The Key to Jewish Survival

A sermon by Rabbi Gary M. Bretton-GranatoorRosh Hashana morning 5784

We are living in a time of shifting tectonic plates under the Jewish world.  The synagogue model of the 1950’s no longer sustains many in the community. Jewish defense organizations have changed their priorities as much to address changing needs as to address donor interest.  Denominational differences, once clearly defined, have become fuzzy.  The changing demographics have impacted who and what constitutes our community: interfaith relationships, the growing awareness of Jews of color, gender and identification by sexual preferences – all have led to a much different picture of our community thanone would have seen in the 1950’s and 60’s in North America in which Ashkenazi hetero-normative ruled the day.

What we are living through has the same dynamics and consequences as what happened at the time of the destruction of the Second Temple in 70 CE.  The Temple was the locus of Jewish life and identification.  Absent the Temple the question was: what would hold the community together? Yochanan ben Zakkai understood that the only chance of survival required the institutionalization of Torah learning and study.  It was the creation of the academy system in both the land of Israel and Babylonia, that held the community together.  But at the moment of the destruction of the Temple, the Jewish community did notyet know that an answer might be forthcoming.  

We stand at the same kind of inflection point – we know that our world is changing, but what the key to our survival will be, seems elusive.

One of the great rabbis of the generation before me, who passed away last year (February 2022), Rabbi Simeon “Shimon – Shim” Maslin, was a former president of the Central Conference of American Rabbis, and led Congregation Kenneset Israel in Elkins Park, outside of Philadelphia, for 17 years. He was widely published and respected.  Many would say that it was Shim Maslin who restored the concept of “mitzvah” to the lives of liberal and Reform Jews, as an editor of the text: “Gates of Mitzvah” (originally published by the UAHC in 1979).

Shim once wrote: “We Jews have not survived for 4000 years in order to leave to the world a legacy of lox and bagels, nor in order to leave a legacy of ethnic comedy and best-selling fiction, not even to leave a legacy of Nobel Prize winners. We have not survived for 4000 years in order to produce a generation that proudly wears chais around the neck, golfs in the low 80s, reads the New York Times and donates over a billion dollars annually to philanthropy. While condemning none of this and participating in some of it, I do not see any of it as providing a clue to the survival of the Jewish people….” (sermon offered at installation of Rabbi Jeffrey Salkin at his congregation in Port Washington NY, 1996)

So, what is out there that will prove to become the key to our survival?  First, we can look to the rabbis: two of whom were also named Shimon.  First, Shimon Ha Tzaddik (Simeon the Righteous) who lived after the death of Alexander the Great and was the High Priest responsible for fortifying the walls of the Second Temple, taught us: Al shelosha d’varim ha’olam omed: al haTorah, v’al ha’avodah, v’al gemilut chasadim.  The world exists because of these three things: Torah, worship and acts of lovingkindness.  (Pirkei Avot 1:2) The second: Shimon ben Gamaliel, who lived during the Roman War that led to the destruction of the Second Temple (and lived more than three centuries after Shimon HaTzaddik), said, Al shelosha devarim ha’olam omed: al ha’din, v’al ha’emet, v’al ha’shalom. The world exists because of these three things: Justice, Truth, and Peace. (Pirkei Avot 1:18)

While both rabbis offer aspirational guidance to us – they were speaking to generations of Jews who had yet to implement these ideals.  Regular study of Torah was sporadic and inconsistent in the early days of the rabbis.  And during wartime with Rome, one could only hope that justice, truth, and peace would prevail.  But we live in a day and age where Jewish study is taken seriously.  More institutions of higher Jewish learning exist than ever before. Sefaria, an on-line tool, unlocks the wealth of Jewish knowledge to anyone who seeks it: Torah, Talmud, commentaries, lesson plans, in Hebrew or English – all are available to anyone with internet access. This congregation takes study seriously – now even in the off-season.  The concept of performing good deeds is ingrained in most Jewish congregations and communities: Mitzvah Days, packing food bags for the hungry, incorporating mitzvah projects in the year of b’nei mitzvah preparation.  Outward mitzvot and service to others abound.  But none of these lead to the solution we need.

By the close of the Talmud, and with the influences of Arabic translations of Plato and Aristotle, Jewish thinkers like Maimonides, Nachmanides, Yehuda HaLevi, Saadia HaGaon,Gersonides, all wrestled with the same probing question:  and they analyzed the issue by looking through three lenses, which later systematic philosophers (influenced by rationalism, nationalism, or existentialism) such as Ahad HaAm, Hermann Cohen, Buber,  Heschel, Judith Plaskow, simplified with three words: God – Torah – Israel.  Most saw these three as points on a triangle.  The word you put on top (as the most critical) defined how one understood the other two (that’s what made them systematic – they approached the questions so that the answer to one informed the other two).

Yet, we live in an age in which there is no agreed upon definition of any of these three terms.  Within the mainstream Jewish community one can find people who don’t believe in God, or in any of the myriad definitions proffered by philosophers, teachers, and mystics.  How we define ourselves as a people is as multifarious as the ways different Jews relate to Torah (is it God written, inspired, is it the product generations of writers, is it just the five books, or the whole rabbinic bible, or is it the text with layers of interpretation, is it the totality of Jewish wisdom, or is it of no moment?).

The philosophers, while making for fascinating reading and thinking and cogitating, don’t offer us a key to our survival either.

I turned to my colleagues, and through the wonders of a FaceBook group chat, I asked what they thought was the key to our survival.  If you look up this sermon on our website after it has been preached, I will include the actual responses I received in a 72-hour period with the names of the rabbis who responded.  My colleagues are wise and thoughtful, and I am grateful for their responses.  I think that some of them pointed in the direction I was heading. Some made me rethink my initial impressions.  Some caused a jog and detour along the way. I am grateful for a community of people who care deeply for the future of the Jewish people and labor each day for its sake.

In our current age, there is a great effort that is put into finding our “universality” – how we are all part of the world around us.  At the same time, different groups of people are asserting their identity in ways that negate others not like them – and they separate themselves from the wider world.  This kind of unhealthy particularism divides us and makes conversation and cooperation almost impossible. Look at what is happening in this country with those on either side of the political divide.

But there can be a healthy particularism – one that asserts pride in being part of an exclusive community and yet works for understanding and cooperation with the wider world.  For us, it means embracing the terms “Jewish people” and “Jew.”  But this “healthy particularism” requires something else: learning to live within polarities.  This is the new hip term in the business and management fields.  We need to learn to navigate differences within our community (and by extension, with the wider world outside of our exclusive community).  Differences of opinion, or practice, or points of view, are not problems to solve – they offer us a challenge to live with them. When we have conflicting points of views, our natural tendency is to decide between one or the other — which creates a problem. But if we see it as a polarity, we find a way to see both/and. Balance (as one finds when doing yoga, or physical therapy) is achieved when we remove the tension. For example, look within the Jewish world at the vectors of “commandedness” and “autonomy.”  Within the traditional Jewish community, one must live with a sense of commandedness – following the mitzvot is a learned response to feeling commanded by God.  Yet, within the more liberal part of the Jewish world, the sense of autonomy is critical – one does not want to give up agency in order to feel a part of the community.  It need not be one or the other – but to learn to live within these polarities and navigate through them.

We here, at Congregation Shirat HaYam, have done a good job of modelling this healthy particularism.  We proudly participate in the life of Nantucket in the fullest ways possible, and we do so as members of a unique community among many.  We do not segregate ourselves from the wider population, but we do make ourselves known.  And we often navigate the differences of the members of our community respectfully recognizing that there are many ways “to do Jewish.”

We still, too often, reflexively fall back on “discussion as debate.”  We must cultivate an on-going spirit of conversation.  “In its ideal form, conversation involves no audience or judge, just partners; no fixed agenda or goals, just process. As the philosopher Michael Oakeshott observed, in conversation ‘there is no ‘truth’ to be discovered, no proposition to be proved, no conclusion sought.’ What matters, he continued, is the ‘flow of speculation’ Conversation is casual; it isn’t a chat (too noncommittal), a debate (too contentious), or a colloquy (too academic).” (“What Conversation Can Do for Us” by Hua Hsu,March 13, 2023, New Yorker Magazine – Book review of Paula Marantz Cohen’s “Talking Cure: An Essay on the Civilizing Power of Conversation” Princeton University Press) We do well here, but we still have work to do – we must be careful – one can hurt themselves trying to pat oneself on their own back.

Yet, healthy particularism is not enough to guarantee our survival.  There is one more element which must be brought to the fore.  In the end, it is mitzvot.  My friend, Rabbi Jeffrey Salkin, who credits Rabbi Shim Maslin as one of his most important mentors and friends, wrote an article in memory of Shim days after his passing.  He said, “Shim wanted to teach Jews how to make Jewish responses to life. He wanted to give their lives Jewish meaning, depth, and character. It was the mitzvot – and little else, he believed – that had guaranteed the creative survival of the Jewish people….  That we would be a goy kadosh, a holy people. (from “My Rabbinic Role Model Has Died” Martini Judaism column RNS, Feb 1, 2022)

How do we pair healthy particularism with mitzvot – it is in the way we see the things we do.  Making bags to supply the food pantry, giving generously to causes that benefit the needy,ordering supplies on Amazon to supplement the food pantry, picking up trash on the beach, swimming to raise money for cancer research…. These and thousands more actions are all good deeds – and we can do them because they are good.  But we need to see the world through “Mitzvah-colored glasses” – as opportunities to live out the demands that Jewish faith places before us.  To see ourselves as partners in God’s plan to make the world into the world it could and should be.  To see ourselves as essential to the cause of bettering the world – because Jewish tradition demands it.  This takes every action we do for good and makes it a holy action.  And holy actions done by a community of Jews makes us a ‘goy kadosh’ – a holy nation.  

The key to our survival is by accepting the differences within our community and embracing them as we see ourselves as unique.  And by doing things within and outside of our worldthat we identify as Jewish actions will preserve us because we will be acting Jewishly, identifying Jewishly, and lifting up our Jewishness as an essential part of our being. Am Yisrael Chai – The people Israel live so long as we live…. Jewishly.

My colleagues respond:


Richard Steinberg


Greg Wolfe

The key to our survival is the evolving ethical framework we have provided to the world to create heaven on earth!

Sam Gordon

Are you asking what is the key to our survival or what is the purpose of our survival? I will offer an answer to the second question. We reject the heresy of believing that we humans are god. We are mortals. That was the lesson to Pharaoh and all future Pharaohs

Matt Friedman

..crucial virtues, gratitude, kindness, faith, always questioning, always thinking…and always doing

Beni Wajnberg

The key to our survival is realizing we abandoned the project of a house (the Temple, the institution, the building) and embrace the project of a home (heart-centered, portable, time-bound, emotional ground)

Ariel Edery

The key to Judaism survival, is one question. What’s the purpose/value of Judaism surviving, that’s another.

“Ethnic” tribal Judaism, and fundamentalist Judaism are likely to “survive” – but not bring much good from it.

Judaism as a way of living life guided by knowledge and ethics may or may not survive,but the goal is to make life better for me, And the Jews, And all people, And all life on earth. That’s worthy, even if not guaranteeing survival

Len Zukrow

To end suffering

Glenn Ettman

listening to the messages of our sacred texts and not mistaking google or “instant jewish answers and responses” as community.

Howard Laibson

… Jewish community.

Howard Laibson

… Jewish summer camps.

Haim Shalom

The “key” (i.e. the How?): the ability to adapt, founded in the ability to determine the most important elements of our culture from the scaffolding. (i.e. the Rabbis took the “essence” of Jewishness (as they saw it) and adapted it from a national culture to an exilic one; the modern movements took the “essence” of Judaism (as they saw it) and adapted it from an exilic culture to a religious one; the Zionists took all that they inherited, and rebuilt a national culture.)

The Purpose (i.e. the Why?): Judaism exists in order to guide Jews to being better versions of themselves.

Rabbi Aaron Starr

The key to Jewish survival is our refusal to accept the status quo as “good enough”

Jonathan Biatch

…viewing ourselves — and engaging in the world — as vessels of ethical authenticity: discerning and learning lessons from our human past, employing our knowledge to make today’s world better, and carrying forward into the future values to elevate humanity to higher levels.

Alan Cook

Playing with similar themes. One thing I’m thinking about is the statement of the רשע at Pesach. Maybe the key to survival/ adaptability is being willing to be chutzpahdik and ask, “What does this mean to YOU?” in order to then be able to re-imagine and adapt and say, “OK, well now this is what it means to ME.”

Susan Landau Moss

Alan Cook I like this. It makes me think that our people will not survive unless we all as individuals can answer that question about why our survival is worth it. And it might be different for each of us, but we are all accountable to answer the question of why

Paul Yedwab

My dad Rabbi Stanley Yedwab z”l used to say that “Judaism is a process of resisting popular culture”.

Alan Cook

Just saw a pre-release screening of “Golda” with Helen Mirren…a slight spoiler not directly related to the plot: In a meeting in her home, Golda offers Kissinger some borscht made by her housekeeper. He initially refuses the offer. Golda whispers to him, “You have to eat it, Henry. She’s a survivor.”

From this, I’d say that part of our survival is our constant reflection on, and reverence for, our continued survival.

My favorite response:

Karyn Kedar

I kind of like leaving it as a question. A challenge. His words invoke deep thought and curiosity. Let the people answer for themselves. If not this, then what?

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