יום שלישי, מאי 22, 2007

 

Shavuot, 5767

The following are the remarks I plan to give before our congregation on Shavuot, in honor of my conversion. (Some names have been suppressed in the interests of "semi-anonymity.") In the coming days and weeks I will also post some excerpts from the longer essay I wrote for my beit din and the exam for the Intro to Judaism course.


I have had an interest in Jewish culture and history for at least twenty years, but it was only in the past two years that my interests took the next step, through a spiritual awakening and ultimately to embracing God’s covenant with the Jewish People.

My interest in Jewish history and culture really blossomed after I began to travel to Eastern Europe for my professional research as a political scientist exploring the emergence of democracy after the oppression of Communism. The first of these trips was in 1992—the year my wife and I were married. In several subsequent visits I became especially fascinated with the collection of the Prague Jewish Museum, which had been assembled by the Nazis for their planned postwar museum of what they would call “the extinct race.” And, with the living Jewish communities in that part of the world being so small, there was little more than a “museum” quality to what I was experiencing.

Then in 2005, in the wake of the Orange Revolution, we traveled to Ukraine. We had talked about going to western Ukraine for years, to visit the city from which my wife's grandmother had emigrated in 1920. Days before our departure for Europe we had made a connection with Yale Strom, a klezmer musician and filmmaker, whose “Carpati” is a documentary about the life of a Jewish man in the small community in Berehovo. We were able to locate this man, Ze’ev. He took us into his beautiful small shul, still active for a very small community. Ze’ev recited a prayer for us. He spent much of the morning with us, telling us about his life, how he avoided being selected by Mengele at Auschwitz, and how he struggles to hold on to the tradition of such a small community today. When we came out of the shul, I said to my wife, I just had a religious experience. This man not only survived, he lived to continue praising God right in the land where Hitler and then Stalin tried to root out all aspects of Judaism.

More than a week later, on the flight back from Ukraine, we found ourselves seated amidst a group of young Jewish American women returning from a summer camp at which they teach young Ukrainian Jews to reconnect with their own traditions. Was this a sign? Flying high above Eastern Europe on one of the bumpiest flights I have ever experienced, surrounded by Jews keeping Judaism alive right in the heart of a land populated by Jews at least as far back as the 10th century conversion by the Khazar emperor and many of his subjects, yet nearly made Judenrein in the very lifetime of our parents. These experiences really drove home to me just how important it is to preserve and grow these Jewish communities of Eastern Europe: Only by Jews’ presence can God’s message of redemption for all humanity be heard in our time, right in the heart of the land where Hitler tried to snuff it out.

Upon returning home, I was determined to begin a process of exploring more seriously how I could connect with the traditions I had just witnessed reemerging in a democratic Eastern Europe from the ashes of Nazism and the darkness of Communism.

There were times during this journey when I thought I had come in “backwards”—that my interest in culture and history before faith and observance was the wrong sequence. But over time I have become increasingly confident that it is precisely the right way to do it. For what is conversion in Judaism? It is not merely the acceptance of a set of religious and theological principles. In fact, it is scarcely that at all. More fundamentally, it is the mutual embrace of the seeker and the community; it is the joining of an intergenerational covenant with a people and that people’s God. On Shavuot we read the Book of Ruth, which includes the following passage:

For wherever you go, I will go; wherever you lodge, I will lodge; your people shall be my people, and your God my God.


The sequence is significant: joining a community, accepting that community’s God. I have felt increasingly closer to the Jewish People for some time. Now I embrace the God of the Jewish People, making my entry into the Covenant formal today, on Shavuot, as we commemorate the receiving of the Torah. I do not know where this journey will take me from here, but already Judaism has given me a new perspective on several principles and practices that motivate the secular side of my life. I will give a couple of examples of how the Jewish concept of Tikkun Olam gives new meaning to causes I adhere to.

I have already mentioned that I am a political scientist by trade. I am also an organic grower on a small commercial scale; I have brought some of the bounty of the field to the Temple today, although it is fruit of the trees and not wheat. Like Judaism, the organic movement is all about making distinctions in basic activities like producing and consuming food. While I do not find the discipline of conventional kashrut relevant to my own life, I am exploring the emerging concept of eco-kashrut and its connection to organic agriculture. Modern urban, consumer society has become too detached from food production to recognize fully the extent to which one of the core aspects Judaism is to teach us to understand the Source of our sustenance—as reflected in an alternate name given in the Torah for today’s holiday, Chag HaKatzir, the early summer harvest festival. As Jews we are called to accept the responsibility that we not only sustain ourselves, but that we sustain ourselves sustainably. Organic agriculture is about ensuring that we minimize the impact on the environment in producing our food. Eco-kashrut offers a synthesis between good agricultural practice—something the Torah is deeply imbued with, in the context of the knowledge of its times—and modern Jewish living.

Returning to my political science side, I hope to enlist progressive Jews in a form of social action that might seem very distant or even irrelevant to most people hearing this—electoral reform to deepen democracy. We Jews have the most “democratic” of the major religious communities, yet too many major American Jewish organizations are oligarchic in practice and, for my taste, too closely tied to the secular and moneyed political power-brokers. This results in their being too distant from the real responsibilities of fulfilling God’s covenant to bring about peace among the nations and to take care of all Creation.

Fairer elections—right here in our own country as much as in Poland, Ukraine, or anywhere else—are an absolute necessity to open up channels of representation for all of us who otherwise end up submitting to oppressive hierarchies and being led into needless wars and environmental destruction. Without deepening democracy, there will be no sustainable peace in our world and ultimately no sustainability of creation itself. Thus democratic electoral reform is at the core of our responsibility for Tikkun Olam.

So what does being an observant Jew mean to me? It means keeping an eye out for acts committed in my name that harm humanity or the environment—“let them be for frontlets between your eyes.” And it means, taking corrective action—“bind them as a sign upon your hand.” This is how we work to bring closer the day when, as the prophet Micah foretells, the nations shall beat their spears into pruning hooks, so that all may sit under their vine or under their fig tree, and none shall make them afraid.

Ken yehi ratzon.

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