The Invisibles: Reflections on Jewish Megatrends

I’ve finished reading Syd Schwarz’s book, Jewish Megatrends, in preparation for his appearance at our upcoming OHALAH conference. There is much in it that I endorse and applaud. I’m especially gratified by the support and funding which the organized Jewish community and private foundations are now willing to provide to new programs and experiments. And, at the same time, there are two things which nag at me. One is a personal feeling of invisibility, which appears over and over again as I read each essay, and the other is the absence of anything focused on how we talk about God.

It is true that there are occasional references to spirituality and the search for deeper meaning, and one reference to our “ancient God.” However, given that for most of our history the search for meaning has taken the form of “What is it that Yah our God wants from us?” would seem to require that this question at least be acknowledged somewhere. What is Jewish about how we eat, how that food is grown and raised, and our concern for social justice if not rooted in the covenant we made with God? It is that which has always been at the core of our world view and, whether we choose to believe in its traditional formulation, a new variant, or not at all, it deserves its place in the discussion of our future.

Which leads me to the invisibility. I know I’m not the first to notice the absence of God and the place of spiritual practice in this book. I’ve been told that my old friend and teacher, Reb Arthur Waskow has already commented on this. I found this out because I spoke out loud about my concerns and was informed, to my joy, that he has spoken about this before me and my current reading of a book which has been out for several years. I don’t know how he framed his thoughts, but I do know that I am only adding and maybe reiterating, but not initiating. Yet, nowhere in this important book is there communicated who might have been sharing the concerns raised by the current writers during those invisible years between the mentions of the Havurah movement in the sixties and the changes which only seem to begin in the mid-nineties. When a later Talmudic rabbi voices an opinion, the first question often asked is who before him might have said the same thing or something similar.

That is what I have found missing. Again, I am happy that new endeavors now get sympathetic hearings. It’s wonderful that Limmud NY had federation funding when it began. It’s great that there is a Jewish food movement and there is now an ethical kashrut certification. But these changes didn’t just appear in the last 15-20 years. They owe a great deal to the pioneering efforts of many people who not only go unsung but suffered disdain and rejection for voicing these concerns 35 and 40 years ago. And so, I applaud the new initiatives, as well as the baby-boomer contributors, from the perspective of someone who has spent a lifetime advocating for many of these same ideas.

Let me give only one of many possible examples. Rabbi Jacobs wrote: “In the past, social justice has been seen as the purview of secular Jews.” Yet, both “Jews for Urban Justice” in Washington, DC and “Na’aseh: A Jewish Religious Fellowship for Action” in Philadelphia were formed in the sixties. Arthur Waskow wrote the first Freedom Seder then and Na’aseh sponsored the second interfaith seder using his groundbreaking merger of Jewish spiritual practice and social justice. We were consciously merging religious observance, God wrestling, and social justice then and have continued ever since. And I can personally trace this convergence farther back in my own family, because my maternal grandfather, a practicing Orthodox Jew, was a Social Revolutionary in Tzarist Russia and a member of Lenin’s only coalition cabinet.

I am saddened that we who are now called Jewish Renewal still remain invisible to so many and I hope that soon people will ask the questions about who may have said similar things to themselves in the past. There is so much more I could say, and perhaps I will at some later date, but I don’t want to go farther and take away from my genuine satisfaction in seeing this growing willingness to change and adapt. And, I am grateful to have been part of the earlier pioneers of the renewal of Jewish life in North America.

Finally and for fun, I attach a column I wrote in 1976 for Vancouver’s Jewish Western Bulletin following the visit of Reb Shlomo Carelbach. We brought him to Victoria, where I was serving as rabbi, and then he went on to Vancouver. The style seems quaint to me now, but the substance is still relevant.

Why be Jewish? 76.02

I was told that Reb Nachman said to take every opportunity to open a new year with blessing and hope. So I wish all of us a happy and good new year, one which brings us closer to a proper sharing of wealth and healing for our planet.