Shabbat Hayei Sarah
Sinai Synagogue, Shabbat AM, November 7, 2015
We often speak of Abraham as the first Jew. But it is not until this week’s Torah portion that in fact Abraham becomes as it were the father of the Jewish people. That is because it is in this week’s Torah portion that he shows not just an interest in having a child to follow in his path, but in perpetuating numerous generations to follow in this path and to act to fulfill the Divine promise “I will make of you a great nation”. It is impossible to be a Jew in isolation, to be a Jew means to be part of a community both in its horizontal and vertical directions, to be connected contemporarily to others and to be connected to both a Jewish past and future. Only this week does Abraham begin to achieve this goal of creating Jewish peoplehood through his instructions to his servant Eliezer to “go to the land of my birth and get a wife for my son Isaac.” In the Bible, 12 is a magic number for nation status. Abraham’s brother has 12 descendants. Ishmael will soon have 12, Esau will have 12. Only 3 generations later will Abraham reach this status through his chosen son Isaac’s line. And ever since we Jews have been concerned about Jewish community, who’s in, who’s out, how come we are so small. This past week I was in New York for meetings of the Rabbinical Assembly. The RA is undergoing a thorough strategic planning initiative to become a more responsive and effective organization for its members. I am proud to represent the significant segment of rabbis serving smaller congregations. The RA is aware that the rabbinate has changed in dramatic ways just as the Jewish community has changed in dramatic ways and is trying to become more sensitive and meaningful for its rabbis. Part of the work is trying to understand what it means to be a rabbi in the Conservative movement today and part of the work is understanding how organizations, Jewish or Gentile, undergo successful change and restructuring. Thus I was part of a small group who met with Gary Rosenblatt the editor for many years of the Jewish Week, the Jewish print newspaper with the largest circulation. Largest still, but about one quarter of what it once was. He told us about the challenge to remain relevant in the world of ethnic print journalism – he strove to maintain his traditional journalistic values and goals but had to change the focus of the articles. No longer was there an attempt to break news, since news has become a 24/7 industry on TV, the internet and social media but rather offer analysis of topics in the news. The Jewish week has also ventured into the internet with a web site and other niche Jewish information sites. The internet has also allowed for greater democratization of opinions since the internet site can offer 8-10 op-eds of consequence whereas the print edition only has room for 2. We also met with Jewish innovators or analysts who work for various organizations to share their insights into the changing Jewish community. One presenter, Adam Simon, works for the Schusterman Foundation in the area of leadership development. He has been a director of Hillel at Northwestern and also has an MBA. His analysis comes from statistics and surveys. Anyone familiar with Sabermetrics in Baseball could imagine a similar and controversial approach to his assessment of Jewish community and leadership. Most Jewish professionals, like the baseball scouts of old, go with their gut. We know Judaism and Jewish trends from what we see with our eyes and feel in our kishkes. Adam Simon pours over stat sheets. His assessments are backed up by quantifiable numbers. However like the Sabermetricians in Baseball, the interpretations of the numbers are always open for debate. Where does he recruit Jewish leaders for his initiatives? Not synagogues, or Hillel, or rabbinical schools. He recruits from graduates of Teach for America, Fulbright scholars, and the like. Graduates of these programs have already gone through a thorough winnowing process and he looks to such institutions to find potential candidates. He also suggested Facebook. People may cringe when they hear his approach but he looks for qualified Jewish leader candidates by seeking those with the largest number of friends. Why? Because that is one indication that they are connected and networking with many groups. And leaders need to be willing to reach out and network. His presentation was quite provocative. He shared with us four uncomfortable truths based on readings of Pew and other surveys of Jews, college age students, and social trends in the US: 1.There are no Jews 2.There are no Jewish communities 3.Jewish institutions are over 4.Jewish leaders are not who you think they are. What did he meant here are no Jews? That there are no Jews in the sense of how we used to think of determinations of Jewishness. In the past, Jewish community bestowed upon an individual their status – a Jewish mother or conversion. But today Judaism has become self defining. He shared a story of leading a trip to Israel of college age students. At El Al the security separated the Jews and the Non-Jews for security checks. He was very embarrassed by this exclusionary act but was fascinated to see who went to the Jewish section and who went to the Gentile section. He asked one kid whose parents were both Jewish why he went with the non-Jews. His answer: Well we don’t observe anything in the home, so I thought I should not be in the Jewish group. Another girl who was not Jewish went to the Jewish section. Why? “Well my boyfriend is Jewish and I don’t have any religion”. Jewish community of course exists, but once upon a time we thought of the Jewish community as exclusive of other communities – Catholic, Protestant; Black, Hispanic; Native born, immigrants. But today everyone belongs to lots of communities. Some we are very much connected to, some we are peripherally connected to, some only for strategic reasons. Jewish community for most is just one among many. And how we connect to community is significant. He pointed out a study of campus behaviors. They asked if there was a party on the other end of campus that was open to all but you knew no one there, would you go? Overwhelmingly the answer was no. What about if there was a party at the other end of campus and you knew everyone there, would you go? The answers were surprising. People said they would go IF they could go with someone to the party. Knowing the people at the party was not enough: they had to be able to walk in with someone. My personal take-away from his presentation was not that in an age of self-definition we embrace every and all definition of Jewishness and Jewish community. But rather that in an age of chaos, how much the more so do we need to make clear and bright the demarcations of identity even as we acknowledge that there are many avenues that have opened that were closed in the past. These new wider definitions of identity and community can be acknowledged and even appreciated as we note they are not accepted definitions of Jewishness within our specific subgroup of the Jewish community. This has been my approach to patrilineal descent – it is not ours nor the majority of the Jewish world’s determination of Jewish status, but if for some it encourages them to think of being part of a wider Jewish world and may lead them to go through the necessary rituals to affirm that status, great. Looking at this morning’s parasha we can see three responses to Adam Simon’s challenge to the rabbinic community. Who is a Jew, that is who is part of your community? Abraham sends his servant to search for a wife, not among the locals, the majority but back to the homeland. Blood connections were important as well as values and heritage. Eliezer proposes a test to find the right girl – a test of ethical qualities: a young maiden who will not only offer water to him but for the camels as well. Heritage, values, biological links are all important. When he meets the family everyone is very excited about the arranged match. But just before Eliezer is about to leave, Rebecca’s family resists sending her immediately. “Let the maiden remain with us some ten days; then you may go.” Eliezer's response is don’t play games with me. This is what we agreed to. Eliezer could have said, “I found the right bride, I will give in so there is no conflict and I don’t lose her.” But he did not. He insisted on the integrity of their agreement and stood by his word. This is a lesson to us as well. Whatever type of Jew one is, one should hold true to the principles of that Judaism. As a Conservative Jew and rabbi, I have core principles that are essential to my understanding of what Judaism is. Bending those principles in the hopes of opening the door to a few who feel those regulations are unfair and not acceptable to modernity will not further the building of a Judaism or Jewish community based on the values I deem essential. But so often our movement has diluted its policies in the fear of losing people to those who are less concerned with observance. Finally Rebecca does agree to go. But she goes with Eliezer. This is comparable to what Adam Simon found. It is best to go with someone. We must take this to heart. Not enough to welcome, not enough to be friendly, we have to partner with new people and invite them to come with us. This is the way to building a future for liberal and committed, passionate Jews. Investigating our tradition and heritage, celebrating and expressing it; holding firm to our core principles; not just welcoming but taking people by the hand and bringing them with us. In this way we will truly wear the mantle of the children of Abraham.