The Jewels of Judaism
As a young rabbi starting my career in Chicago I had the privilege of learning from my late teacher and friend Rabbi Arnold Jacob Wolf, z”l. Rabbi Wolf was a principled, philosophical, religious liberal, but even his liberalism took an occasional backseat to his other strong inclinations: he was a poetic soul and a contrarian. And so it was that he developed a lilting visual metaphor for a liberal approach to Judaism, but it was a metaphor which explicitly drew on the imagery of halacha, literally meaning the walking path, referring to the traditional corpus of Jewish law, a discipline largely regarded as anathema to liberal Jews.
Rabbi Wolf wrote:
“I try to walk the road of Judaism. Embedded in that road there are many jewels. One is marked ‘Sabbath,’ and one ‘Civil Rights’ and one ‘Kashrut’ and one ‘Honor Your Parents’ and one ‘Study of Torah’ and one ‘You Shall Be Holy.’ There are at least 613 of them, and they are of different shapes and sizes and weights. Some are light and easy for me to pick up, and I pick them up. Some are too deeply embedded for me, so far at least, though I get a little stronger by trying to extricate the jewels as I walk the street. Some, perhaps, I shall never be able to pick up. I believe that God expects me to keep on walking Judaism Street and to carry away whatever I can of its commandments. I do not believe that God expects me to lift what I cannot, nor may I condemn my fellow Jew who may not be able to pick up even as much as I can.”
Only a contrarian poet like Wolf could manage to be provocative to both liberals and traditionalists in the same breath, while simultaneously inspiring us all. Liberals are challenged to see themselves as charged with a responsibility to take on increasingly heavy mitzvot; traditionalists would have to grapple with the notion that the authority for determining which jewels we carry rests with each of us and not with God. And his last line is the kicker: we cannot condemn those whose choices are different from ours. The road is all of ours, but there is no one way to walk it.
Pluralism is a core value of The Wexner Foundation’s programs because of a deep belief on the part of our benefactors and chairmen Abigail and Leslie Wexner. It is a belief rooted in the profoundly Jewish posture of humility. Les has often said that if he knew which Jewish approach was the right one, he would invest all his resources there. But he is wise enough to know that absolute truth claims in the realm of religion and leadership are suspect. We are stronger and wiser leaders when we remain open to the possibility that even our most deeply held opinions and perspectives are wrong. There is no better way to remind ourselves of this, to keep ourselves in that humble posture of openness to our own fallibility, than being surrounded by those with different beliefs and commitments, held as sincerely as our own.
My earliest Wexner memory was a great lesson in pluralism. I entered rabbinical school reasonably experienced in leading Jewish youth programs and woefully ignorant of Jewish text, tradition and practice. At my first summer Institute, I met my new Wexner classmates: Yeshiva graduates studying for the Orthodox rabbinate, budding Jewish historians entering PhD programs and frum-from-birth intellectuals were everywhere. I proceeded to have an insecurity attack.
Luckily, Rabbi Ramie Arian happened to be visiting that Institute. Ramie was an old friend and teacher from my days in Reform Jewish camp and youth programs and had recently joined the staff of the Wexner Heritage Program. I confessed to Ramie my feeling of inadequacy: “some of my classmates know more Talmud in their pinky finger than I would learn if I studied for the rest of my life!”
Ramie’s wise reply: “There is no one measure of authenticity in Jewish life. You have skills and perspectives that my classmates lack; your Jewish path is no less valid and important. And besides, you’re only 23-years old; you have a long life in front of you; you may be surprised where your path of Jewish learning and leadership will take you.”
It was an important lesson: being in community with colleagues who have a very different set of Jewish commitments, skills and beliefs was not a threat that should trigger my insecurities. It was a gift that would allow me to examine and sharpen my own ideas. And it would eventually teach me that I have as much to offer to them as they do to me.
Pluralism forces us to exercise the muscles that allow us to balance between the humility of “strong beliefs, loosely held” and the confidence to embody our commitments authentically. Our teacher Rabbi Yitz Greenberg’s well-known quip has inspired generation of pluralists to acknowledge the limitations of any one approach: “it doesn’t matter which Jewish movement you are a part of, as long as you’re ashamed of it.”
As we walk the road of Judaism, we are responsible for making sure that we don’t scratch the jewels embedded in it; nor should we embed them so deeply that they cease to gleam in the light. Rather, we can tread lightly, pause frequently and most importantly, invite others to join us as we walk. Each of us will pick up different jewels; we may not be able to carry each other’s load. But when we walk together we can share in the joy of discovery as much as in the discomfort of divergence. I may not lift the same jewel as you, but I can help you polish it. When we share in that responsibility and polish the jewels together, the light that shines through them illumines our path through Jewish life with warmth, creativity and the depth of subtle hues.
Rabbi Jay Henry Moses is Vice President of The Wexner Foundation, having served for many years as Director of the Wexner Heritage Program. Rabbi Moses got his start in Jewish leadership through NFTY, Reform Judaism’s youth movement. Ordained in 1997, Rabbi Moses served for five years as Associate Rabbi at Temple Sholom of Chicago. Rabbi Moses sits on the board of the Columbus Jewish Day School. He is also on the board of Kavod, a non-profit tzedakah collective and is a member of the B’nai Ya’acov Council of the Jacob Rader Marcus Center of the American Jewish Archives. Rabbi Moses has had essays published in four books in the series on High Holiday prayers published by Jewish Lights Publications, as well as in many newspapers and magazines. He lives in Columbus, Ohio, with his wife, Cantor Bat-Ami Moses, who serves as the Hazzan at Temple Israel, and their sons, Caleb and Ezekiel. Rabbi Moses can be reached here.