By Rabbi Esther Hugenholtz
Imagine a cat in a box. How do we know whether the cat is alive or dead? This paradox is part of a thought experiment that physicists dub ‘Schroedinger’s Cat’ and it is used to explain the basic principle of quantum mechanics, the idea that a something can be both a particle or a wave and that, bizarrely, our perception can affect reality.
Perhaps our Jewish future is like Schroedinger’s Cat: whether we live or die, thrive or decline, is a matter of perception. Abraham had to journey into the great Unknown: ‘el ha’aretz asher ar’echa’ – ‘to a land that I will show you’. He was called to draw on all his inner resources and vision in order to heed that vision.
The commentators analyzing that crucial verse – ‘to a land that I will show you’ wrestle with that quantum state also. What are the implications of being sent on one’s shlichut but without knowing the full consequence of one’s journey? It is a question that the tradition asks of Abraham and Sarah but it is a question that our tradition also asks each of us. Did Abraham intuit what lay beyond the borders of his land? Rashi states that ‘lo gilah ha’aretz miyad kedei lechavevah be’einav’ – ‘God did not reveal the land immediately in order to make the land beloved in Abraham’s eyes.’ In short, Abraham did not know what to expect but God did whet his appetite. God wanted to solicit a profound emotional response from Abraham – cultivate a sense of deep yearning to go to that Unknown Land.
The Medieval Sephardi commentator Ibn Ezra disagrees. He brings another interpretation altogether: ‘Yihyeh ta’am ‘arecha’ hu she’amar lo ki et kol ha’aretz she rata ro’eh lecha et’n’nah’ – I will now translate it in clunky literalist Hebrew: ‘The reason the Torah says ‘I will show you’ is because God is saying ‘all the land you see, I will give you.’ To recap: God is literally showing Abraham the land. In a vision perhaps, or through some supernatural means. Be what may, Abraham is shown clearly what to expect and is demonstrated clearly how God intends to fulfill God’s promise. In contrast with Rashi’s emotive, wide-eyed Abraham, Ibn Ezra’s Abraham is rational and clear-eyed.
The linchpin of the interpretative tension between the two Medieval commentators is the term ‘ar’echa’, ‘I will show you.’ In Rashi’s view, God obfuscated the land from Abraham. Abraham was forced to existentially embrace this quantum state because he had no way of knowing the outcome of his journey. Ibn Ezra takes the opposite view: Abraham knew he could trust his vision to deliver what he was hoping for. In Rashi’s reading, God pushed Abraham – Rashi also teaches us that Abraham had to leave because he was unable to have children in Ur Kasdim; a place of physical and spiritual sterility. In Ibn Ezra’s reading God pulled Abraham by revealing unto him the glory of the land and all its implications of hope and optimism.
Abraham the ambivalent. Abraham the optimist. Abraham who aspires to escape the constraints of his past. Abraham who is invited to dream his own future. If we would align our own stories, our own ‘lech lecha’, which of the two Abraham’s would ring true for us? And what visions do we dare show ourselves of our Jewish future?
Our first Patriarch and Matriarch were not only the first Jews but also the first Jews consumed with the question of continuity
Our first Patriarch and Matriarch were not only the first Jews but also the first Jews consumed with the question of continuity. God continually destabilizes this deepest yearning for progeny. When they appear on the scene, Abraham and Sarah are old and infertile. They must uproot themselves. Their livelihood is perpetually under threat. Their marriage is jeopardized when Sarah is courted by Pharaoh. Finally, through Hagar, Abraham is able to bear seed. Still, Ishmael is sent away, leaving Abraham’s wagers for his grand future waver-thin. Abraham is left to depend on his one remaining son, Isaac. Glancing back at yesterday’s sermon, Abraham and Sarah provide us with a perfect paradigm of the questions of Jewish continuity today. They too, were older than the average parent when they sired children. They also were barely at replacement rate and one of their children also intermarried into the surrounding culture, presumably leaving his parents’ covenant. The parallels are uncanny.
Then, beyond all rationale or comprehension, Abraham is charged with the Akeidah, the binding of Isaac. He is commanded to obsessively, zealously slaughter his own son on the altar of his ego, under the knife of his own fear.
We, as students of Torah, sit here, reeling, as we push through chapter after chapter in Genesis, trying to recapture some of that audacious vision that Abraham set off with. The vision that made souls in Charan, the first converts to Judaism according to Midrash Sifrei, welcomed in with audacious hospitality. The vision that beckoned the angels into the tent in the heat of the day. The vision of holy chutzpah as he challenged God over the destruction of Sodom and Gemorrah. ‘Give me ten righteous men!’ Abraham rallied, uncompromising, brave, moral, compelling and ab-so-lu-te-ly mission-driven in his covenant with the Judge of all the Earth who he held to account. Yet, when Abraham gets embroiled in the immediacy of his survival, obsessed with his own continuity, these lofty, visionary moments seem almost forgotten.
How different is it for us?
Cultural historian and Judaic scholar Shaul Magid has written a surprising and compelling book called ‘American Post-Judaism: Identity and Renewal in a Post-Ethnic Society’. This academic study of the contemporary American Jewish landscape posits an audacious premise: that the old loyalties of ethnos no longer hold sway over America’s Jews. If the Pew Report maps the symptom, then Dr. Magid provides the analysis:
“There is considerable fear in the contemporary American Jewish community that America’s acceptance of Jews and Judaism… could result in the disappearance of both. Books such as Alan Dershowitz’s The Vanishing American Jew and Elliot Abram’s Faith or Fear, and programs such as Birthright Israel, are three examples among many in which this fear is addressed and solutions are sought… If post-ethnicity is indeed a growing reality, and if Jews in America are so integrated into their social structure that asking them to reject it would be tantamount to asking them to become an anomaly in order to “survive”.’
Magid argues that there are a few possible responses to this new cultural reality: either the new reality is an obstacle to be overcome by doubling down on Jewish ethnos – this would be the traditional argument. Or the new reality presents yet another iteration of modernity that Jews should respond to with creativity and innovation – he terms this the progressive argument. Yet, he suggests that there is a synthesis that can come out of this dialectic: a ‘paradigm shift’, a term he borrowed from Jewish Renewal. This would be a new response altogether. The brilliance of Magid’s analysis is that he provides a third way: Schroedinger’s Cat, stuck in that box, need not be only alive or only dead. We do not need to be beholden to the pathologies of the past or curtailed by the anxieties of the future. Maybe there is a different way to imagine the Jewish future; a future fueled by meaning and purpose instead of reactivity and fear.
A future where the perspectives of Rashi’s Abraham and Ibn Ezra’s Abraham are synthesized. Where Abraham can have clarity of vision as well as deep trust. Or to transpose Magid’s words for our contemporary experience back onto the Abrahamic experience: ‘a fascinating, exhilarating and yes, frightening turn for the Jewish People.’
The answer to the Jewish questions of our day lies neither in judgment nor reaction. We are invited to bring our our intentionality to the Jewish future. Will we allow ourselves to be pushed by our fears or pulled by our vision? If we reach back for the existentialist Abraham of the Sfat Emet, then what would be the question on Abraham’s lips? What should be the question on ours?
The paradox is that fear only reaps the whirlwind. Fear begets fear. The ‘post-Judaism’ that Dr. Magid describes isn’t an ideology: it’s a fact. Shifting demographics, diversity, the feminism and LGBTQ rights, the advocacy of Jews on the margins, the increase of conversion – they are the fabric of our contemporary Jewish reality.
Railing histrionically against the ‘abysmal intermarriage rate’ is like howling at the moon, with the added detriment that it alienates those who close to us and violates the core values of our moral tradition.
The more we fear our continuity, the more we endanger it. The more we obsess over Jewish identity, the more hollowed-out it becomes. The more we try to contain the communal narrative, the more alienated our young Jews will feel from it. The more we grasp at the straws of narrow particularism, the more irrelevant we will become to the world.
We need to flip the script
Like Abraham destroyed the idols of his father Terach, we need to be iconoclasts. We need to flip the script. And like the Torah portion we just read, we need to mindfully anchor ourselves into an inclusive Jewish present so that we can build an expansive Jewish future. ‘Atem nitzavim hayom kulchem lifnei Adonai Eloheichem… l’avrecha bivrit Adonai Eloheicha uvalato asher Adonai Eloheicha coret imcha hayom’ – ‘You are all standing this day before the Eternal, your God… that you may enter the covenant of the Eternal, your God, and His oath, which the Eternal, your God, is making with you this day.’ (Deut. 29:9-11).
The Midrash on this short text comments on the use of the word ‘hayom’ – ‘today’, in order to create a radically inclusive vision of the Jewish future. In between the two clauses, the Torah specifies who is to be included:
every type of leader and laborer, the women and children, the stranger and the hewers of wood and drawers of water. A ‘bayit’ is created in both time and space: at the foot of the Mount, 3500 years ago and at our feet, seeded across the generations. All who stood at Sinai were present: those of us destined to be born into our People and those of us destined to join our People. In the Abrahamic vision and in fact, in the Deuteronomistic vision, there is no place for reticence: only for the blessing of joyful commitment, of covenant and meaning.
Each of us must consider what we tell our Jewish children and grandchildren, if and when they fall in love with someone who is not Jewish. We are called to shift the paradigm and flip the script: is exogamy a challenge or an opportunity? It holds the potential for us to practice audacious hospitality—not just because we must, but because we have the great privilege of sharing our way of life in an open society and invite others in?
What do we tell the Jews who feel on the margins of our community – because they are LGBTQ, or because they have disabilities, or because they are Jews of Color or because they have a conversionary background, or the non-Jews connected to our community who we love, embrace and value – will we celebrate them and invite them into the center of Jewish life? Where we value the life-blood they bring to our community?
As for the Millennials and the Nones: what is the master story we want to tell our future generations and to those beyond the gates of our community? And what is the story they can teach us? Will we be able to weave a new Jewish narrative into their lives as they bless us with new ways of thinking, living and experiencing Judaism? What can we offer them so that they can feel that regardless of where they are in life, they can come home to the embrace of our generous, abundant, deep, wise, compassionate and transformative tradition?
In the spirit of Abraham, will we make a compelling case for Judaism in the market place of ideas? Above all, what will we tell the world? Amidst the churning cauldrons of our geopolitics and the growing eddies of anti-Semitism, the time to ask ourselves that question is now. Will we pivot away from the families of the earth or will we continue to plug back into the world, share our wisdom, our gifts, our love of humanity and truly engage in the project of ‘letaken olam b’malchut Shaddai’ – ‘to repair the world under the Sovereignty of God’? These are the quantum mechanics of the soul, where we can hold several realities at once and make a choice for the reality that will bring us blessing. I can’t wait to choose life and share these blessing alongside all of you.
Ken yehi ratzon, may that be the Divine Will.