Rav Yanklowitz

Rabbi Dr. Shmuly Yanklowitz

In this week’s parsha — Parshat Bo — we first encounter Rosh Chodesh, the holiday celebrating the new month (Exodus 12:2). Most everyone knows that Judaism follows a lunar-based model for timekeeping. While perhaps more complex than that of standard solar calendar, there is a piquant spirituality in using the moon versus the sun when tracking time. The cyclical waxing and waning of the moon hints towards a constant mechanism of renewal. As the moon reveals itself over the course of month, we see the potential to become new and refreshed with it. And is there anything more beautiful than a full moon sharing its light to bathe the night sky in its warm, reflective glow? 

Rabbi Menachem Froman, the late Israeli rabbi deeply influenced by Hasidut who also fiercely worked toward Palestinian-Israeli coexistence and peace, took the concept of monthly renewal one step further, seeing it as an almost mystical experience. 

The event of the new moon (hiddush) was, for the Sages, the most intense instance where we encounter the Creator and Renewer of the world. Revolutionary Marxism went to war against religion, primarily because it saw it as an anti-revolutionary force. Religious faith can lead us to conservative conclusions. Religion can sanctify the status quo as the handiwork of the Creator. However, we might also come to the exact opposite conclusion. If a person believes that the world is created … then they believe that the world could be radically remade anew (Ten Li Zeman, 119). 

To begin anew, we must start with choosing to choose. According to University of Michigan political scientist Ronald Inglehart, among other researchers, the freedom to make choices is the factor most highly correlated with happiness around the world. Our choice, as committed, positive, forward-looking Jews, comprises not only what we inherit, but also what we create. We should continue to persuade others to be a part of our movements, and encourage them when they choose their own movement, organization, ideology, genre or niche. With this choice, we inspire and promote intellectual, spiritual and relational uniqueness. We must re-commit ourselves as members of the Jewish people, to remain alive and evolving, a process that Nietzsche called “the transvaluation of values.”

And we have seen much success in the contemporary American-Jewish world. Today, there are many expressions of “doing Jewish”: They are musicians, social entrepreneurs, artists, spiritualists, farmers, educators, chefs, philanthropists, campers, activists, travelers, filmmakers and writers who want to push the definition to its limit. This talent pool expresses itself in markedly different ways from a mere decade ago, as Jews move away from the “normative” Judaism that bored or alienated previous generations to something that seems to them to be much more exciting and vigorous. These new models of Judaism can often make parents and grandparents uneasy, because many only know “normative” Judaism and are uneasy with this change. Not just them, but also those of us fully immersed in Jewish life may feel uncomfortable with those partially, albeit passionately, immersed in Jewish life.

At this moment, we are blessed with unique confidence among our young people. For example, a recent “Financial Times” survey revealed that three out of every four millennial leaders truly believe that they can make a significant difference. The worldwide youth movement that began in the 1960s created tumult but also enormous progress in civil rights and many other areas. Just think what a new youth movement can do if we allow it to experiment with Judaism.

Let us move from our obsession with the new marketing of Judaism to new products (ideas and initiatives). Let us move from hierarchical and centralized decision-making to empowered and inspired grassroots Judaism.

Of course, we cannot enact this change from a distance. The great Rabbi Akiva taught his son, Rabbi Joshua, that he should never sit and study at the highest point in town (Pesachim 112a). The lesson Rabbi Akiva strove to instill in his son was that we must never become removed from the people. Now, staying connected with our communities is easier than ever as we are all connected through listservs and social media but these light touches are not the same as real presence. Inspired Judaism is all about presence and we must remain cognizant of this. When we don’t encounter one another in person, we can miss each other’s uniqueness. Consider that Joseph’s brothers could not recognize him once he had a new position of authority and influence and, thus, was different from them. 

Judaism is radical. Judaism strives for justice. Our job, as Rabbi Froman argues, is to make the world anew. We are to emulate the Divine in creating a new world. We cannot accept oppression, injustice, ignorance and complacency as the human normal. Rather, we must promote — and live — a model that has existential depth, spiritual fervor, moral conviction and a commitment to creativity. 

The rabbis taught that one is only able to learn Torah when one’s heart is drawn open. When, as Jews, we speak about our moral and spiritual visions, in our own unique ways, we are speaking “Torah.” Rabbi Zeira’s teaching that “even the everyday talk of people in the Land of Israel is Torah” can be extended to include “Jew talk” — Jews wrestling with Jewish values — that shows commitment anywhere in the world. So, let our unique Jewish activism and teaching open peoples’ hearts so that Torah may penetrate, impact and renew faith in the world. JN

Rabbi Dr. Shmuly Yanklowitz is the president and dean of Valley Beit Midrash and the author of 17 books on Jewish ethics.

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