BY BOB BAHR / AJT //
Abraham’s presence hangs heavily over our High Holidays experience. Not only is he dramatically present in the sacred Torah readings of the holidays as an example of the eternally faithful Jew; he is prepared to sacrifice all, including his son, for his G-d.
He is also eternally present as a dusty ancestor who arises out of shadowy streets of the ancient city of Ur to bid us and our spiritual brother and sister of the Abrahamic religions to join him on his inspiring journey of faith. It is not an overstatement to say at this time, or any other time, that he is among the most important religious figures of the ages.
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It is this eternal influence of Abraham that Rabbi Jeffrey Salkin tackles in his recently published book, “The God’s Are Broken – The Hidden Legacy of Abraham”, one of just a handful of offerings this year from the prestigious and newly reinvigorated Jewish Publications Society.
In it Rabbi Salkin urges us, as he urged me, in a recent interview, to reclaim what he considers to be Abraham’s most important gift to us, the gift of rebellion.
Not just to consider rebellion as a measured philosophical issue, but as a living, active presence in our lives.
He urges us to take action, as Abraham does one day in his father’s workshop, when he destroys all of the idols his father, one of the city’s most prominent idol makers, has created. As Jews, Rabbi Salkin forcefully stressed to me that that is our destiny.
“God put us on earth,” he maintains, “not only to be a witness for Him but in large measure to continue to fight against the idolatry of this world. That is our spiritual DNA. It goes back to Abraham and every generation must renew that piece of the covenant.”
It is a responsibility that Rabbi Salkin has eagerly taken on in his own life. As a leader and activist in congregations he has led in Florida, Pennsylvania, New York, New Jersey and just a few years ago here in Atlanta, where he also developed a trans-denominational learning center, Kol Echad, that often inspired me.
He has been a professional voice for the Anti-Defamation League and is a prolific writer. He regular contributes a column for The Jewish Journal, whose 150,000 readers in Southern California and countless others on-line, makes it one of the nation’s most influential weekly publications.
He has written a long string of books for the Jewish Lights Publishing Company that have been unafraid to examine what his restless intelligence considers to be among the most pressing issues of our time: how to bring God into the workplace for one, how to make the Torah meaningful for teens is another, honoring the gentile heroes of our own religious tradition for a third.
But it is as a critic of what he considers one of the most troubling aspects of contemporary Jewish life that he has been most influential about recently. In his comments on the growth of idolatry in the modern world he reserved his deepest scorn for the idolatry that we have infused into what he describes as “the billion-dollar Bar and Bat Mitzvah industry.”
He has makes his case most forcefully in his award-winning, “Putting God on the Guest List – How To Reclaim the Spiritual Meaning of Your Child Bar and Bat Mitzvah” and “The Bar/Bat Mitzvah Memory Book – An Album for Treasuring The Spiritual Celebration”. Both are perennial bestsellers from Jewish Lights.
He cites what he considers the distorted view of the traditionally Jewish rite of passage as an example of a creeping sense of the un-Godly that has invaded Judaism today.
“We have created ‘Bar Mitzvah-olatry’. We believe that is the sum total of Jewish expression in American Jewish life today. By elevating this ceremony beyond anything that was ever imagined by our ancestors, by making it a period in Jewish life rather than a semi-colon as it tended to be, I think we have created another Golden Calf. We have allowed it to colonize our religious culture. We really need a broader conversation about what Jewish kids should know and experience.”
But it is not just in our worship of the Bar/Bat Mitzvah ceremony that troubles Rabbi Salkin about contemporary developments in the modern American Jewish community. As he bluntly put it, “We’re losing our edge.”
What he seems to mean is that in a society that is among the most accepting culture we have ever experienced, that accepts and nearly elects without question a Jewish candidate for Vice President of the United States, that thinks nothing of seeing a bridegroom in tallit and skullcap marry the daughter of another President, we are in danger of losing our spiritual relevance.
He notes sadly that “Jewish education and the notion of Jewish communal life is serious challenged. In many places American synagogues are folding or merging out of existence, sometimes because of demography but sometimes because of a lack of commitment on the part of members.”
The solution he sees is not just to work harder at fitting in to American life, but to work harder at standing out in American society.
“What I call people to do,” he says in describing his latest book, “is to realize that Judaism call us to adherence to a particular lifestyle, a particular mental style and a particular emotional style.”
In short, as he puts it, “God did not make a covenant with us in order to create smart people, God made a covenant with us to be a wise people.”
His message in his latest book and on this Rosh Hashanah is that idolatry is as strong a challenge in 5774 as it was several millennia ago for a young critic of his father’s idolatrous ways. And that Abraham calls to us over the centuries to remind us not just of his courage and his iconoclasm but of what it takes to follow his example in our own age.
About the Writer
Bob Bahr leads High Holiday services at two locations this year; for the Atlanta community at Shema Yisrael – The Open Synagogue in Norcross and for the residents of Huntcliff Summit in Sandy Springs. More information at www.shemaweb.org