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New CCAR Press Book ‘Inscribed’ Provides A New Look at the Ten Commandments

It is not an exaggeration to characterize the Revelation at Sinai as the prime foundational experience in the life of the Jewish people. At Sinai, Jewish law, peoplehood, theology, and ethics were all conceived simultaneously amid thunder, smoke, and the blare of the shofar. With the first syllable reverberating from the mountaintop, Israel assumed a new relationship with their God, who would—for all time—be their unique, transcendent Teacher.

But for the Jewish people, the mechanics of revelation do not unfold merely in a vertical dimension between the Commander and the commanded; Torah is also revealed in the horizontal dimension, through the democratic, communal bonds between study partners. From Sinai until now, in every Jewish community, each successive insight that Jews bring to their study of Torah makes it possible for God’s self to unfurl in new ways. In this way, the beliefs and practices of Jewish life take on sharper clarity in every generation of Israel’s peoplehood.

Initially, of course, our Israelite ancestors were not eager to embrace their relationship with God’s word; they cowered from God’s voice and retreated from Sinai, leaving Moses alone to receive the Ten Commandments. (Exodus 20:15–18). Despite Moses’s high hopes about the inspiring power of divine speech, its sheer force terrified the first generation of God’s students huddled at Sinai’s foot and might have ironically led to their spiritual impoverishment if the people hadn’t quickly developed the skills of interpretive and imaginative Jewish learning.

Creativity and innovation are critical skills for Jewish learners, and these skills were inculcated in us by Moses himself at the very beginning of our relationship with Torah. Looking down at the frightened Israelite masses at the base of the mountain, Moses must have realized quickly that, in order to worship an invisible God who demands faith in the not-yet possible, he would have to nurture Israel’s capacity for interpretive imagination. Moses needed to demonstrate that the exercise of Jewish learning can bring the impossible and the intangible into being—and so, immediately after the commandments are revealed, he goes on to teach his homeless, landless people about cisterns, vineyards, and olive groves (Deuteronomy 6:10–11).

The rabbis of the Babylonian Talmud (B. Makot 23b–24a) suggest that at Sinai, the Israelites heard only the first two of the Ten Commandments directly; the rest were heard only by Moses and translated faithfully to the people. But Moses refers to the entire Decalogue as having been heard by “every one of us who is here today” (Deuteronomy 5:3), not only those who stood at the mountain. Thus, each subsequent repetition of the words of Torah comprises a miraculous, eternal act of religious witness, and every opportunity for learning Torah is an endeavor of radical imagination. For the generation of Sinai, this meant molding their minds and hearts to accommodate things that did not yet exist; for us, the imaginative work of Torah study may mean imagining versions of ourselves that do not yet exist, and then working to bring those selves into being.

Inscribed: Encounters with the Ten Commandments, a new publication from CCAR Press, was conceived to simultaneously recognize the primacy of the Sinai moment and embrace the multivocality of contemporary Jewish learning—both within and beyond the Reform Movement. The book presents two or three chapters focusing on each of the Ten Commandments. The essays are written by a diverse group of authors, who explore the ways in which those timeless utterances led to the formation of law and ethics, and continue to inform the lives of modern Jews. The contributors represent a broad range of religious beliefs and professional specialization: in chaplaincy, law, technology, journalism, social activism, and the armed services. They live all across the United States and serve many different sorts of communities and constituents; the diversity of these contributors helps give voice to the richness and variety encoded in the Revelation moment, and their voices highlight the ongoing impact and eternal relevance of Torah that flourishes in today’s world.

Although we can fairly assume that God’s words no longer sound the way they did at Sinai, their echoes still continue today. And, in a beautifully ironic turn, millennia after our ancestors hid from the sound of God’s voice at Sinai, today we hold a unique ability to keep that ancient sound alive each time we learn or teach the words of Torah. Our willingness to remain attuned to the hum of a holy presence in the world is what preserves our heritage as a timeless nation of learners. As we continue the process of sacred study that began at a smoke-wreathed mountain in the desert, the work of radical spiritual imagination inscribes itself continuously into our hearts and minds.


Rabbi Oren J. Hayon serves as Senior Rabbi of Congregation Emanu El in Houston, Texas. He is the editor of Inscribed: Encounters with the Ten Commandments, now available from CCAR Press.

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CCAR Convention News Rabbis

Leading the Shift: The CCAR Convention Opening Program

Rabbi Steve Fox, Zev Yaroslavsky, Tiffany Shlain,  Dr. David Feinberg, and Rabbi Asher Knight.
Rabbi Steve Fox, Zev Yaroslavsky, Tiffany Shlain, Dr. David Feinberg, and Rabbi Asher Knight.

The stated objective of this year’s CCAR Convention is, in part, “…to engage colleagues in deep conversation on the issues about which they are passionate.”  Tonight’s opening program was designed to initiate this series of conversations by offering short talks presented by thought leaders in other fields: medicine, politics, and multimedia art.  Each of these exceptional figures – Dr. David Feinberg, Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky, and filmmaker Tiffany Shlain – offered perspectives on how to “lead the shift” by drawing on their own personal experiences of challenge and success.

I loved Supervisor Yaroslavsky’s comments about the messy work of political coalition-building, and was energized by Shlain’s ideas about the overlapping “participatory revolutions” that we see around us today in the world of culture and technology.  More than anything, however, I was moved by the comments of Dr. Feinberg, who is the President of the UCLA Health System and CEO for the UCLA Hospital System.

Feinberg talked about the way he succeeded in transforming the UCLA hospitals after he took the helm – humbly pointing out that he had no formal training and suggesting that he had had no appreciable experience to recommend him for the post.  He spoke about how he brought about a system-wide shift in consciousness by insisting that members of the hospital staff become radically patient-centered at all levels, from hospital parking attendants to neurosurgeons in the operating theater.

The reorientation that Feinberg brought about was massively sprawling in its scope, but he suggested that it could be boiled down to focusing hospital employees’ attention on improving one single statistic: the number of patients who responded positively to a simple question: “How likely are you to recommend us to a friend?”

Feinberg’s idea is not a new one; in fact, it was documented and explored at length by Fred Reichheld several years ago in his book The Ultimate Question (Harvard Business School Press, 2006).  Reichheld argued that the way customers answered this question would be the most revealing metric that predicted a company’s long-term growth and profitability.  But Feinberg has been uniquely successful because he recognized that this mode of assessing a business’s success and effectiveness can be translated effortlessly to the healthcare field as well.

I’d like to suggest that the same thing is true for the not-for-profit realm, and specifically for the landscape of Jewish communal institutions.

I wonder what Jewish life would be like if our communal leaders – clergy, lay staff, and volunteers alike – spent their time being obsessively focused on improving their constituents’ answers to that question.  What would our communities feel like if we were single-mindedly devoted to exceeding members’ wildest expectations of us and our institutions?  What could the future become if every Jewish professional set out to turn every interaction as an opportunity to turn constituents into evangelists, to transform them into walking billboards for our organizations, celebrating the wonderful services we provide and the inspiring missions we embody?

I have participated in numerous conversations with colleagues who lament declining membership numbers, shrinking dues revenue, and an overall diminution of k’vod ha-rav, the respect traditionally accorded rabbis as spiritual guides and communal leaders.  The beauty of Feinberg’s approach  is that it recognizes that prospective patients are influenced most powerfully and effectively by the testimony of their friends and peers – not necessarily by the expertise of doctors or hospital staff.  The same would be true if we succeed at carrying this approach into the world of Jewish communal work; unaffiliated, unengaged, and uninterested Jews in our communities are much more likely to be convinced to walk through our doors if they receive impassioned recommendation from a friend whose judgment they trust.

Feinberg’s strategy proved revolutionary, which is particularly exciting given the simplicity of the approach.  Its success and its simplicity both recommend it to us rabbis, who have nothing to lose and everything to gain from employing it.  When I leave Long Beach and return home to my own organization, I will look forward to doing my part to “lead the shift” by concentrating on improving the way my constituents answer this simple and potent question, and I hope that my colleagues across the country will do the same.

 

Rabbi Oren Hayon is the Greenstein Family Executive Director at the University of Washington Hillel.