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Father and Son

04/06/2015 08:26:00 AM


Father and Son
Rosh Hashana 2010
by Rabbi Edward Feinstein & Rabbi Noah Zvi Farkas

While we pray here together on these high holidays, all across Los Angeles, all across America, there are small groups of younger Jews who have broken away from established congregations, and formed their own prayer groups, minyanim, and havurot. In living rooms, in backyards, in school gymnasiums, they gather this yomtov, to pray and learn and celebrate the new year together. They represent something new in the Jewish community, the next stage in the evolution of American Judaism, a new paradigm of Jewish life. They want to know, do they a place in our community? Is their voice welcome in our communal conversation? Is there room for their kind of Jewish expression? Are we prepared to welcome something very new in the way we do Judaism? 

They are not strangers, our own sons and daughters, some of our best kids. Today, in synagogues across America, there are empty seats where they once sat. This is a letter found on one of those empty seats.... 

Dear Dad, 

This year, I'm not coming to shul with you for the holidays. I know this will hurt you, and you'll be angry, and rightly so. But perhaps you'll hear me out and understand my choice. 

I have always loved the synagogue. You and mom raised us there -- in the bonds of a warm community of Jewish families. I like the rabbis and the cantors, and the sanctuary is familiar to me, but as the holidays rolled around this year, I just can't go back. The rabbi's talks are nice, and cantor sings well, but for me, there's something is missing. It's passive, and impersonal, it feels commercialized and superficial and perfunctory. I feel like the rabbis, the cantor, the choir, it's not me. I don't feel like I belong. So, as rough and off-key as it is, I want to pray in my own voice. I want to express my own heart. I want my prayers to be more than melodious; I want my prayer to matter. I want to believe the words I pray. And I want to say them with an emotional depth that is authentic and organic. When I was young, I appreciated seeing my friends from school, the community come together, and the pageantry of the services. When I left home for college, I had the opportunity of meeting new people, and finding a different expression of Judaism than what I grew up with. There was singing and dancing, and it seemed that everyone cared about praying. They took their prayer seriously. And then I came back to be with you and mom, and found nothing in the services that moved me. 

I'm of a generation that expects excellence. I search all over town for the most authentic Indian food, the most authentic clothing, and strive for the most authentic experiences. I think the same should apply to my Judaism as well. I want to know and feel and experience the presence of God as I pray. I don't feel the presence of God in the synagogue. In my Religious philosophy class, I learned from Buber that God is relational. I want to be in relationship to God. You and your generation created a glorious cultural, humanistic, and ethical Judaism. But you left God out. A God you can talk to, a God you can feel, and a God you can sing with and not only yell at. I want God back, back in my life. And I believe somehow, that God wants me back. 

I guess what I am trying to say is that I've grown spiritually beyond the cultural pageant of High Holiday services, and I care more about substance than loyalty. I want to experience the joy of communal prayer, not just learn about it. Please understand, Dad, this isn't petulant adolescent rebellion. I'm searching for something….a treasure you told me many times is waiting for me in the Jewish tradition. 

You taught me that the last mitzvah, the 613th commandment, given in the Torah commands every Jew to write his or her own Sefer Torah. Even if our parents and grandparents and ancestors bequeathed Torah to us, every Jew has to write his or her own. So Dad, I'm taking you seriously. I'm beginning my own Torah, in my own voice. You wanted me to learn to read the Torah, to learn to lead services. And I did in camp, but I never had a chance to use those skills once I got back home. So a few of us, some of the kids who were on my year abroad with me, friends from school and camp, friends and friends-of-friends, we're gathering in someone's apartment for our own services. We won't have to wear suits and ties, maybe we'll all were white. It won't be polished and professional like your services. But it will be ours. In our voice. Please understand I'm doing this because I love you and what you taught me. I will always be your son. 

An Email sent immediately after the holiday. 

Dear Son, 

One of the singular joys of my life is to gather our family together on these holidays – to sit together, pray together, eat together, and celebrate the new year together. As the years go on, as I grow older, I become more and more aware of how precious these moments are. There is an unyielding centrifugal force working upon us; it's called time. Not so long ago, we ate every meal together, I woke you up and tucked you in at night, we played together on weekends, the rhythms of our lives coincided. Now, you and your siblings are moving out, moving into your own lives, which is good, but I miss you. I cherish the moments we can steal from the flow of time to be together again. Especially on these holidays, when I look around the synagogue and see the empty seats of old friends who are gone now, I feel the preciousness of these moments and my need to gather you all in together. 

I miss you. But I've had a chance over the holiday to think and reflect on your words. 

There was a time when I too checked out of shul on the holidays. Your grandfather wasn't happy either. But I needed to find my place of prayer. The issue then wasn't spiritual, it was political. The country was burning up. We were fighting a war that we believed was deeply misguided and immoral, and so many of my friends were being drafted into that war. We watched the rise of Black power, the beginnings of feminism and the environmental movement, we experienced a sexual revolution, we sought enlightenment in psychedelics and meditation. We declared ourselves a counter-culture and brought every authority into question. In our music, our dress, even our hair, we mocked the mores of the Establishment and rejected our parents' way of life. We sought liberation in all things. To all of this, the synagogue had little to say. The Cantor grew a mustache and brought Simon and Garfunkle melodies into the sanctuary. But there was nothing in Judaism to answer our yearning for a freer, more authentic, more committed life. So we left. We went to seek it elsewhere. 

Then, some years later, about the time you were born, I realized that my generation asked all the right questions. But we didn't have the resources to find the answers. For a very simple reason – we were only talking to ourselves. We wouldn't listen to anyone else. We didn't trust anyone older than us. 

Like you, we believed we were the first to challenge what is, in the name of what ought to be. We believed we were the only ones with moral clarity and vision. Like you, we believed that our parents and the world they build were hopelessly lost, twisted and corrupt, and that only we possessed the courage and ingenuity to find truth. I don't mean to belittle your search. It's just now that I can see this process at work. To find God, Abraham left his father's house, his native land. Then Isaac did the same to him, and Jacob to him! Just what I did to my father….and now you to me. 

About the time you were born, I realized that to answer my generation's questions, I needed a wisdom older, deeper, more tested, than my own. That's when I returned to the synagogue. And I began to find my answers. You're right – the synagogue does not speak in my voice. That's what I love about it….the opportunity to listen to other voices, older and deeper voices. The synagogue is about listening. There is wisdom here. There is experience here. There are resources here for living life in the midst of uncertainty, and suffering, and distraction. I don't go to shul to express myself. I go to listen. 

Don't build your community entirely of people who look like you, think like you, live like you. Don't just talk to yourselves. Hearing your own voice gets awfully boring after a while. Find the humility to hear wisdom from outside your circle. Open the books of Torah, and listen deeply. 

I respect your search for the presence of God. My generation didn't banish God. After the Holocaust, it was impossible to talk about God. Jews have always felt the presence of God in history – that's what the Bible is all about. But after the Holocaust, how could one even entertain such an idea? So we did something else. We stopped talking about God, we suspended the questions of belief, and we acted in God's image. We did what we thought God needed done the world. God creates, so we created … schools and synagogues and summer camps and seminaries, the State of Israel and all its institutions, all in response to the decimation of Jewish life. God redeems, so we rescued Jews from the Soviet Union and Ethiopia, we built the most sophisticated system of charitable institutions in America, all in response to the cruelty and mercilessness we experienced. God demands justice, so we fought for civil rights for black people and for gay people, and equality and choice for women, and dignity for working people, and support for the poor and the vulnerable, all in response to the brutality inflicted upon us. God didn't speak in the Holocaust, so we were God's response. God was not in our words, God was in our hands. 

You don't sense God in the synagogue. But I do. I remember that we're only a generation away from the horrors of the Holocaust, and there are still survivors – eyewitnesses -- among us. Then I look at the thriving life of this community, at the families, their children, I feel God is close. That's all I need to know that God is present. 

I respect your initiative in forming your prayer group. Remember that Judaism is an embodied spirituality. There is no Judaism without Jews. And there are no Jews without community. And there is no community without institutions. So be very careful before you dismiss or deride or destroy institutions. They were not easy to create. They are not easy to sustain. No matter how magnificent their buildings or their boards, they remain fragile. If your little prayer group grows into something, you'll surely find this out. 

I wish you a year of blessings, your father. 

Email response posted at 2:30 AM that night. 

Dear Dad, 

Thank you for the seriousness of your response. 

I am not ungrateful for the institutions your generation built. But it seems that if your generation is the generation of the builders, than what is mine? What path can I forge? It seems to me, Dad, and I offer this with respect, that you went well beyond protecting these institutions. You got so involved in building and maintaining these institutions, you forgot what they were for. You forgot their higher purpose. I would rather pray on a folding chair in a basement with real kavanah, real feeling than sit quietly, without fidgeting in a cathedral, and reading English responsive readings. 

So much of your Judaism, Dad, is about defense. Like the fighters of Masada, you think of yourself locked in a desperate battle to defend a tiny remnant from a world of threats and destruction. To defend our place here in America, you battled anti-Semitism. To defend a Jewish future, you battled assimilation and intermarriage. And you passionately defend Israel from all its enemies. The language of battle, the rally cry to “never forget,” the constant sense of impeding crisis, brings so much passion, so much fire. It fills you with such a sense of purpose. 

I know you did this out of love for me. I respect that. But deep down, it was motivated by fear. And a commitment rooted in fear is bound to bear bad fruit. Out of fear, you pushed away those who intermarried. Out of fear, you pushed away those who questioned Israel. And out of fear, you pushed away Jews who don't agree with you. Dad, Fear is no basis for a Jewish life. Fear is a weed, once it takes root, it grows and grows until it finds its way everywhere. Ultimately, that fear will dominate your inner life and choke it to death. Dad, I want a Jewish life based on love and purpose and spirit, and joy, and not fear. That means my Jewish life will be different than yours 

At a certain moment in history, defense was the appropriate posture. The Jewish people needed defenders. But that's changed. I am not motivated spiritually by living in the shadow of Auschwitz or protecting the State of Israel. I care deeply about Judaism, the Jewish people, and Israel, but defense is not what I want my Jewish life to be about. 

You battled anti-Semitism so I would never know the hatred that shaped the lives of Jews for generations. I'm grateful to feel so much at home in America. And I know there are still people who hate us, and those who envision an America without Jews, I know that. But the bigger threat is that while you were so engaged in fighting those who hate us, we assimilated so much hate of our own. Just listen to the way Jews talk about immigrants, or Muslims. Listen to the way they talk to the cleaning lady or the valet. For that matter, Dad, listen to the way we talk about each other. The hate that has crept into our communal vocabulary is more vicious and more destructive today than the hate we face from any anti-Semite! 

You battled assimilation. You identified intermarriage as a communal catastrophe. I get that. We're a small people, growing smaller generation to generation. But I also know lots of good Jews who went into the world and fell in love with partners who weren't Jewish. It wasn't what they planned on, and it certainly wasn't a gesture of rejection – they still love being Jewish. But they ended up with non-Jewish partners. It happens. They still want to be Jews. They want to live Jewish lives and be part of Jewish communities, and even to raise Jewish kids. They want to be Jewish, them and their partners who like Shabbos candles, and Pesach seders, and building a sukkah. They're all are looking for a way into our community, some as converts, others as seekers. If we keep talking about intermarriage as a catastrophe, they will always be intruders – unwelcome and rejected. Is that what you want? I'm not for intermarriage. But it seems to me that we'd get farther with an open door and a word of welcome. 

When it comes to Israel… Dad, you and I are really going to disagree. You taught me about the importance of Israel to the Jewish people. I agree on that that. So much so, that I chose to go to Israel instead of Spain or Italy, or France when I was in college. The Israel I found wasn't what I had expected to find. When we talk about Israel here in America, it's always in the high-pitched tone of crisis. There is always an imminent threat, a looming disaster of existential proportions. When I got off the plane, that's not what I found. People live really normal, really nice lives in Tel Aviv. There are cafes, clubs, nice shops, a great beach. Whenever we talk about Israel, it's always about the conflict, their desperate struggle for survival against innumerable enemies – about Hamas and Hezbollah and Iran. That's a part of life in Israel, but it isn't everything. What I loved in Israel had nothing to do with crisis and conflict and struggle. That's not how I engage Israel….because Dad, that's not how Israelis engage Israel. What I loved was the life of Israel: Jews creating new forms of Jewish art. Jews creating new Jewish music. It was about the Jewish life that thrives there despite the conflict. You know how wonderful Shabbat is in Jerusalem, that's where I fell in love with Judaism, where I fell in love with God, and fell in love with the Jewish people. Dad…that's what I love. 

I'll support Israel, Dad, but not the way you do. There is an unstated rule that Israel is at war, its position is precarious, and our role is provide unquestioned support. When we talk about Israel and its politics, we are constrained never to criticize or question or object to its policies or what it does. It's practically become a reflex in the community. And anyone who challenges or questions this is immediately labeled a communal traitor and publicly castigated. Drawing that line in the sand, Dad, is the surest way to push younger Jews away from loyalty to Israel. 

Your generation is concerned with Israel's existence. My generation is concerned with Israel's character. Did you know that one in every four Israelis live below the poverty line? That more than half of the Israel's drinking wells are severely polluted? That a religious American woman got on a bus to Jerusalem to pray at the wall was severely beaten by an ad-hoc modesty patrol. And that the police arrested and imprisoned another woman for carrying a Torah at the Western Wall? Is this character of Herzl's dream? 

So grandpa called himself a Labor Zionist. And you call yourself an American Zionist. I'm a Critical Zionist. I love Israel. And I will demand that it live up to my Jewish values….the ones you taught me. I love Israel enough that when it fails to live up to its promise, when it falls short of our values, I'm going to speak out, I'm going to protest. I'll support Israel, Dad, by supporting those in Israel who work and fight and advocate for an Israel I can be proud of. 

I just hope the fear within you doesn't keep you from remembering that I am and always will be your son. 

Email posted the day before Yom Kippur 

Dear Son, 

My friend, the journalist Yossi Klein Halevy, says that there are two kinds of Jews – Pesach Jews and Purim Jews. Pesach Jews are shaped by the Biblical commandment, Remember that you were a slave in the land of Egypt. Because we were slaves, victims of Pharaoh's genocide, we walk the world with a special sensitivity to the rights of human beings to live in freedom and dignity. Purim Jews embrace a different Biblical commandment: Remember Amalek. Remember there is evil in the world, and remember that again and again, you were the object and victim of that evil. The Pesach Jew is the bearer of Jewish conscience, and lives by the rule, don't be brutal. The Purim Jew is the bearer of Jewish resilience, and lives by the rule, don't be naïve. 

You, my son, are a wonderful Pesach Jew. And I'm proud of that. I'm proud that you are so adept at finding our flaws and failures and demanding excellence in your spiritual life. I'm proud of your Jewish conscience. 

I, on the other hand, am a Purim Jew. Perhaps it is generational. Perhaps it comes with being a father and realizing the terrifying vulnerability that comes with parenting. I am a Purim Jew. The Jewish people is my family. And like any father, I have a keen instinctual sense for the dangers that affect my family. 

When you demand a more ethical, more humane Jewish community, I'm proud of you. You're certainly right that hate has infected us, especially in the ways we speak to one another. But at the same time, I don't see that our fight against anti-Semitism is over nor do I see that our continuing vigilance is wasted. Stories of blood libels still find their way to Arabic television. In parts of Europe, one doesn't wear a yarmulke on the street and synagogues are heavily guarded. And even here in America, anti-Israel protests slip seamlessly into vicious anti-Jewish hatred. I wish you were right, but we're not done yet with anti-Semitism. 

When it comes to inter-marriage, I confess my bewilderment. I think most in my generation are bewildered. We really want it both ways. I want you and your siblings to know how important it is to me that you choose a life partner who will share your Jewish life and help you build a Jewish home. I think you'll be happier that way. And your mother and I would really really like to have Jewsh grandchildren….and sooner rather than later if you please. At the same time, if you choose someone who isn't Jewish, I hope your partner will find a place in our family and community and share the beauty and warmth of our Jewish lives. The problem for the Jewish people isn't intermarriage. It's the disaffection of Jews from the treasures of their culture and faith. You know the language of your generation much better than we do. Show us how to bring Jews home, and we'll learn from you. 

This may surprise you, but we are not as far apart on Israel as you might think. I appreciate your stance as a “Critical Zionist.” You have a right to criticize. It's question of the tone you choose when you criticize. When we criticize someone we love, we use a special tone. We hesitate and reflect, before we judge. It's called tochecha in the tradition. We want to inspire the other to reach higher, to grow closer to their ideal. We don't want to hurt the other. You want to protest the policies and practices of Israel, that's fine. But do it in the tone of tochecha, with humility, care, reflection and love. 

You're not worried about Israel's existence. I am. Israel, thank God, is strong, but far from invulnerable. Israel was created to change the condition of the Jewish people, to give the Jewish people the power to control their own destiny. L'hitot am hofshi b'artzeinu. To live as a free people in our own land. But in the next few years, Iran will have a nuclear weapon, and once again, our fate as a people will rest in the hands of others. In the meantime, the world is engaged in an active process of convincing itself that the creation of Israel was a mistake. Nations are built on ideas, and when those ideas are proven false, nations fail. South Africa, the Soviet Union failed, we can fail. More than that, Ahminajab may deny the Holocaust, but he's a good student of Hitler. He knows that before Hitler could destroy the Jews physically, he needed to destroy their place in the world ideologically. Once they are of questionable value, no one much cares if they are destroyed. So Israel is pushed out of international organizations, its products boycotted across the globe, its scholars and artists disinvited from conferences. God bless Elton John, (and who ever thought I'd say that?!) who played a concert in Tel Aviv in June when so many other artists boycotted. 

Israel is currently engaged in a war for its own legitimacy. That legitimacy has to be earned. I think you and I would agree on this principle: Israel's policies are politically sustainable only if they are morally defensible. So, on behalf of Purim Jews like me, I offer you this deal: When you perceive that Israeli policies and actions violate our values, speak up. Your critical voice is welcome. It is part of a healthy communal conversation about our future. But when Israel acts with reasonable morality, and the world unjustly accuses it, you become Israel's character witness. When double-standards and ridiculously biased judgments are cast upon Israel, you become Israel's character witness. You must stand up and say – especially to your peers – this is not an evil nation. This is a nation that cares about morality, that strives toward a moral ideal. Do we have a deal? 

My son, I'm touched by your comments about fear. I suppose if there ever was a people entitled to a dose of fear, we're it. The problem is, there are real enemies out there, there is real evil in the world. And we have to fight it. 

You're right about the destructive effects of fear. I will think about that during this Yom Kippur. I promise you that I will not let fear or anything else separate us. We need to learn from one another, you and me, your generation and mine, your new Judaism, my old ways. 

When you were in high school, we would sit and learn Talmud together. Remember? I showed you how a page of Talmud is laid out. The rabbis argued, they disagreed vehemently with one another, they held radically differing visions of the righteous life. But somehow, they co-existed on the Talmudic page as they shared leadership in the community. Hillel and Shammai, R. Akiba and R. Ishmael, Rashi and the Tosafot, Rambam and the Ravad. Elu v'elu divrei elohim hayim. These and these are the words of the living God. We are a people strong enough to accommodate a vigorous debate about Jewish life. We are a people wise enough to learn from one another. 

You have much to teach us about the inner life, about learning to live with purpose instead of fear. You have much to teach us about welcoming God into our lives. Maybe we can teach you something about building a community grows and thrives in good times and bad. 

I know that your group is meeting on Yom Kippur. Do you think you come be with us for Neila? When the gates of Neila close, I don't want them to close us off from one another. You can bring your friends too, we have plenty of lox. Let me know, ok? 


Text message sent immediately. 
Is there room for us? 

Text message sent in reply. 
There is always room for you. And bring your friends. We'll break fast and begin the year together. 

Text message in reply. 
Great! We'll be there. Shana Tova Dad, I love you. 

Text message sent in reply. 
I love you too.

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Sat, August 15 2020 25 Av 5780