Parashat Shabbat Shuva: Opening the 'present' together

Parashat Shabbat Shuva

"Remember the days of yore, understand the years of each generation" (Deuteronomy 32:6). Are we commanded to study world history? Rabbi Sa'adia Gaon, in his compilation of the 613 commandments, responds resoundingly in the affirmative. And I would argue that the proper translation of the words, as suggested by Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch in his biblical commentary (ad loc), is "understand the differences [shnot, not from shana, year, but rather from shinui, difference, change] of each generation." It has aptly been said: "Yesterday is history; tomorrow is mystery; today is a gift, and that's why it's called 'present.'" I would add that "today" is all we really have, and we must utilize it with wisdom and dispatch. We cannot treat "today" with proper circumspection unless we are sensitive to the forces of history which preceded it, especially to changes in the temper and spirit of the time which makes "today" different from "yesterday." God revealed Himself to Moses as the God of history. Although in Genesis it is clear that El Shaddai or Elohim is the God of Power and Creation, when Moses asks God for His Name, the divine response is "Ehyeh asher Ehyeh," literally "I shall be what I shall be" (Exodus 3:14). Rabbi Yehuda Halevi correctly takes this to mean He is the God of history, the God of becoming, the God of future redemption (Yehovah, literally "He will bring about" redemption). The God of Creation "worked" (as it were) alone; in contrast; the God of history is dependent on Israel. Redemption is also dependent to a certain extent on the other nations and their actions. Redemption will come eventually, as all of our prophets guarantee in God's name, but since it requires Israel's intervention, God must leave the date of the "end of days" open-ended. And so the Bible after presenting the name Ehyeh Asher Ehyeh, goes on to say, "So shall you [Moses] say to the children of Israel: 'the Lord God of your fathers, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, the God of Jacob, has sent me to you. This is My Name forever, and this is My remembrance for all generations." (Exodus 3:15. Note an interesting linguistic nuance: in Deut. 32 the text reads "dor vador, understand the differences of each generation" whereas in Exodus 3 we find "dor lador, this is My remembrance for all generations.") There are two names of God in this passage: the God of the patriarchs is the God of Jewish tradition, the God of halachic continuity; while the God of history is the God of each generation, with that generation's demands conditioned upon the historical situation of the time. Hence Rabbi Shimon Shwabb records in his memoirs how, as a bar-mitzva boy, he went to Raden, anxious to meet with the Hafetz Hayim, Rabbi Yisrael Meir Kagan, the gadol hador, the great luminary of the time. The sage asked the youth if he were a kohen. When young Shimon answered no, the Torah giant commiserated that when the Messiah comes, only he - a kohen - will be privileged to enter the precincts of the Holy Temple. The reason for the kohen's elevated status is because his tribal ancestors answered Moses's call, "Whoever is with God, come to me." Since young Shimon's tribal ancestors did not heed that call, he would be excluded. "And," concluded the sage, "I do not say these words lightly in order to hurt you. I merely wish to prepare you: in every generation a Divine Voice calls out the particular summons, challenge or opportunity of that generation. Listen for it and respond to it!" Just as individuals repent, nations (witness Nineveh in the Book of Jonah) and religious faith communities must also repent. Since 1965, major members of the Church (certainly not all, but nevertheless including popes) have asked forgiveness of the Jews for the anti-Semitism, persecutions and pogroms which the European Church had fostered; they have also rejected the doctrine of successionism or Replacement Theology, (which held that because the Jews rejected Jesus, God rejected the Jews and chose the Christians instead) realizing that "God does not repent of His covenants; His covenant with Israel is eternal." And especially in the case of the Evangelicals, who were never part of the European Church's anti-Semitism, churchmen have become staunch supporters of Jewish rights to Israel, helping us morally, politically and financially. This new attitude could not have come at a more opportune time, when the jihadists are working overtime to take over not only establishment Islam but the entire world, preaching that only Wahabi Muslims have a right to live in peace and security. Certainly it behooves us to partner with the nearly two billion Christians to teach the message of ethical absolutism. These Noachide commandments of universal morality such as "Thou shalt not murder" must be accepted by every human being, alongside religious pluralism, granting everyone the right to pray to God in his own way, or even not to pray at all. Does this mean we join hands as one faith community? Not necessarily! There are still major areas of disagreement, despite the shared belief in a God of love and peace. Jews must keep the laws of the Bible and rabbinic sages, whereas Christians do not have this obligation. While Judaism and Christianity believe that every human being is a child of God, Christian doctrine holds that there was a one-and-only begotten son, which Jews cannot accept. Jews believe that every individual is responsible for his/her own salvation, without any intermediary. Finally, Jews believe that the Messiah must bring peace and security to the world; anyone, no matter how learned or pious, who leaves this world not having brought about this universal peace is, by definition, not the Messiah. Hence any individual who asserts the messiahship (or divinity) of Jesus cannot define him/her self as a Jew. But every gentile, from our perspective, has a share in salvation and the World to Come, as long as he/she observes the Seven Noachide Laws. Given this understanding, we can and we must partner with the Christian world for the sake of the God of love, peace and morality - the only hope for a future world. This, however, with one strong proviso: We cannot partner with any group whose raison d'être is to convert Jews to Christianity now. We ask to be respected as we are now, with all our failings, just as we respect the Christian world as it is now. We are living in fateful and glorious times, blessed with miracles all around us, including the hands and hearts of so many Christians held out to us in friendship and love after nearly 2,000 years of enmity. On this Sabbath of Return, may our response not be found wanting. The writer is the founder and chancellor of Ohr Torah Stone Colleges and Graduate Programs, and chief rabbi of Efrat.