May 3, 2001
Jewish Big Time
A month after Passover, the winds have not yet died down from the "Wolpe Hurricane."
Rabbi David Wolpe of Sinai Temple in Westwood caused a stir when he asserted, in earshot of a Los Angeles Times reporter, that the Exodus story can still inspire us even if, as some archaeologists assert, the story of the liberation from Egypt is not true. Rabbi Wolpe's remarks ended up on the Times' front page during Passover and became grist for sermons and Torah study all over town.
Readers of this newspaper have been kept well-informed on the controversy -- the to and fro of great minds on the question of whether it is OK to question Jewish fact and story, whether it is right or even possible to separate faith and fact.
I doubt that one mind has been changed by the debate or that one home has decided, "Next year, no seder for us." That's because with Passover, as with much of Jewish ritual, time is porous, and history, whatever its origins, is only the beginning. Out of the story of the Exodus came the Warsaw Ghetto uprising, not to mention the civil rights and Soviet Jewry movements.
Nevertheless, Rabbi Wolpe has done us a service by pointing out just who we Jews are and who we are becoming.
We are a community that still predominantly gets its sense of self, including what Jews believe, from the non-Jewish world and the secular press. We still care about how we look to non-Jews, and we shrei gevalt at whatever the Times puts on page one, even if the subject of the story itself wouldn't quite fill a classroom at the University of Judaism.
Some years ago, the Times caused a similar ruckus when Robert Scheer did a three-part story, which also ran on the front page, on the topic of who leads Jewish Los Angeles. By naming some and omitting others, the Times shaped how Jews regard themselves, at least for a while.
But who are we becoming? That's the interesting matter. Scheer and the Times would hardly catalogue Jewish leaders today.
Taken narrowly, this story alone indicates an astounding development: that non-Jews themselves are familiar with Judaism, including Jewish ritual. If you grew up with traditional Jewish fear of the world outside the ghetto, you understand the revolution that has occurred. Every year the number of non-Jews at my own seder table increases. At some seders, the non-Jews are a large minority.
It's not only intermarriage but the close cooperation and friendship between Jews and non-Jews that is breaking down barriers. Everyone knows about matzah and prays for an end to tyranny. We are getting to see in our own time what the "mixed multitude" might have been like on the eve of the Exodus and why many, inspired by the biblical ideas of freedom and faith, made the journey out of bondage.
Beyond what it means to non-Jews is what the controversy suggests about us: that we are, finally, ready for the theological Big Time. For much of the post-Holocaust era, Jewish thought was mired in a series of isms: literalism, sexism and anti-Orthodox cynicism. To this day, many liberal Jews are still fighting the last war, formulating their Judaism as an answer to ideological limitations that no longer exist. As Rabbi Harold Schulweis has noted, we got bogged down in defining God and forgot about Godliness.
Today's world hungers for more, for the serious confrontation with spirit and love that our tradition provides. Religion, as the Wolpe controversy allows us to see, is much more than stones and bones, more than archaeology and the limited record of human history. It is also more than anemic notions of faith accepted without question. Faith is in the grappling.
The Times story couldn't capture why Passover, and by extension Judaism, endures; how it answers the deep desire for the reconstruction of holy time and space, for belief that inspires action without loss of rationality and provides a view of God that both encourages optimism in the face of pain and yet understands the agony of human limitation.
This is the Jewish Big Time. Get ready for it.