Torah of Dissent - Part 2

Makom Shalom is proud to be a diverse community with a range of views in current affairs and matters of faith. The views I present on this blog are my own and not a statement on behalf of the Makom Shalom community. I encourage you to share your views here in the comment section on this blog. I welcome respectful and engaged dialog.                                                                                                            Rabbi Cantor Michael Davis 


Did you see last week’s Saturday Night Live sketch? It’s a spoof on the perils of engaging in anything but small talk. If you bring up anything meaningful -  anything beyond anecdotes about your new pet or the food at the restaurant, you are likely to seriously offend somebody -  or, in SNL’s case, everybody.

The upshot of this comedy piece is that we all walk on eggshells. 

How can we engage in meaningful conversation?

Last week I was in New Orleans. New Orleans is a diverse town that takes pride in being a “Welcoming City” to immigrants and minorities. Driving into the city from the airport, my host pointed to a bare pedestal just off to the side of the highway. New Orleans had recently taken down its Confederate statues including that one of Robert E. Lee.

I was the guest of young, Jewish New Orleanians.  I stayed overnight with a couple of activists in New Orleans quite ungentrified 7th ward. We did a political action, broke bread at a neighborhood dive, listened to music on Frenchman Street. We got to know each other.

These young New Orleanian Jews told me they have no synagogue they can call their spiritual home. These young people do not feel welcome in most synagogues because they tell me those synagogues do not honor their moral-political commitments. As we know, this is exemplified by the Israel-Palestine issues.

How do we communicate to young Jews like those in New Orleans that they too are welcome in our Jewish community?

I turn for inspiration to our Jewish sources. The largest and most important work of Judaism, the Talmud, is unknown to most of us today. The Talmud is a rambling, dense compendium of legalistic reasoning and ancient legends. It takes many years to master its meandering pathways. Even today when we have excellent translations into English, the multi-volume, unindexed Talmud remains as inaccessible as the wild Louisiana bayous. The Talmud is a closed book to all but the most dedicated scholars and yeshiva students.

However, there is one night a year when Jews everywhere get a taste of Talmud. The source of the Haggadah is the Talmud.. At the Seder, the celebrated Jewish spirit of argumentation exemplified in Talmud comes across loud and clear. The Haggadah opens with a Talmudic section which is a report on a seder of the early rabbis. The conversation at the rabbis’ seder  some 2,000 years ago is a discussion about what time their seder - and all seders -  should end and what should be said at our seders. The Talmud records both sides of the debate, the winners and the losers.

Atem nitzavim…. You are ALL gathered here, men and women, all trades, and parts of society.                              (Rosh Hashanah Torah reading)

In sacred community, there are no winners and losers. History may be written by the victor but the Talmud and the Torah are for everyone. Both the majority and the minority, the mainstream and the dissenting voice, are sacred text. We study all voices as Torah. This is the basis for the celebrated Jewish value of debate and welcoming a multiplicity of opinions.

Here at Makom, we have actualized this Jewish value in many ways including through the articles we wrote last summer on “race and Judaism.” We have posted a variety of viewpoints on other current issues too. 

All are welcome…We invite you to bring your “authentic voice” to the table.                                             — Makom’s Mission Statement

Sadly, not every synagogue shares our commitment to openness. The burning issue of today’s Jewish community is Israel-Palestine.  No other topic arouses such emotion. As I wrote in the last blogpost, no other issue is pursued and policed by the Jewish establishment and the government with so much energy. Those young New Orleanians are not alone in feeling excluded from the Jewish community. Across the country, synagogue communities are shrinking as young Jews turn away from a Jewish community they feel has nothing to say to them. They feel shunned by the self-styled “Big Tent”, an Orwellian term for all those the Big Tent excludes.. As I wrote last week, this sad situation is not the fault of any individual person or institution. This is the result of a concerted, international campaign of criminalization by government and social shunning by the Jewish establishment.

As I shared with you in my last blogpost, this threat to an open and welcoming Jewish community has only increased in the last few months. 

Adonai will be sovereign over all the earth. On that day, Adonai will be one and God’s name will be one                            

(end of Aleinu prayer)

I have faith that this too shall pass.

A generation ago, it was gay men and women who were on the outs. Yet, today, Judaism stands out among other American religions in embracing the queer community as full equals and even as our religious leaders.

Two generations ago it was Jewish women who were not welcome as full Jews. Yet today, it would be incomprehensible to a girl to be told that she could not have a Bat Mitzvah just because it’s “for boys only” or that she could not grow up to be a Cantor or a Rabbi alongside men.

rosa parks on dissent.jpg

In every generation there has been a hot button issue that, at the time, felt so extreme that it might consume us. Yet we prevailed. The Jewish family has thrived.

Today is no different. I firmly believe that a generation from now, the idea that once upon a time, Israel-Palestine could have been such a contentious issue will seem quaint.

We stand firm in our commitment to be an open and welcoming community, including on Israel-Palestine.

As I wrote last week, both sides of the intra-Jewish debate on Israel-Palestine are not as far part from each other as the labels might suggest. And if we succeed in toning down the rhetoric we might be able to see how much we share.

At the end of the Seder, we open the door to welcome the Prophet Elijah into our midst. Elijah is the pauper in the marketplace, the overlooked old man, the prophet no one notices. Elijah is the ultimate outsider. Elijah is drawn in to our homes with the offer of a cup of wine and the convivial spirit of respectful and engaged dialog. We offer him a seat at our seder table. Elijah could be a Jew or a Palestinian or anybody else. That is exactly the point. We just don't know. We do know that however many people we have at our seder table, our Passover is incomplete without that invitation to the outsider, Elijah. 

Which Elijah will we welcome into our conversations today?