Returning to the Table with God

Rabbi Adam Greenwald
April 25, 2014
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“And Aaron was silent.”  (Leviticus 10:3)

Three millennia ago, in the desert of Sinai, the two sons of Aaron were consumed by fire at the altar of God. The Torah tells us nothing of the nature of their sin, only that they had brought an aish zara, a strange offering, and that they paid for this mysterious transgression with their lives.

There is the type of grief that is loud—full of tears and wailing. And, there is the kind of grief that leaves only silence in its wake. Aaron mourns the loss of his sons in silence—va-yidom Aharon—his heartbreak goes beyond words or cries. Our commentators fiercely debate the meaning of Aaron’s stillness, but its message has always seemed clear to me—in the face of such an overwhelming and catastrophic betrayal by the God to whom he had dedicated his life, what is there left to say?

We know that sometimes silence is more powerful than screaming. When our anger burns and we yell and curse and rage at someone, we paradoxically keep our relationship with them alive through our words. However, when we turn away and go silent, we affirm that the relationship has truly been severed. As anyone who has ever experienced the death of a love affair or the end of a friendship knows, the cold of silence is harder to bear than the hot tears of anger.

We Jews have spent much of the last sixty-five years in a place of va-yidom Aharon. The total crisis of the Shoah left us, as Rabbi Art Green so elegantly lays out in this month’s forthcoming edition of Sh’ma, “too busy surviving and rebuilding our lives to worry much about theology.” Our ability to connect with the God whom we had been in relationship with for three thousand years was occluded, in the poignant words of Rabbi Yitz Greenberg, by the smoke of burning children.

And so, for a long time, we have built our Jewish institutions and sent our checks to Federation and schlepped our kids to High Holidays, but stopped talking about matters of the spirit. When I took the helm of the nation’s largest program preparing people for conversion to Judaism, I discovered that while the eighteen-week long curriculum contained two classes on medieval Jewish civilization, there was no class on God. The fact that God had ceased to be spoken about in the process of embracing the Jewish path speaks volumes in its silence.

Now, I gather my students and we talk about God. I tell them that for more than half a century Jews and God have not always been on speaking terms. I invite them to be part of healing that rift, of opening the conversation that many in the generation that preceded us were too traumatized to risk. I introduce them to creative and courageous figures, like Rabbis Green and Greenberg, and my teacher Rabbi Bradley Shavit Artson, who beckon us back into relationship and give us language to meet God anew.

It’s time for God and us to return to the table. We can talk together. We can cry together. Our silence, however, can no longer serve us.

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Rabbi Adam Greenwald is the Director of the Louis & Judith Miller Introduction to Judaism Program at American Jewish University, the largest preparatory program for those considering conversion to Judaism in North America. He also serves as an Lecturer in Education in the AJU’s Graduate School of Education. In 2014, Rabbi Greenwald was named one of “America’s Most Inspiring Rabbis” by the Jewish Daily Forward. He previously served as Revson Rabbinic Fellow at IKAR, a Los Angeles congregation often recognized as one of today's most innovative spiritual communities. His writings have also appeared in the Washington Post, and he is a regular contributor to the Ziegler School's widely distributed "Today's Torah" and Jewish Values Online. Rabbi Greenwald is a graduate of UCLA and was ordained at the Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies in 2011.

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