Take advantage of our
FREE Sh’ma e-letter.
Every month, you’ll
receive updates on
exclusive bulk copy
Sign up now at
she grew up in a world in which Rashi was never
wrong, even when he couldn’t possibly be right.
A few weeks later, I attended Friday-night services at B’nai Jeshurun in an effort to find some
Jewish grounding and inspiration. In the midst of
the service, rabbis Marshall Meyer and Roly
Matalon stood up and proclaimed with fiery and
prophetic certainty that as Jews we were obligated to engage in the fight against the spread
of HIV/ AIDS. Obligation? I had never before considered the idea, and it cut against my understanding of what religion is about (individuals
making thoughtful, autonomous decisions on personal spiritual matters.) But I liked it.
Much has been said about my generation —
raised on the instant gratification of Starbucks,
Twitter, and the iPod; we expect to have exactly
what we want exactly when we want it. What interest could we possibly have in something that
demands reverence and humility and a willingness to accept systems and ideas that don’t always fit comfortably with our values?
In my early days of religious exploration, I discovered an innate (and very Jewish) resistance to
blind acceptance of norms simply because they
were understood to be authoritative. But it also
reflected a deep desire for a Jewish religious and
spiritual life that is driven by the obligation to live
purposefully in the world — even when that requires taking positions that are unpopular and inconvenient.
Someone recently criticized me for failing to
promote a rally for immigration reform held on
Shabbat. Indignant, she recalled Heschel’s comment that “we are to pray with our feet.” I argued
that Heschel would have been in shul that
Shabbat — praying and preaching and learning
about immigration without violating Shabbat. I live
now as a halakhic Jew, and in some ways that
leaves me with an even greater responsibility to
challenge assumptions and defy norms, because
ultimately my rootedness in the tradition — and
its authority over my life — are foundational.
At IKAR, we strive for a vibrant religious life
that is reflected as much in a wholehearted and
creative davening culture as it is in our community’s serious social and political commitments. I
have found that the rigorous demands we place
on people are precisely what this generation finds
most resonant, even as they insist on the right to
challenge back. I wonder if you think that the dissolution of communal and denominational commitments — which to me seems to be a natural
and even healthy response to modernity — necessarily forecasts the dissolution of rabbinic
authority altogether? In other words, could you en-
vision a Jewish life that seriously challenges elements of an authoritative tradition, but at the
same time is able to maintain its legitimacy, making very serious demands on its adherents?
I am eager to hear your thoughts.
Thank you so very much for your response.
Your own story and the questions you pose at
the end of your letter focus precisely on the is-
sues that most concern us in this conversation.