Bo – A Case for Jewish Creativity in Diaspora
In December, I had the privilege of attending my 4th URJ Biennial Convention, which took place in San Diego, California. The Biennial consistently draws over 5,000 Reform and Progressive Jews from around the globe, who come to learn from each other, from our seminary professors, from song-leaders, and from leaders in congregations doing all sorts of creative and exciting new things to enrich and enliven the experience of being Jewish in modern times. In those 5 days, I—along with so many others who studied, worshipped, danced, sang, laughed, and cried together—experienced “Aha!” moments of revelation, felt a tremendous and transformative sense of communal solidarity, gained clarity on our ethical responsibilities, and renewed our commitment to live up to the best in ourselves for the sake of building a better, more compassionate world. In these ways, the experience was nothing short of an echo of Sinai.
Of Sinai, not Zion.
At Sinai, too, we experienced an exhilarating spiritual high, cultivated a deep, binding, and abiding sense of peoplehood, and recalibrated our collective moral compass. One need not dwell in Zion before partaking of such consequential religious experiences, we learn from our ancient Jewish narrative. Neither must one dwell in Zion to create them, we learn from our modern Jewish experience. For while liberal Jews living in diaspora long ago abandoned the early classical Reform view that we dwell in “the new Zion,” we have nevertheless continued to affirm all along that a purposeful, fulfilling, stirring, creative, authentic Jewish existence can be ours, here, outside the Holy Land. Were we to believe that these gifts could be found, enjoyed, and fostered only in the land of Israel, what impoverished Jewish lives we would lead here in the other countries where so many of us have chosen to reside!
We would forever feel on the margins of Jewish life. We would create no new expressions of Judaism reflecting our values, beliefs, and experiences, but would instead let Israeli expressions speak for us. Soon the Judaism we practice might begin to feel foreign to us, diminishing in resonance. Modern expressions of Judaism must emerge from both Israeli and diasporan Jewish life, because this is the Jewish world we live in. Jewish 21st century life has a twofold identity.
This week’s parasha, Bo, reminds us that bold Jewish creativity can and must take place in diaspora—that it is essential to our self-understanding and, indeed, to Jewish continuity. From this parasha we learn that some of the rituals, symbols, and customs most central to our Jewish identity today were established before we even experienced redemption, that is, long before we ever reached or dwelt in the Promised Land. “This month shall be the first of the months of the year for you,” we’re told, as the slaves prepare to leave Egypt—and thus begins the Jewish calendar whose rhythms shape our lives to this very day. “And they shall eat the flesh [of the lamb] in that night, roast with fire, and unleavened bread; with bitter herbs they shall eat it,” we read, as the blueprint is laid for our Pesach seder (which, the Pew study and others will tell you, remains one of the most practiced rituals in our day, even in the “Jewish-but-not-religious” home). “And when your son asks you in time, ‘What is this?’ you shall say to him: ‘By strength of hand Adonai brought us out from Egypt, from the house of bondage… And it shall be for a sign upon thy hand, and for frontlets between thine eyes; for by strength of hand Adonai brought us forth out of Egypt,’” we are commanded, as we see the genesis of our haggadah shel Pesach and our commitment to pass down our story from generation to generation (along with the seedlings of pidyon haben and tefillin). Our parasha staunchly affirms that Jewish meaning-making need not wait until all Jews dwell in the Promised Land. Jewish creativity can happen in whatever state (and whatever State) Jews happen to dwell. Our story here in diaspora matters profoundly, and we should recognise the creations that grow out of that story—new rituals, symbols, and practices—as authentically Jewish creations, which can bear enormous religious consequence if we take them seriously.
Sinai and Zion—both are core to our Jewish self-understanding. My suitcase upon return from the Biennial is filled with items purchased from Israeli and US vendors alike, who set up shop in the convention center hall, selling everything from the Koren siddur to tallitot handmade by American-Jewish artists. The Israeli-made mezuzah I bought will always hold a special place in my heart (and on my doorpost), while the American-made “pocket blessings” I will also treasure, because they speak to my soul. I feel blessed to live in a world where I can find all of these creations on the same aisle. My spiritual suitcase is richer for the abundance of “torah” issuing forth from both Jerusalem and the diaspora. They are both my birthright. They are both my treasure. They are both my responsibility.