Jewish Journal

Torah Slam 2 Asks ‘What Is a Good Jew?’

by Danielle Berrin

Posted on Mar. 24, 2009 at 5:20 pm

For video footage of the event, click here.

If you want to rattle an auditorium full of Jewish kishkas just before Pesach, ask the question: “What is a good Jew?”

There was agreement but little consensus among the five rabbis invited by The Journal to debate the issue at Torah Slam 2, L.A.’s second cross-denominational public Torah study. The event was held at the Wilshire Theatre in Beverly Hills on Monday night and represented a spectrum of Jewish thought, including Orthodox, Conservative, Reform and Sephardic. The rabbis spoke in anticipation of the upcoming Passover holiday but were inevitably confronted by recent news events that have provoked deeply conflicted feelings within the Jewish community — the Bernard Madoff scandal, the Gaza War, as well as issues of homelessness and health care in the United States.

Addressing a crowd of about 700 were Elazar Muskin of the Orthodox Young Israel of Century City, Eli Herscher of the Reform Stephen S. Wise Temple, Ed Feinstein of the Conservative Valley Beth Shalom, Sharon Brous, the Conservative-ordained leader of the IKAR community, and Daniel Bouskila of Sephardic Temple Tifereth Israel. Journal columnist David Suissa served as moderator.

Muskin began by demanding more than ritual observance, alone. Quoting his teacher, Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik, Muskin said, “People who are ritualistically observant but ethically deficient distort Judaism. It is moral schizophrenia to separate ethics from God.” He went on to suggest that a good Jew balances “both sides of the Ten Commandments,” ritual observance and a quality of character. This he likened to the talmudic verse, “A person should be soft as a reed, not hard like a cedar.”

Herscher addressed his audience — Reform Jews who are highly identified but may be less stringent in observing Jewish law. “Good Jews are those who aspire to be better than they are,” he began, citing the verse, “Ha-yehudi ha-tamid ba-derekh — the Jew who is always on the way, always on the journey” as a foundational principle for becoming a good Jew. But, he argued, there is a fundamental problem in evaluating who is a good Jew because Judaism’s standards are so high, maybe even too high. The demands on morality, learning and observance are so great, he said, that “in order to be a good Jew, you don’t have to be much better than a pretty good Jew; if you’re fairly decent, trying to get closer to the standards of what is a good Jew, than you’ve achieved something already quite extraordinary.”

Feinstein challenged the audience to think of the so-called “wicked” child at the seder table as a catalyst for a deeper Judaism. It is the wicked child — the rasha — he said, who asks the toughest question: “Are you really willing to taste the bitterness of being humiliated, oppressed, dehumanized, put down, invisible? Or is this just a sort of nice easy suburban religious ritual?” The question, he said, is dangerous because if it’s taken seriously, Jews have to open their eyes to all the suffering in the world, and they must act; Jews have to consider the deepest aspirations of their faith. Feinstein offered the virtue of kedusha, “holiness,” or as he translated it, “bonding,” as the singular ideal to which Jews should aspire. “It means establishing a circle around the self and the bigger the circle around the self, the more godly you become — because God is the circle that embraces all.”

Brous, the only woman on the panel, added some levity with a joke. “I got here a little early tonight, and I was in the back preparing, and I decided to pray a little, so I said, ‘God, Lord, please don’t let me speak after Ed Feinstein.’”

Brous recounted the enslavement and degradation that befell the Jews in the Exodus story as a reminder to dream, even through dark times. “The Jewish dream is that all human beings can and should live in dignity, in a world of peace and justice. A good Jew is someone who dreams despite the fact that reality belies those dreams,” she said. “The measure of a good Jew is, do you fundamentally believe, either by faith or sheer force of will, that the world can look better than it does, and that you must take responsibility to make it so? You’re a good Jew if you know that you were put into the world to fight like hell to narrow the chasm between the world as it is and the world as it ought to be.”

Bouskila, the evening’s final speaker, provoked the crowd with an unequivocal mandate: To be an ideal Jew, he said, one must live in Israel. “There is no question that [an ideal Jew] is one who lives a full complete Jewish life, 24/7, and is willing to live and die to defend Jewish existence.” He acknowledged this idea might make some feel “inferior” but said that even a less ideal Jew understands “the centrality of Israel is the center of our lives as Jews.”

Bouskila’s admonition set the tone for much of the remaining debate. While most of the rabbis agreed that life in Israel is ideal, they also believe that Jewish values must be upheld wherever Jews live. When Bouskila suggested that a shoemaker in Tel Aviv is living a fuller Jewish life than an observant Jew anywhere else, Brous reminded him that living in Israel does not guarantee someone a “free moral pass.” Brous recalled recent news headlines regarding soldier conduct in Gaza that suggest there are, in fact, some bad Jews who live in Israel. “Our fear of criticizing Israel cannot allow us to be blind to the what is going on there.”

Feinstein jumped in to say that though immorality exists in Israel, very few societies are as morally self-critical as the Jewish state or have more desire to become better.

When Madoff was brought up, a silence fell over the group. The rabbis were reluctant to pass judgment, though later Muskin asked, “Why are we reluctant to answer the Madoff question? If he does bad, he is a bad Jew.”

“Madoff is an easy target,” Herscher said. “Everyone’s going to agree on Madoff.” He said that it’s more difficult to pass judgment on people with varying approaches to Judaism.

A crowd lined up for audience questions: Are you a good Jew if you do not follow halacha (Jewish law)? If you skip Shabbat but you served in the Israeli army? If you are sick or disabled and unable to fulfill all the mitzvoth (commandments)? And what are our obligations to the less fortunate? People without homes and health care? Jewish soldiers who serve in the U.S. military?

Some questions were partly confessions, while others were consultations. After all, it’s not every day that you get to ask anything of five rabbis sitting before you.

Torah Slam was produced by The Journal in cooperation with LimmudLA with support from Akeena Solar.

On its second round, the event was again a profound statement of community — a place where all Jews, regardless of their background, could learn Torah together.

For information about the Israel Studies Program and activities, visit www.international.ucla.edu/israel, phone (310) 825-5133 or e-mail israel@international.ucla.edu.

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