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Toward a More Diverse Judaism #708

01/07/2022 05:51:29 PM


Rabbi Irwin Huberman

Parashah Bo
“And a mixed multitude went up also with them.” (Exodus 12:38)

Toward a More Diverse Judaism

When you ask many Jews what the true meaning of Pesach is, you often hear:

“Pharaoh freed the Israelites after the plagues, and because they didn’t have time to let their bread rise in the desert, we eat matzah for eight days.”

It’s a correct answer, but is that all?

Passover is also a time to consider journeys — not only ours but those of our parents and grandparents — and more and more, these days, of those who do not “Jew” exactly the way we do.

My grandparents came to North America in the early 1900s to escape the pogroms and the Russian Revolution. They worked hard, saved what they could, and eventually opened “ma and pa” stores.

Their journeys — like so many of Ashkenazi descent — eventually made it possible for my parents to provide a secure home and an assured future for my brother and me.

But there are many more Jewish journeys — often ignored or forgotten.

In this week’s Torah reading, Pharaoh finally “lets the Israelites go.” But Jacob’s direct descendants did not leave Egypt alone.

The Torah talks about “a mixed multitude” who joined them — forced laborers, the forgotten, the enslaved. Tradition tells us Batya, Pharaoh’s daughter, was among them.

Our greatest commentator, Rashi (1040-1105), refers to this multitude as “an ethnically mixed group of converts.” Indeed, diversity has always been part of the Jewish story. This is true now more than ever.

A 2020 Pew Research Center poll concluded that 15 percent of today’s American Jews under age 30 are Hispanic, Black, Asian, otherwise non-white, or multiracial. Among Jews 30 to 39, that figure is 12 percent.

That compares with just 4 percent of Jews aged 50 to 64 who are non-white, and 3 percent of those 65 and older.

The times are changing.

Too often, mainstream Judaism has defined itself through the lives and customs of our European ancestors — mine and perhaps yours. These traditions, captured through Fiddler on the Roof, are sacred, inspiring, and comforting.

Yet, the Pew report inspires us to consider that perhaps the future of Judaism can be best assured not by respecting just one tradition, but rather by fixing our sights on a more diverse union. 

It is written in the Talmud that there are 70 facets of the TorahA colleague, Rabbi Greg Schindler, once remarked, “Maybe there are actually 70 faces of the Torah.”

In some South Korean schools, the study of the Talmud is part of the curriculum. Israeli Judaism, in many ways, differs from the way Judaism is practiced in America.

In Uganda, Indonesia, Madagascar, the Caribbean, and dozens of other countries and regions around the world, existing or fledging Jewish communities are growing and, therefore, so is the face of Judaism. Yet, the journey is not always easy.

Within America, according to “multicultural Jews often experience a sense of isolation in an American Jewish community largely characterized by historic immigration from Eastern Europe.”

A decade ago, our congregation chartered a bus to visit the Jewish Museum in Philadelphia. While most enjoyed the trip, I recall one person of Sephardic background complaining, “that was your European story — but where was mine?”

More than 3,300 years ago, the Jewish people began their exodus from Egypt. They did not speak with a Yiddish accent or rely on knishes or chicken soup as their primary staples.

Indeed, as our direct connection to Europe wanes year by year, perhaps Judaism needs to better consider how it defines itself and welcome more who have embraced the same mission through different paths.

For Judaism is far more than just a chromosome. It is a philosophy of life, a code of living, rooted in kindness, care and compassion. Noted the prophet Micah: "What God truly wants of us is “to do justice, love goodness, and walk humbly with our God.”

As we move into the future, perhaps Judaism needs to open its doors wider. We need to welcome, embrace and cherish the many customs, stories, music and traditions that now make up the changing Jewish mosaic.

This week’s Torah portion reminds us that the Israelites were not alone as the departed Egypt. They were joined by a “mixed multitude.” As we left Egypt, we embraced diversity. It is a return to that vision, which we would be wise to consider.

Everyone within Judaism has a story. Some began their journeys in Europe, others in the Middle East. Some were born Jewish, others entered by choice.

Each journey is precious in God’s sight, and calls upon us not to just honor one path, but to also embrace new perspectives, new traditions, and new questions as part of an expanded Jewish vision.

So much has changed over the past few years. Covid has spawned so many new approaches to Jewish tradition, prayer and identity. Social media has lowered many tribal boundaries. Perhaps it’s time that Judaism did more of the same.

Each of us travels a unique and sacred journey. It is not that different from the mixed multitude that Moses led out of Egypt.

For there is no one Promised Land. There are many, many paths and many destinations.

Diversity makes us stronger; it is part of the evolving face of Judaism. How exciting it is to know that we need not walk alone.

It is written in Psalm 89 — Olam Chesed Yibaneh“The world we yearn for will be built from lovingkindness.” 

This Olam Chesed, this world of compassion that we crave will not be achieved through one path, but through many faces and traditions.

Indeed, if Judaism — or for that matter the world — is to survive, we must respect each other’s journey and walk forward — Kadima — together.

Shabbat shalom, v’kol tuv.

Rabbi Irwin Huberman


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