One of the core principles of American democracy is the freedom of the press. Reporters who take their jobs to heart know that they have to ask hard questions especially in challenging times. That freedom has been under attack from the office of the President.
From Judaism’s perspective it is clear how important the press, and its freedom to question, is, in that freedom depends on not accepting conditions that would undermine our liberty. America’s roots and origins in biblical principles reflect values that are aligned with Jewish values: the rights and dignity of each human being. Just as Judaism does not mandate the details of how you are to accept and connect with God, so our system is grounded in respecting and honoring different and differing approaches to life. What is unifying midst all the differences is the shared commitment, regardless of diverse approaches and interpretations, that, however contrary opinions may be, the ultimate goal is to identify best ways to assure human dignity and freedom.
At the core of it all is questioning. While some religious traditions discourage any challenges to the canon of those paths, particularly pertaining to how those systems teach belief in God, in Judaism there is no such dogma. I recall learning as a youth that Judaism has only one dogma: “there is no dogma in Judaism”. Our teachings involve discussion, debate, dispute, disagreement and at times passion that can lead to discomfort and upset. Even so, the underlying principle that prevails through the ages is that all such argument is acceptable and welcome when they are “l’shem Shamayim” rather than “lo l’shem Shamayim”. The former identifies disputes that are “for the sake of Heaven”, i.e. to bring greater awareness of God’s Presence and caring, vs. the latter identified as “not for the sake of Heaven” i.e. arguments to promote one’s self-interest, rather than what will benefit the community, the greater good…what will be of “value” to God.
Ironically, Jews that are not comfortable in their own skin and or do not take time to learn Jewish values and teachings in terms of their purpose in creating a Godly community, one that focuses on the wellbeing of the broader community rather than a few with their own interests, end up often not only with an incorrect understanding of Judaism but more significantly generating misunderstanding of Judaism and, worse, a kind of hostility to Judaism. As I write these words, we have just learned that the threats to Jewish institutions over the last months came from a young Israeli Jew holding joint American citizenship. While it may end up that this person was influenced by some physical brain-oriented illness, it does call to mind that throughout history some of the worst anti-Semitism was generated by Jews who were seriously troubled by their Jewishness.
Judaism does not thrive nor reflect well in a culture that discourages questioning. Ours is not a tradition of doing things simply because someone told you to, whether a rabbi, a parent, or other teacher. To be an empowered partner to God and to life requires encouragement to ask why, and even if some answers are “because”, (particular teachings known as “Chukim” “arbitrary laws”) even that needs to be explained or contextualized. The hard part in that regard is that, in order for the person in authority to feel capable of encouraging questions, he/she needs to continue to learn and grow in their own understanding of Judaism even as they inspire those in their charge to do so as well.
It all starts with Passover, celebrating our beginnings as a people empowered to question. Our liberation from slavery in Mitzrayim (place of constriction and strangulation…not conducive to healthy and vibrant living) is vouchsafed by our powerful celebration of freedom whose strength and character is revealed in endless questioning and particularly encouraging our children to not only be seen but to be heard. It begins with the courage to include at the Seder table even those hostile to the idea of being present, i.e. the so-called rebellious child.
In these difficult times, Judaism is blessed with a system that vouchsafes the tools by which to keep our freedom, even when forces would constrict us as life was in Egypt/Mitzrayim. We are blessed with times and seasons that call to heart, mind and consciousness all the priorities that can assure that the wellbeing of all people is our focus in good times and bad. Questioning is to be encouraged, not only through freedom of the press but through treating everyone in our lives respectfully and caringly. People of all backgrounds are to be honored for their differences rather than shunned aside for not fitting in.
The holiday following Passover 50 days later, Shavuot, the giving of Torah, is reminder that we are all to have access to learning and education, not just a chosen few or elite. The holiday of Sukkot is our time to celebrate that all are to share in the harvest of life’s blessing and not just those identified as “haves” vs. “have nots”. And all people, not just those that can afford it, are to have access to good health and wellbeing that we associate with the ability to “stop” and catch our life breath, as is the gift of Shabbat, a holiday that applies to our workers and our beasts of burden, as well as our families and friends.
We have so much to be thankful for as we prepare for our Feast of Freedom, Passover, in an era in which we need such substantive reminders, midst a broader society that may not have such a wise-hearted infrastructure to help address these times and access tools that can help to restore better times.
I look forward to sharing our journey from Mitzrayim to freedom with you during our Passover holiday as we pray and work for better times for our nation and world.