Discrete, Wise, and Filled With Spirit: A Diaspora Judaism of Robust Hope

06/05/2015 03:29 pm ET | Updated Jun 03, 2016

Let me share with you that I've had a challenging schedule the last couple of days. The reason that the Ziegler Ordination was on a Tuesday night this year -- violating time-hallowed tradition stretching back to hoary antiquity that the Ziegler Ordination is always, always, always, on a Monday night -- is because the only thing more powerful than unbroken tradition is my daughter, Shira, who graduated on Monday from Ithaca College, which you know is in Upstate New York. A piece of advice to Los Angeles parents: If you want to be sure your children come home, send them somewhere very, very cold.

But here is what I want you to know about Ithaca College and its beautiful graduation ceremony: there are not a lot of our people there, if you know what I mean. Like, that's basically, nobody observant and Jewish at that graduation. I saw only one kippah and that was when I did aerial selfies. Of course, being a Jew in a place where there are not many Jews leads other people to respond to you in unusual and piquant ways. For instance: At a social gathering honoring the women's crew team, on which my daughter is a coxswain (that's the person who shouts at everybody else, transforming a lifelong disorder into a valuable asset) somebody from across the room sees my Jew-hat and feels the need to tell me that they have always loved the Jewish People. In fact, they teach in a school, and every year in December they make a point of bringing one of those candelabras, and they teach people about Hanukkah, as well as Christmas, because it's so important that we should all love each other, isn't it? And, it is! But my favorite moment of the graduation ceremony came about as a result of the institution honoring with an honorary doctorate, the remarkable playwright, Tony Kushner. He was given five minutes to speak, stuck to his deadline, and he was brilliant, pithy, and concise.

At the reception afterwards, a man approached and told me that he was 79 years old and had never heard a better graduation speech. And I said: "Yes, it was pretty good!" He told me his name, and so I said: "Brad Artson" and he brushed it off with his hand, looking a bit annoyed, and then he proceeded to tell me that he's a great admirer of my plays. I realized then that he assumed that I am Tony Kushner!

Now - I'm a rabbi, so my job is to let people believe what they want, so I thanked him and told him how happy I was that he enjoyed it.

But here's the serious lesson I learned from my time in Upstate New York: We Jews are a strange and exotic creature. We are odd, we are unusual, we are slightly magical, and we are wonderful.
The question I want to pose to you is, what is the appropriate Judaism that is also strange, and weird, and magical, and wonderful? There are voices out in the world -- Jewish and Gentile -- who try to force us to cower in fear; to create a Judaism of boxes and walls; a Judaism in retreat; a defensive sort of Judaism in which we attempt to minimize our losses. But that is not the Judaism that those people who looked at me saw. They saw weird and wonderful and magical!

So my question, my challenge, my invitation to us all is, can we rise to give them what they want? Can we give them a Judaism that is open, and bold, and boundary-crossing, and brave, and world-shattering, and world-shaping? Can we offer the world a Judaism that does not cower in fear, that does not assume a defensive posture, but proudly goes out in the world because we have something the world needs?

We are not alone. The model exists. I think of Joseph in Egypt, being "the Jew." Imagine the stories he was told! But he was one shrewd visionary, and he accomplished some remarkable things. I think of our Queen Esther, and how she was able, in her community, to mobilize our people and to bring allies to the table to find an unjust decree. And I think of the greatest of them all, our Rabbi Moses, who wandered in Diaspora his entire life saying the world of pharaohs will eventually crumble so don't stand too close to the palace. Don't become attached to the glory and the pomp. It will fall; the coercion will collapse.

But we are a people wandering and pledged to a God we do not see with our eyes, we intuit with our heart. If we are to be great, it will be with a text of justice and yearning, we will see the empires rise and crumble, and rise and crumble, if we are true to who we are meant to be. I think of the values that move us in the world, and that I hope move you, as well. "Some trust in chariots, some in horses, but we, we devote ourselves to the Lord, our God (Psalm 20:7)." I think again of Joseph, the Hebrew house slave, who offers the advice: "Now therefore, let pharaoh select someone discrete and wise." ... and Pharaoh said to his servants, 'Can we find such a one as this? A person in whom the spirit of God resides? (Genesis 41:33, 38)'"

Discrete and wise, and filled with the spirit of God. That is who we are called to be. That is who we are invited to be. That is what the world expects us to be.

We betray ourselves and them when we allow ourselves to be made into a tinsel pharaoh, into some cheap version of Rome. When we hide behind the convenient illusions of coercion or injustice or domination, we become a poor version of something we are not.

We are the rich heirs of thousands and thousands of years of Diaspora living. We celebrate with our brothers and sisters the resurgence of Jewish life in the land of Israel, and its work to attain a just settlement for Israelis and for Palestinians, for democracy and for security in our Land. But we are here, and we must turn to our roots to those great models of Diaspora life each of whom knew enough to rely on wisdom and not coercion; who were able to rely on resilience rather than retribution; who excelled in learning and in compassion; whose patience was one of limitless depth, of faith and of hope. I bless each of us that we should resolve to represent to the world a Torah that is a source of wisdom, not only for our own, but for all peoples. A tradition that is a source of justice, not only for our tribe, but for all tribes and for the tribeless. I bless us that we should be a source and a channel for holiness, both for those with faith, and those whose faith has been wounded and damaged and left behind. And finally, I invite us to live the vision of our prophet Isaiah, to become truly "a beacon to the Nations (Isaiah 49:6)," so that in the Judaism we breath and live and walk, the world will know through us, greater light, greater justice, and greater peace.