Belonging

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January 1, 2003
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by Mordecai Finley

Rabbis are not docents, tour guides. We are channels. The nachalah, heritage, of Torah be-longs to every Jew and to the Jewish people as the body of the covenant. All the Torah we know, we know to teach and to do. As rabbis, when we teach the nachalah, we are entrusted to deliver a precious legacy to some who don’t even know that their secret name is written within. Each of us, perhaps, holds a particular piece of that legacy. One of us knows how to pray, another how to study, another has a vision for righteousness, another a teaching of kindness, a teaching of penitence.

To become a rabbi is to identify what we have in our hearts – shaped by learning – that belongs to others, that needs to be taught and lived. We are obligated to put this into their possession.

One word, belong, and its various connotations, sums up my work as a rabbi and educator, and invites thought, discussion, and response.

You Can Belong Here. Some Jews say, “I’m not religious.” Others say, “I don’t believe in God.” Or they exclude themselves, “I don’t like organized religion” (protesting that we are very disorganized helps only a little). “I don’t need religion.” “I have a spiritual path, but it’s not Judaism.” Either they are not good enough to belong to a religious community, or Jewish religious community is not good enough for them to belong to it.

To belong is part of our human nature, especially, perhaps, in the search for meaning. Judaism, minimally, is community seeking meaning, truth, and how to live out our humanity as nobly and righteously as possible. We are a spiritual community posing core questions about life’s meaning – in a specific narrative, using specific symbols. There are no generic human beings and no generic spiritual paths.

Rabbis need to say to all who seek community and a spiritual path that our path works as well as any other. We have to deliver on that promise and help make this path work. Judaism has to work, not as a tradition or philosophy that I teach but as a practice that I live. Our lived Jewish practice is our primary evidence that those who are seeking belong here, with us.

You Belong to the Jewish People. The notion that we belong somewhere defies the modern sensibility of radical individualism – that we are free to disconnect from whatever challenges us, makes us uncomfortable, feels mysterious, whatever doesn’t work right away, or has a truth for our lives that only dedication can reveal. To belong is to know that we are not only creations of will and desire, creatures of prior causes; we are also creatures of destiny.

Rabbis must make clear that Jews, and many others who are not yet Jewish, belong to Judaism. Covenantal community is not just a concept in the history of Jewish ideas; it must be an active force in the lives of rabbis, a foundation of our spiritual and intellectual worldview. We must be able to present that worldview to others.

You Belong to God. It takes a long time for spiritual seekers to know that they belong to God; teachers of Torah must know this well.

In Yiddish, the word “belong” is geheren, from the root “heren” (hören in German), “to hear.”

To belong to God is to able to hear the Divine voice calling us to service, as Moshe heard the Divine call, the kri’ah, from the burning bush and from the ohel mo’ed.

The notion of calling, kri’ah, is not popular. How many of us speak, without embarrassment, of becoming teachers of Torah because we were called by God to this holy work? Do we acknowledge that the Holy One is present when we study, pray, and do mitzvot, when we lead communities, when we bring people closer to Torah? If we had a clearer sense of calling, of how God is present and operates in our lives – in other words, what it means that we belong to God – then we could teach others more effectively that they belong, and what that belonging might mean.

A Final Initial Word. I am not suggesting a program of action. I am not answering the question what it means, practically, to belong (membership, Jewish status, etc.). I am not suggesting how to conceive anew Jewish communities to make them more amenable to these ideas. I am saying this: the renewal of Jewish life, of synagogue life, will not ultimately be sustained by a series of institutional reforms of services, music, architecture, governance, and so forth.

No doubt, reshaping the ways that we present Judaism is important if we are to renew the synagogue and other institutions. But, rather, I am advocating a parallel focus on the core of religiosity and religious leadership: rabbis seriously assessing their own spiritual lives, how that life percolates professionally, and how what we profess turns again to shape our inner, private lives.

Most of us are in this work because we belong here, for reasons (and destinies) that are sometimes anything but clear and that shift over time. While a sense of belonging is essential to Jewish life, at some level, belonging provides not an answer but a mystery to which we devote our lives.

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Rabbi Mordecai Finley, Ph.D., is President of the Academy for Jewish Religion, California Campus, where he teaches rabbinics and liturgy. He is also the founder, along with his wife Meirav, of Ohr HaTorah Congregation, which meets in west Los Angeles. Encyclopedia Judaica, and "G-d in History and Halakha from the Perspective of American History."

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