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Lech Lecha: Understanding Ourselves

It can be easily argued that Parashat Lech Lecha is all about identity.

This week’s Torah portion outlines the beginning of the formation of Avram and Sarai’s relationship with God, and by extension, our relationship – as a People – with the Divine.

The portion also covers Avram and Sarai’s changing relationship with their own family and with those outside their family as their shifting identities move them geographically, theologically and ideologically.

“Lech Lecha” are the words that God first speaks to Avram. The translation is tricky.
“Lech Lecha” can mean “go forth” or “go yourself” or “go to yourself” or “Go, you!”
and so on.

The translations that we choose affect our understanding of the verse and the way we respond to it. This week, while considering the various translations anew, I was struck by the idea that language God uses in God’s calling of Avram to a closer relationship with the Divine seems to indicate that in order for Avram to find God, Avram first has to find himself.

If you are someone who subscribes to Jewish newspapers, magazines, or online publications, you have probably spent the last two weeks reading about the Pew Research Center’s 2013 survey of U.S. Jews.

The results of the survey were released at the beginning of this month and Jewish leaders, rabbis, thinkers, and reporters have been responding to it ever since with words of both panic and comfort.

The study, like all studies, is filled with numerical data, subject to interpretation and manipulation. And like the Jewish Population Studies undertaken by the United Jewish Communities in 1990 and 2000, we will likely be unpacking this data for years to come.

We will worry; we will discuss, debate, theorize and mobilize. These results will influence the direction in which Jewish leaders will point their communities –
but like two Jews with three opinions,
God knows we will likely point in as many different directions as possible.

Even in these first few weeks of response, we can see that some seize on one segment of the survey while others seize on a different section. Which data is more important to respond to; More dire; More in need of immediate action? Who can say?

We could spend hours talking about each statistic: about the generational differences in Jewish identity and how it is strongest in those born between 1914 and 1927 and least strong in us Millennials, born after 1980; or about the 62% of Jews who view Judaism as an ancestry or culture compared to the 15% who view it as a religion and the 23% who view it as all three; or about the percentage of Jews who intermarry,
which rose so dramatically between 1970 and 1999 (from 17-55%) but has held steady at 58% ever since the year 2000.

There is so much to discuss!

But the statistic which has captured my attention for the moment is that of denominational switching.

Here’s the good news:
Of the three major movements of American Judaism – Reform, Conservative and Orthodox – the Reform Movement is doing the best job at retention.

55% of those raised as Reform Jews retain their Reform Jewish identity into adulthood, compared to the 48% of Orthodox Jews who remain Orthodox
and 36% of Conservative Jews who remain Conservative. That’s a welcome and encouraging statistic for Reform rabbis and leaders, who right now,
are perhaps allowing themselves a small sigh of relief before freaking out over the less encouraging portions of the survey.

But here’s the bad news:
Whereas the majority of Orthodox and Conservative Jews who leave the movement they grew up in, switch to a different denomination of Judaism,
the majority of those who leave Reform Judaism (17%) are switching to…nothing.

These 17% identify as “Jews of no religion” – a phrase which sounds strange and uncomfortable to those of us who do view Judaism as religion.

This is the statistic that should be giving Reform rabbis and leaders pause. Because the Jews we are losing are Jews who feel that Judaism isn’t a religion
because they haven’t been convinced that Judaism is a religion of value.

Or maybe I’m overreacting?

Seth Limmer, Rabbi of Congregation B’nai Yisrael in Armonack, NY, recently wrote a blog post for the CCAR blog, responding to the ‘Jews not in the Pews’ survey, as I’ve fondly come to think of it. In his blog post, Rabbi Limmer is also struck by the wider phenomenon of Jews who identify as “having no religion.” The 17% of those who have migrated from a Reform Jewish identity to this category are part of a larger 22% of all American Jews
who feel that they have no religion.

But, by what context are we understanding this statistic?
And are we sure that we are interpreting this data correctly?

Rabbi Limmer isn’t so sure, and after reading his response to the data, neither am I.

Rabbi Limmer begins by describing an experience that I have often had, and which I imagine most Liberal Jewish rabbis today can relate to – the experience of being told, by members of their community, or by perspective members of their community, or by individuals or couples seeking out a rabbi for a religious ceremony – that they are NOT religious.

“I just want you to know Rabbi,” they will say, “that even though I have a strong Jewish identity, I’m really not religious.”

Usually, when they say it, they are fidgeting or bashful – as if they think I will walk out of the room in an outrage. If you are someone who has told me this, or who has said it to another rabbi, then you know that’s not what happens.

We rabbis often discuss with one another
how best to respond to this statement.
Well, what do you mean by “not religious”? we might ask, and often, as Rabbi Limmer puts it, “people (are) expressing either an ambivalence about belief in God or a disconnect from the power of prayer. Sometimes, “I’m not religious” (is) code for saying, ‘Judaism is incredibly important to me, even though I’m not sure I believe in God and don’t really feel anything significant is happening when I sit in the sanctuary for services.’”

Rabbi Limmer interprets this statement another way. What he hears behind the words “I’m not religious” are the words, “I’m a committed Jew, but no synagogue or individual has ever helped me understand how I can consider myself fully Jewish if I have doubts or reservations about faith and prayer. And,” Rabbi Limmer concludes, “if that’s what people really mean when they say “I’m Jewish but not religious,” then it’s a miracle that only 22% of American Jews feel (that) way!”

Rabbi Limmer reminds those of us reading his blog post, that “for as long as there has been a Jewish people, Jews have had serious questions and conflicts about faith and prayer.” He points out that Pharaoh, in the Exodus narrative, was the first one to call us a people, and that, “the same generation he enslaved,
once they were free and found themselves at Mt. Sinai meeting God, fell into such a quandary of faith forty days later that they built the Golden Calf”!

Before that, Abraham— in this week’s Torah portion— questions whether God would deliver on the divine promise of a large family. Rebekkah and Rachel, later in Genesis, also confront God with fundamental, existential anguish.

Our Prophets reprimanded our ancestors for questioning God, while our biblical books of Job and Ecclesiastes wonder aloud how anyone can believe in God, given the state of the world. “As much as Jews have been a people of The Book for millennia,” Rabbi Limmer writes, “so too have we been a people of questioning and doubt, especially regarding the God we call Adonai.”

As I so often remind people, we are, after all the People of Israel, and “yisra’el” literally means “the one who struggles with God”. Thus we are, emphatically, the People Who Struggle With God. It is our literal identity. So is it any wonder we can’t settle the question of whether we are a religion, a nation, a culture, an ethnicity, or some combination thereof?

But, as Rabbi Limmer points out, our lack of faith, or evolving faith, “has done little to stem centuries of Jewish commitment to a Jewish way of life. Generations of Jews have embraced Torah— literally and figuratively— even though they didn’t necessarily embrace God or prayer (in the same moment).”

Judaism has, for the most part, been much more about living a certain way of life than it has been about subscription to any sort of theological creed
or dogma. What we can and can’t do is so much more clearly laid out than what we can and can’t believe, and we are obligated to mitzvot, commandments,
even if we have our doubts about Who issued them.

In our Liberal Jewish communities, “Agnostics and athiests light Shabbat candles, lead Passover Seders, and engage in the work of Tikkun Olam” as much as do those who have a more solid relationship with the Divine – and we make no distinction between them.
We consider all of them to be Jews.
They are all part of the Jewish people, regardless of belief.

Another point which Rabbi Limmer raises, is that the Hebrew language has no word for “religion”.

The word daat, which is Modern Hebrew for “religion” is actually a word borrowed from ancient Persian that found its way into the book of Daniel in the mouth of a Persian politician describing our people.

“The Hebrew way,” Rabbi Limmer writes,
“—and thus (the) authentically Jewish way— to talk about Judaism has nothing to do with religion: we are a people. We are called Am Yisrael, the people of Israel, or B’nai Yisrael, the children of Israel.

We are a conglomeration of ethics, morals, rituals and practices accumulated by people willing
(sometimes in the least friendly of environments) to call themselves Jews.”

Princeton Professor Leora Batnitzky teaches that Jews only began to consider themselves a religion – initially a European, Christian way of understanding faith – when they began to live, post-emancipation, in closer quarters with non-Jews in the modern age.

As Rabbi Limmer concludes, if we go back through history to Abraham, far fewer than 22% of Jews would even know what the word religion (in any language) meant, let alone consider themselves to be “religious”.
“Instead,” he writes, “we would likely define ourselves as Tevye did so aptly
in the great Broadway musical: we Jews are a tradition.”

In light of all this, Rabbi Limmer is not terribly concerned that many American Jews today don’t define themselves by a term that is neither authentically Jewish
nor particularly descriptive of Jewish practice – that being the term “religious”.

Instead, he finds it encouraging that so many Jews (69%!) express that leading an ethical life is essential to their Jewishness,
and that 70% attended or hosted a Seder last year, and that more than half of American Jews (56%) say that working for justice (what we call giving tzedakah, doing mitzvot, or engaging in acts of tikkun olam) is core to their Jewish identity.

These majority of Jews are all maintaining Jewish tradition and building their Jewish identity.

So maybe we’re not doing such a bad job after all.

Perhaps we need only to free ourselves of our own limiting definitions of Judaism – for when we see Judaism as primarily a religion, and we judge or exclude those who don’t see Judaism as a religion, we close our doors to Jews who feel Jewish,
and care about Judaism, and might one day come to see it as a religion as well,
if only we would take the time to welcome them, engage them, and share with them the value of those aspects of Judaism that we might consider to be “religious practices”, but that are really just rituals that help us to connect to that which is beyond ourselves – to one another, and, if we so desire, to a concept of the Devine, however we might think of it.

After all, if we, like Avram, are to find God, we must first find ourselves,
by understanding ourselves, and understanding our definitions of ourselves.

This week, Lech Lecha!
May we go to ourselves, broaden our thinking about what it means to be Jewish, and may we each reach out to another Jew, who may have a different understand of what Judaism is, and invite them to share it with us, so that we might see it, anew, through their eyes.

Kein Yehi Ratzon.

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