As we ask big questions during the High Holy Days, Lights in the Forest: Rabbis Respond to Twelve Essential Jewish Questions, presents a range of Jewish responses to both theological and philosophical questions pertaining to God, humanity, and the Jewish people. In the spirit of the High Holy Days, we would like to share some of the inspirational responses included in the book, for a thoughtful and meaningful New Year.
Another world is possible. I affirm Rabbi Jonathan Sacks’s insight that “faith is not acceptance but protest, against the world that is, in the name of the world that is not yet but ought to be” (To Heal a Fractured World, 27). To the extent that the mythology of a messianic age inspires work to alleviate poverty and oppression, violence and violation, I believe. I affirm religious ideas that give hope in a broken world and catalyze efforts for its repair—even if we never get “there.” As Danny Siegel adapted from a Yiddish proverb, “If you always assume the person sitting next to you is the Messiah, waiting for some simple human kindness, you will soon come to weigh your words and watch your hands. And if he chooses not to be revealed in your time, it will not matter” (Siegel, And God Braided Eve’s Hair).
Do the Jewish people have some special role in this endeavor? Mordecai Kaplan suggested the concept of vocation as a substitute for the dangerous arrogance of chosenness and the religious imperialism of mission. As an obviously human construct, vocation guards against the insidious notion that God plays favorites or that sacred purpose might be the monopoly of any one people. We have heard the divine call in a unique and essential way, as have other religious traditions.
Each path has the capacity to inspire its adherents with faith in the importance of their work, and God has an enduring stake in our embodiment of the teaching, making the covenant(s) real and reciprocal.
There is no scarcity in chosenness, because God does not cease to “choose,” calling us to respond. In fact, God never shuts up.
Yes, Jews have a unique vocation, profoundly bound up with living and learning Torah. Even the idea of vocation is fraught, however, open to perilous transformation of a sacred task into destiny, obligation into prerogative. Tanach (l”b,), “the Hebrew Bible,” cautions us against such contortions. Although Genesis is replete with insight about the conundrum of divinely sanctioned destiny—Cain’s murderous rage at being unchosen, Jacob’s duplicity in capturing the birthright and blessing, and so on—it is the Joseph novella that is perhaps most instructive for our current purposes.
Joseph is certain of his unique role in the story of redemption, and it breeds resentment among the brothers. It is only in their mutual recognition of “vocation” that the divine plan for blessing can unfold. The covenantal promise is, for the first time, transmitted to all the siblings, and they become embedded in relationships of reciprocal dependence with each other and with the Egyptians. Blessing flows between and among the households of Creation. The vision of Isaiah is similar: “In that day, Israel shall be a third partner with Egypt and Assyria as a blessing on earth; for YHVH of Hosts will bless them saying: Blessed be My people Egypt, My handiwork Assyria, and My legacy Israel.” (19:24–25). We only get there together.
Rabbi Rachel S. Mikva serves as the director of the Center for Jewish, Christian, and Islamic Studies at Chicago Theological Seminary.
Excerpted from Lights in the Forest: Rabbis Respond to Twelve Essential Jewish Questions, edited by Rabbi Paul Citrin and published in 2015 by CCAR Press.