Among the many different challenges facing contemporary American Judaism, I believe that our biggest threat is related to what we know as Jewish literacy. It is true that antisemitism is on the rise and that assimilation is growing as well. Although we live probably in the best of times to be Jewish and to explore, embrace and expand on our Jewish practice and knowledge, we also live in a world that competes for our relentless attention and, as a consequence of that, we sometimes fail at finding the time to bump up our personal learning.
Going back to our core texts is essential to discover who we are as a people, and to shape our particular identities through the insights given to us by those who preceded us. As we reconnect with those ideas, we can strengthen the backbone of what makes our own commitment to amend the world something richer. We do the right work not only because we are good human beings but because that work lies at the heart of what Judaism teaches us.
That is why I love teaching and that is why many of my classes are text based. We learn the texts without skipping. Instead of going for the greatest hits, I enjoy working our way through the challenging terrain that some of these books present. It is true that some of these “hits” can be a great entry point for people who are just starting to get acquainted with the material, but nothing compares to the experience of struggling and finding meaning in the “deep dives.”
This whole concept is also behind the program called Daf Yomi, or the daily regimen of studying a page of Talmud a day. This program intends to get you through all the 2,711 pages of Talmud in around seven and a half years. One day at a time. I began that process more than eight years ago but then I had to stop. Last January, I resumed exactly where I left, and I’ve been reading my daily page of Talmud ever since. I guess that I cannot ask for a strong commitment in the learning of those willing to study with me if I am not ready to commit myself, right?
I’m telling you all of this because, it was thanks to this kind of learning discipline that, a few weeks ago, I found a beautiful snippet of Talmud that I want to share with you today. In what is known as the Tractate of Beitza (Hebrew for egg), we read the following statement: “Rav Natan bar Abba said that Rav said: The wealthy Jews of Babylonia will descend to Gehenna (or Hell). Why? Shabbetai bar Marinus happened to come to Babylonia. He requested their participation in a business venture and they did not give him any money. Furthermore, when he asked them to sustain him with food, they likewise refused to sustain him.” After this short story, the Talmud concludes: “Anyone who has compassion for G-d’s creatures, it is known that he is of the descendants of Abraham, our father, and anyone who does not have compassion for G-d’s creatures, it is known that he is not of the descendants of Abraham, our father” (32b).
There are so many layers to this short story that I won’t have the time (or the space) to deal with all of them. And, yet, I love the Talmud’s take on how our identity depends on traits like generosity and kindness. I don’t think that this story is designed to tear down the basic legal ways in which somebody is or can become Jewish. But the story is trying to offer us some insight in what makes for a meaningful Jewish identify. The Talmud knows, as the Biblical prophets knew, that wealth can be a source of blessings but also a potential danger. They knew that wealth can bring solutions but also create deeper gaps within any given society. And they knew that generosity is always at the root of our joint growth, that only a community that gives is capable of weathering storms and thrive even during challenging times.
I am blessed with the opportunity to live in the midst of such a giving community. On a personal level, I have witnessed the generosity of all those who embraced us when we moved to Nashville eight years ago. As a congregational rabbi, I’ve seen it all along, and especially during these past couple of years, as members and non-members alike have kindly helped us in raising funds to renovate our building. And, as a community leader, I’ve felt it with the generosity of spirit of all those who have understood how hard it might be to lead organizations under a pandemic, with so many opposing views clashing on so many issues. If congregations and Jewish institutions are going to endure, it is going to be thanks to those who have been generous enough to be both flexible and understanding in the midst of such uncertain times. Those are the true heirs of Abraham and Sarah, and to those we should be really grateful.
We just came together to celebrate Thanksgiving and are now in the middle of Hanukkah. As the days are getting shorter and the nights are longer and colder, both our American and Jewish identities are telling us one and the same thing: Let us be gracious, let us be thankful and let us continue bringing light into this world. Let us continue to learn from our past, so that we can make sure that we set the foundations for what we hope it is going to be a bright and inspiring future. Chag Urim Sameach!