June 24, 2011
Rabbi Samuel M. Cohon, Temple Emanu-El, Tucson, AZ
I was on a family vacation last week in Hawaii, on the island of Kauai. And I was standing on the beach with my wife, Wendy, watching the kids snorkel in this protected area of Lydgate beach, and we struck up a conversation with an older couple who had just come out of the water—the guy was still wearing his mask and snorkel on his head. And of course the couple turned out to be Jewish, and we knew people they knew, and they said something that I have now heard hundreds of times: "I'm Jewish, but not religious." They were very nice, and we enjoyed chatting with them, and they later emailed us, and perhaps we will become friends somehow or other.
It is, indeed, a small Jewish world. It reminded me of another beach friendship I struck up many years ago when I was a cantor in Santa Barbara, California. I took a trip to Tahiti with another cantorial friend, Hazzan Chayim Frenkel, with whom I grew up in Los Angeles. We went to a Club Med there, and in the course of the trip I found myself seated next to a guy at lunch I had just played beach volleyball with, or perhaps against. Both of us were wearing swimsuits and that's about it—that's kind of what you wear at Club Med in Tahiti—and we chatted about this and that, and finally he asked me what I did for a living.
Now back before I was ordained a rabbi, when I was a full-time cantor, a kind of unusual occupation, usually when I would answer that question from people I would get a blank stare, or the question, "What's a cantor?" But that time the man broke into a huge smile and said, "I'm a huge fan of cantors!" And we proceeded to talk about great cantors of the past, Yossele Roseblatt and Moshe Koussevitsky and Zavel Kvartin, whose recordings he particularly liked. It turned out that he as a guy named Michael Faktor, and he was the president of the Jewish community of Sydney, Australia at the time. And when I got back to my congregation in Santa Barbara, California, where I was serving then, and told the story, it turned out that a member of my congregation had grown up with this same man in Cape Town, South Africa. And then some years later when I served as a rabbinic intern in Sydney for four months I ended up going to his shiva, since he had passed away young just before my tenure there began. I spoke to his widow, and she recalled our meeting on that South Pacific island years before.
That's the kind of story of Jewish geography that I am used to experiencing when I travel the Jewish world. So this little meeting on the East Shore of Kauai wasn't distinctive, really. Except that this time the people involved, older folks, the kind you expect to be connected to a synagogue and a Jewish community, weren't. And I have found that be true more and more. It's not that there isn't still a great sense of connectedness among Jews everywhere in the world—it is. But for synagogues here in America today, there is a requirement here that, if we wish to see Judaism continue to thrive and flourish, we must go beyond the norms and practices of previous generations, and reach out in new and embracing ways to bring people back into our community.
Even on a South Pacific beach...
Now this particular couple ended up not being part of the organized Jewish community because they experienced one of the less attractive aspects of Jewish communal life firsthand. They felt quite rejected by that Jewish community, and they also saw how extraordinarily divisive it could be, how prone it was to infighting, how it sometimes turned on its own. And that was, well, a turn off.
Sometimes it seems that the many challenges of Jewish life through the ages have made it nearly essential for us to deal with difficulties with the absolute maximun of conflict and drama. You know, two Jews, three opinions, four synagogues...
It's like the old joke. The rabbi takes ill and a delegation from the board comes to visit the rabbi in the hospital. The president of the board comes to his bedside and says to the rabbi, "I'm delighted to inform you that the board of our temple has voted you a refuah shleimah, a speedy and complete healing—by a vote of 10 to 7, with two abstentions."
Anyway, I was thinking about this little beach incident this week as I contemplated the Torah portion of Korach. Now on the surface this parsha lends itself to a much more serious set of subjects. After all, it represents the greatest and most unprincipled and arrogant rebellion in Jewish history. There are reasons for this revolt: the people of Israel have just heard they are not going to get into the Promised Land. Think of it as the worst flight cancellation ever...
Stung by the sentence of death in the desert, at the start of this week's portion a group of rebels under the leadership of a priest, a Levite named Korach, challenges the control of Moses and Aaron. Born into the same tribe as Moses, Korach is an insider rebelling against his own kin: "Who are these guys, Moses and Aaron, to take on the authority of ruling over us?" he asks. He claims that these religious leaders, who have God's certification, have arrogated to themselves powers that should truly belong to the people. In their place he proposes placing a much more democratically appointed dictator—himself—to lead the people.
Korach's faux-populist rebellion threatens the very foundations of the Israelites' leadership. For if the God of liberation is not at the heart of this enterprise, if it's all a matter of personal ego and self-aggrandizement, of delegations and committees and Rules of Order, then we might as well go back to Egypt and live in slavery, as some Israelites propose now to do.
But Korach dissembles—he lies about Moses' motivations. Moses wishes to bring the people of Israel closer to God's ideal of a sacred community. Moses clearly has no great desire for his high office, but instead he has held it as a sacred trust given to him by God. In rebellion Korach threatens not Moses's authority, but God's.
Our Torah portion tells us that in order to determine the ongoing leadership of Israel a great public trial is conducted. The net result is that Korach and his followers are completely destroyed by God while Moses and Aaron are fully vindicated. It's always nice when God steps in and backs you up...
The drama of this scene is powerful and lasting. The religious vision of Judaism is reaffirmed: an ethical foundation based in Torah and God, not a community like all the others, based in human calculation and grasping for control.
The abiding lesson is that a Judaism that doesn't base itself in humility and reverence for God, and which is focused on personal gain and power politics, will fail. Only through faith, dedication to ideals, loyalty, and devotion to the higher purposes of Jewish ethics and meaning can we reach our own Promised Land.
And the truth is that only a Jewish congregation and community that work together with an understanding that God is the true arbiter, that seek commity and community rather than control and domination and argument, will attract the favor of that God—and of all those we wish to join and become a part of our kehilah kedushah, our sacred congregation.
May this be our will. For if it is, it will also be God's.