Renewing the Covenant Between God and Israel: Thoughts on Parashat Nitzavim – R. Marc Angel

Renewing the Covenant Between God and Israel: Thoughts on Parashat Nitzavim, September 24, 2011 | Institute for Jewish Ideas and Ideals.

Rabbi Marc Angel presents a real thought provoking piece for this week’s Torah portion about the ability of our communities to accept people who are not “one of us.”  In the story he shares, a man who converted to Judaism expresses his frustration over the lack of feeling accepted by asking if he could have his conversion annulled.  To me, this is just sad.  Have our communities become so fearful of insincerity that we are afraid to make people welcome?  Do we not realize we are all on equal ground?  R. Angel relates this to the beginning of the Torah portion, in which the entire nation is gathered together to confirm the covenant one last time before entering Israel.  His piece is a must read before Rosh Hashanah, as perhaps our goal this year should be focused on being better to each other, especially in this crazy world we live in today.

“You are standing this day all of you before the Lord your God; your heads, your tribes, your elders, your officers, all the people of Israel; your little ones, your wives and the stranger/convert that is in the midst of your camp, from the hewer of your wood unto the drawer of your water” (Devarim 29:9-10).

Over the years, I have received many hundreds of inquiries from people interested in converting to Judaism. Some have been spiritual seekers who have found meaning in the great teachings of Torah. Some have discovered Jewish ancestry and now want to reconnect with their Jewish roots. Some have fallen in love with a Jew, and have wanted to become part of the Jewish people and raise a Jewish family. Whatever the motivation for their contacting me, I have derived much satisfaction and joy in dealing with this large and diverse group of people.

Recently, though, I received an email inquiry which was entirely new to my previous experience. The note came from a person who had converted to Judaism with an Orthodox Beth Din—and now wanted to know if it would be possible to annul his conversion!

I informed him that once a person becomes halakhically Jewish, there are no annulments. But then I asked him why he wanted to annul his conversion? I wondered if he had lost faith in God and Torah, or if he had experienced anti-Semitism, or if there were other factors which motivated this unusual request.

His answer relieved me…and pained me deeply.

It relieved me because he assured me that he loved God and Torah, that he studied Torah regularly, that he found great satisfaction in observing mitzvoth. His problem wasn’t with Judaism and the Jewish way of life.

It pained me deeply because he informed me that the problem was the Jewish community in which he lived! He felt that members of the community treated him like an outsider. Being a single man, he was having great difficulty establishing a positive social life. Whether this was his own impression or whether it was objectively true, he felt that he was discriminated against because he was a convert, because he was of a different background from the mainstream of the community. So he decided he wanted to annul his conversion because Jews had rejected him.

I told him that he should stay true to God, Torah and mitzvoth—but that he might be happier moving to another community! He seemed reassured by this answer, and wrote to me that he indeed would continue to study and observe Torah…but that he would try to find a more congenial Jewish community in which to live.

In describing the covenant between God and the people of Israel, the Torah informs us that ALL Israelites were to stand before God—from the elite leaders, to the humble masses, men and women, old and young, born Israelites and converts. The essential quality of the covenant is that it included every Israelite—all as equals before God.  If Israelites did not recognize the ultimate equality of each member of the group, this would constitute a breach in the covenant itself.

Maimonides (Hilkhot De’ot 6:3) provides the parameters for what it means to “love one’s neighbor as oneself.” His words are of profound importance: “A person must speak in praise of his neighbor and be careful of his neighbor’s property as he is careful with his own property and solicitous about his own honor. Whoever glorifies himself by humiliating another person will have no portion in the world to come.” In the very next law, Maimonides notes that it is incumbent to love the proselyte, first because he/she is a fellow Jew, and second because there is a special Torah obligation to love the proselyte. All Jews are equal before God; all are equal partners in the covenant with God; all must be treated with the same respect and consideration that we want others to show to ourselves.

As we prepare to observe Rosh Hashana, it is important that we re-focus on the framework of the covenant between God and Israel, that we recognize how important it is for each Jew to be treated as a fellow partner in our adventure with the Almighty. Our communities need to reflect a sincere inclusiveness, a feeling of mutual respect among ourselves. One of the great strengths of the Jewish people is our diversity, our richness of traditions and backgrounds; we stand as one people before God, each of us equal in the eyes of God.

If even one Jew feels rejected or alienated because he/she is of a “different” background, race, or ethnic group—then the structure of the Jewish covenant with God is shaken. If even one Jew wants to “annul” his/her Jewishness because of feelings of rejection by other Jews, then the Jewish religious enterprise is challenged. Self-righteousness and smugness are antithetical to the ideals of Jewish peoplehood.

“You are standing this day all of you before the Lord your God…”

Let us each stand before the Lord imbued with love of God, love of our fellow Jews, love of our fellow human beings. Let our communities reflect love, compassion, spiritual vitality. Let us renew the covenant between God and Israel.

We are not enslaved

I found a fascinating discussion of the idea of being enslaved in my pre-Passover reading which I wanted to share.  The Netivot Shalom in his discussion of the haggadah discusses the idea of what we mean when we say in the haggadah, “If G-d had not taken our ancestors out of Egypt, we and our children and our children’s children would still be enslaved to Pharoah.”  The question that is posed is what does it mean to be “enslaved to Pharaoh” as opposed to any of our other exiles, when we were subjugated to different kingdoms and empires.  He answers that the slavery in Egypt was unique in that it was not just an enslavement of the body, but of the mind as well.  We are taught that the people had descended to the 49th level of Tumah and if they had stayed in Egypt longer, they would not have been redeemed.  In other words, the enslavement went beyond physical labor but was a spiritual enslavement as well.  The other exiles, as the Slonimer explains, were merely of a physical nature.  Hence, Egypt we would have remained enslaved if G-d didn’t redeem us, but not in any other exile.

After having read that, I came across the following from Chief Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks which echoed this sentiment (p. 14 Chief Rabbi’s Haggadah):

In the Kovno ghetto in the early 1940s an extraordinary scene took place on morning in the makeshift synagogue.  The Jews in the ghettto had begun to realize the fate that lay in store for them.  They knew that none of them would escape, that the work camps to which they would be transported were in fact factories of death.  And at the morning service, the leader of the prayer, an old and pious Jew, could finally say the words no longer.  He had come to the blessing in which we thank G-d for not having made us slaves.  He turned to the congregation and said: ‘I cannot say this prayer.  How can I thank G-d for my freedom when I am now a prisoner facing death?  Only a madman could say this prayer now.’

Some members of the congregation turned to the rabbi for advice.  Could a Jew in the Kovno ghetto pronounce the blessing thanking G-d for not having made him a slave?  The rabbi replied very simply.  ‘Heaven forbid that we should abolish this blessing now.  Our enemies wish to make us their slaves.  But though they control our bodies they do not own our souls.  By making this blessing we show that even here we still see ourselves as free men, temporarily in captivity, awaiting G-d’s redemption.’

The Maccabeats in the Cyber-Responsa Literature

The Maccabeats in the Cyber-Responsa Literature.

I found this post on Menachem Mendel’s blog.  In thinking about the question and answer, it jogged my mind about the following question with which I have struggled.  On Hanukkah, we celebrate the victory of the Hasmoneans over the Syrian Greeks and the Hellenized Jews.  One of the elements we celebrate is the victory of a “pure” Judaism over a syncretized Judaism which was heavily influenced by Greek culture.  My question is:  How can we celebrate the defeat of the syncretistic Judaism when most of us around the world are not living a “purely” Jewish life.  Granted, what a pure Jewish life would be is hard to define, but clearly there is something contradictory in this.  I especially found this problem when contemplating the notion of “Torah U’Madda” when that clearly appears to be some form of synthesis, which I always assumed was what was being fought against.  Truth is, I know that the celebration of Hanukkah is more closely related to the military reconquest of the Temple away from Greek control.  Yet, when I hear the stories of combatting hellenization, I begin to cringe, for that was only a secondary element at best. 

The questioner, who wonders about the hellenization aspect of this singing group, I feel, has a very legitimate question.  The question is not meant to cast aspersions on the religiousity of the group but is rather a question of whether there is something antithetical to the nature of Hanukkah when people celebrate Hanukkah in a manner that doesn’t appear “purely Jewish”.