A remarkable revolution has hit the Jewish world: for the first time in its history, the Federations and secular organizations acknowledge that Jewish education must be one of the highest priorities of the entire Jewish community. Funding that used to go to “Jewish” hospitals and other institutions whose Jewishness consisted primarily in the ethnicity of its top staff (rather than any distinctive programming or services offered) now must take a back seat to the explicitly Jewish concern of talmud torah (Jewish learning).
Why the shift?
Because every study of the demographics of the Jews of North America affirms the simple truth that without Torah there will be no Jews. Without a desire to serve God through mitzvot, to study and to implement the Torah in our daily lives, there is simply not enough reason to put up with all the bother and separation that Jewish identity entails. This is no mere matter of partisanship—every Jewish religious denomination has been asserting this truth for at least a quarter of a century. And it is no retreat from universalism, simply a recognition that any universalism that requires (or produces) our destruction as a distinct people and culture is a false universalism, more akin to a cultural imperialism than true human concern.
While Jews have been known as the Chosen People from time immemorial, it is now essential that we become the choosing people. It is time we choose the Torah anew: for our own survival, for the survival of our mission of exemplifying righteousness in an often-wicked world.
The idea of choosing to follow the Torah, while often associated with the Reform movement within Judaism, is rooted in ancient Judaism as well. Today’s Torah portion, for example, lists a series of blessings that will accrue to the Jew who follows God’s commands and a series of curses that will strike one who rebels against divine dictates. The Torah records the words: “Cursed be the one who does not uphold the words of this teaching to do them, and all the people shall say, ‘Amen.’”
What is striking in this summation is the plain sense that the Jews can choose whether or not to follow God’s will. After all, one doesn’t curse an automaton that malfunctions. If your television set’s remote control unit doesn’t do what you want it to you don’t curse it, you simply fix it. That God holds out blessings and curses to us implies that we do have a choice. God doesn’t coerce observance. Instead, through teaching, example, and incentive, God hopes to persuade us to elevate our behavior to incorporate the holy and moral code of Jewish living.
Rashi takes that notion of choice one step further. In commenting on this verse, Rashi says that “here [in these words] Moses included the entire Torah, and they [the people] accepted it upon themselves with a curse and with an oath.” While there are certainly midrashim that view Israel’s acceptance of the Torah as forced upon them, Rashi is here identifying with the idea that the Jews of Moses’ generation freely chose to be bound by the Torah.
In a sense, choosing Judaism is still what links the contemporary Jewish people, regardless of our denominational affiliations. An Orthodox Jew retains the power to choose to violate the words of the Torah and the traditions of Judaism, and is expected to choose to adhere to Jewish law as it is propounded by contemporary Orthodox sages. So too a Conservative Jew is expected to choose to bind him or herself to Jewish law as the Conservative movement in Judaism understands that law. And a Reform Jew is under a similar obligation—to freely choose to respond whenever he or she hears God’s commanding voice in a mitzvah. This same perspective links Reconstructionist and Renewal Jews as well. Where the denominations differ is in how they understand revelation, how they perceive Jewish law and its development, and in whom they think speaks authoritatively on behalf of Judaism, God, and their own spirituality. But all Jewish religious movements affirm the need to listen for God’s commands and to respond, as our ancestors did, with “Hineni”, Here I am.
Our ancestors willingly chose the yoke of the Torah—with its need for self-discipline, diligence, and study. As a result of their choice, we are here today, and the world is a richer and more compassionate place. We, today, are called to make a similar choice, to choose a life of Torah and mitzvot. And our choice can also transform the tomorrows yet to be.
We are not robots, and God cannot make our choice for us. As our Torah portion says, “Hear O Israel! This day you become a people for Adonai your God. You shall listen to the voice of Adonai your God, doing God’s commandments and God’s statutes which I command you this day.”
As always, we have the power to choose to listen, or we can shut our ears to that still, small voice.
Are you listening?