Dreaming of All We Could Be

Parashat Miketz 2017

Rabbi Esther Hugenholtz

Dreaming Of All We Could Be

URJ Biennial Plenary [source]

For ten days I existed in a Jewish bubble. Not just any bubble, but a bubble totaling 7000 strong: one thousand at the USCJ (United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism) Biennial in Atlanta and 6000 at the URJ (Union for Reform Judaism) Biennial in Boston.

It is hard to describe what it feels like for 6000 of us to descend upon the Hynes Convention Center in the heart of Boston. The only true parallel that I could draw is experiencing Israel. On some level, living in a parallel, majority-Jewish space felt like being in Israel. There was something so powerful, comforting, exhilarating and inspiring to be in that setting, to be with our ‘achim v’achyot’, our brothers and sisters, to feel a visceral and primordial connection to each participant even if they were complete strangers. To feel a thick, palpable sense of Jewish Peoplehood.

This deep sense of connection manifested itself in different ways. Mingling around the ‘Shuk’, where vendors had set up their stalls selling Judaica of every conceivable type and design, seeing hundreds of kippot bop on hundreds of heads. It was shared in mutual recognition, humor, song and conversation, in a deep sensing of ‘achdut’ (unity).

Yet there’s no denying that the most powerful expression of this achdut was in the Shabbat services at the URJ Biennial. Whereas the USCJ Biennial created a sense of pluralism and intimacy by hosting five different minyanim (prayer groups), the URJ strategically chose to condense 6000 people in one shared worship experience. In a set-up very similar to a mega-church, all 6000 of us took a seat in a cavernous hall, with floor seating and balconies filled to the brim. The bimah was a stage in the front of the hall where a full band, orchestra and choir were seated as well as the rabbi and one or two cantors. Large screens were suspended from a cathedral-like ceiling upon which the liturgy was projected: we didn’t need to hold a siddur (prayer book). The liturgy was a mix between snippets of inspirational speeches, classic Hebrew prayers and English interpretations. Everything was executed to sheer perfection and music deepened the emotions of the experience. There is nothing short of marvelous to hear 6000 progressive Jews intone the Barechu, chant the Shema and sing the Aleinu.

Just let that number sink in: 6000 Jews.

I could go on and on about the ‘nifla’ot u’mofta’im’ – the ‘wonders and miracles’ of the Biennial. The overwhelming choice of sessions we could attend; the strength of its leadership and institutional life. The rousing speeches given by social activists, preachers and prominent politicians.

Yet to me, the marvel was in the common connections we found, all 6000 of us. The true miracle of the Biennial was a dream: of seeing Judaism not just as it is but as it could be.

We are in the thick of the Joseph cycle. The Rabbis integrated the Torah reading with the Jewish calendar in such a way that the Joseph cycle would always be read during Shabbat Chanukkah, and I don’t think this is accidental.
The Joseph story presents us with a fulcrum between two conceptualizations of Jewishness: that of the individual, and by extension, the family – through the Abrahamic narrative that we’ve explored over the last few months. And that of the community, and by extension, the people – which we will examine over the next few months as we enter the book of Shemot (Exodus). The Joseph cycle is at once deeply personal as well as cuttingly political in its astute observations about power, foreignness, resilience and assimilation.

Joseph is a transitional character. He comes of age and into his own power in a Diasporic experience, in Egypt. He is the first Jewish statesman of international allure as he achieves his high office in Egypt. He is honored by and invested with the trappings of the majority culture, and like Mordechai in the Book of Esther, paraded in front of dignitaries and saluted. And uniquely given a local, assimilated name: ‘Abreck’.

Joseph is the archetypical ‘man in the street, Jew in the house’. He builds his life among the Egyptians, wears Egyptian garb, and as we see, even takes an Egyptian name. Yet, he stakes his moral identity on being a Hebrew, as he remains true to his core principles, resisting seduction and temptation. He sets his eyes on his dreams and visions and roots himself in his faith and values. In fact, Joseph embraces the fluid potentialities of Jewish identity in his present and future through the naming of his children. ‘Vayikra Yosef et shem habachor Menashe ki nashani Elohim et kol amali v’et kol beit avi. V’et shem hasheni kara Efraim ki hifrani Elohim be’eretz oni’ – ‘Joseph named the first-born Menasheh meaning ‘God has made me forget completely my hardship and my parental home.’ And the second he named Ephraim, meaning ‘God has made me fertile in the land of my affliction.’’ (Gen. 41:51-52). Like Mozes naming his sons Gershom and Eliezer, these names are rich with meaning and significance. Menasheh is named for his ability to be emotionally flexible and adaptable. He is able to forget the alienating experiences of his upbringing and his inherited identity; he distances himself from his past. Yet Ephraim embodies the hope of the future; not only for Joseph but for the Jewish people. There is prophecy locked in these words: Exodus opens with the anti-Semite’s and xenophobe’s classic lament that there are too many of us.

During Chanukkah, our most particularist festival, we are challenged to hold Menasheh and Ephraim in our own sense of Jewish selves. How do we resolve our own traumas as a people and as individuals? How do we reconcile ourselves to our past without running away from it? How do we also explore our vision for a vibrant Jewish future; be it in the Diaspora or in the Land of Israel? How do we become ‘hayinu k’cholmim’, a nation of dreamers? Where 6000 of us can gather at a Biennial and dream of Jewish pride, innovation, inclusivity, boldness, resilience, compassion? And dream of everything we could be as a community, from the coasts of New York and Los Angeles, to the heartland of Iowa, all the way back to the riverbanks of the Nile and Euphrates, to a future not yet imagined.

Am Yisrael Chai,

Shabbat shalom, Chag Urim Sameach!


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