  

Why are so many non-Orthodox American Jews critical about, or – worse – disaffected, from Israel?  Because they perceive – rightly or wrongly – that Israel is unjust to the Palestinians and, more recently, to the Bedouins.  Several years ago, one young Jew in my community returned from a short stay here during which she witnessed what she perceived as mistreatment of Arab workers by Israelis.  Still outraged – and this was at least a week after witnessing the event -- she said to me “I don’t even know if I can support the existence of an Israel if it treats its Arabs like that!”  

That statement reflected, in part, an ignorance of Jewish and Israeli history, and of our failure to teach her these.  But teaching her our history wouldn’t have changed her view. Encouraging her to express her keen sense of and demand for Jewish justice – most especially among Jews -- might have done so. 

According to researchers, the most important age cohort for influencing Jews is age 15-17. These Jews are forming their identifies, their opinions about themselves, and the values that will affect their decisions and their relationships for the rest of their lives. 

I therefore propose that in every Diaspora community in which we can exercise any influence, directly or through our friends and family, each of us begins the work of spreading the “Good Jewish News” to Jewish youth that Judaism speaks their language. That Judaism is profoundly concerned about what concerns them – doing justice.  

Let’s establish programming, in synagogues and every other possible setting, that invites and helps young Jewish teens to investigate, debate, and become engaged with issues of justice.  Not only about justice in Israel, but everywhere.  In their own schools and communities, and beyond.  Let’s establish Jewish Justice websites and blogs.  Let’s form Jewish Justice debating societies.  Let’s give college scholarships to kids who are active in Jewish Justice activities.  Let’s invite prominent figures known to Jewish youth to speak about justice in any form.  

Let’s do everything we can to get young Jews active and enthused about arguing and furthering the paramount Jewish value of Justice, which already means so much to them, but which they do not recognize as a key element of their Jewishness – of their people’s identity.  

If we do this, there will be another crucial benefit.  Dr. Steven Cohen, who is generally recognized as the leading American Jewish demographer, has summed up the American Jewish problem among the non-Orthodox as follows:  Jews are not having Jewish children. One of the biggest reasons for this is that Jews are simply not meeting other Jews, especially outside of major Eastern cities that still have large, concentrated Jewish communities.  Many young Jews don’t have other Jews as playmates, friends, classmates, boyfriends, girlfriends, co-workers, romantic partners and potential spouses.   They don’t get together as Jews, especially if they don’t belong to a synagogue or Jewish Youth Group.  

If we establish “Jewish Justice” programs and centers, we will not only be tapping into their natural passions and helping them connect with Judaism, we will be bringing young Jews together in a stimulating environment of dialogue and interaction.   They will meet each other, and all of their passions – I mean this seriously in every respect -- will be aroused.  Gd willing, more committed, or at least self-identified, Jewish children will come of this – as well as more justice!    

Yes, most of our Diaspora Jewish youth breathes Christian air.  That will continue.  But we can give them Jewish air “fresheners,” or if you prefer, “purifiers.”  

The active filtering ingredient can be enthusiasm about promoting their passion -- the Jewish passion --- for Justice.    Let Christians continue to say that their G-d is love and, sometimes, that ours is about wrath and retribution, plagues and punishment.   Let us say, instead, that the Jewish G-d loves and demands Justice above all, and that if we pursue Justice, G-d will love us for it.  

Encouraging and creating opportunities for dialogue among Jewish youth about Justice will inevitably invite them to vent their frustration and criticism about Israeli government policies. Good!  Criticism is far better than rejection and indifference.  At least they will meeting and engaging – perhaps eventually making engagements with -- other Jews.  They will be texting and emailing their friends about making a difference.  They will be internalizing the crucial lesson that Judaism is the means by which they can express their passion, as well as their fledging identity.   And, G-d willing, they will be meeting and marrying other Jews and producing Jewish children, who will also be interested in Justice.

Here’s my four-word summary: More Justice, More Jews.  If you remember just one thing that I have said here this Shabbat, remember that: More Justice, More Jews. 

Perhaps gradually, young Jews who care less and less about Judaism, Israel, and marrying Jews will decide to learn other things about Jewish topics, Jewish observance, and so on. Perhaps they’ll even choose to join a Conservative or any other synagogue.  

But supporting institutions and building synagogue membership can’t be our primary goal. First, we should engage Jewish youth by speaking the language they understand and want to hear.  The language of the Jewish G-d, the language of Torah, the language of Judaism itself …. Justice.

Ken Y’hee Ratzon and Shabbat Shalom from Jerusalem. 

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