Martin S. Cohen
One of the signs that any civilization or society has retained its vitality and its vibrancy will rest in its ability—and also in its willingness—to allow even its most foundational ideas to morph forward and develop along lines that their original formulators may well have found unexpected, even perhaps foreign.
Tikkun olam is an example of just such a concept. The phrase is in wide use today to denote the struggle for social justice and ecological responsibility, but meant something quite different when it was first used in early rabbinic times. Is that kind of linguistic development a bad thing because it obfuscates the term’s original meaning? Or is it essentially a good thing because it is exactly the ability of old words and phrases to come to mean new things that points to the dynamic vibrancy of a spiritual or cultural tradition? The essays gathered together in this volume present cogently argued, strongly put, and very emotionally satisfying responses to those very questions. Some argue that the process that has led modern-day Jews to see the struggle for social justice as part and parcel of Judaism should be viewed as positive and healthy. Others find the way the phrase tikkun olam is used today to be wan and uninspiring…and dare to suggest ways to understand the concept that will be more stirring than bland. And still others focus primarily on those ancient sources themselves in an attempt to find meaning there that appears to have escaped even moderns who know these texts well.
Taken together, the essays in this volume evince a profound, inspiring willingness to engage with the literary heritage of ancient Judaism in an effort creatively to fashion a Jewish world for contemporary Jews that is somehow both faithful to history without being slavishly dependent on its vagaries. All are rooted in ancient texts. And all are the work of rabbis and scholars who feel called upon to translate the Judaism of antiquity into something moderns can embrace enthusiastically and wholeheartedly—without bowdlerizing the texts they are analyzing or intentionally misreading the lessons bequeathed by their ancient forebears.
The work in this book is meant to inspire. Each essay is rooted in the supposition that the mission of every generation of Jewish people is to focus the past through the present in order to create a kind of naturally evolved Judaism that all can embrace, without feeling any concomitant need to abandon their own intellectual, moral, or spiritual integrity. And this is precisely how Jewish people from every corner of the Jewish world can set off on the great redemptive journey that leads to Jerusalem, to the city of God that itself symbolizes the highest and finest aspirations of all humankind. Each of our authors, myself surely included, is somewhere along the way on that journey. We thus write as individuals to set forth our own ideas, but also as a group that has come together between the covers of this book to invite readers to come along on this specific journey, on this lifelong effort to create the spiritual context in which it becomes possible to live authentically Jewish lives suffused with faith, with meaning, and with confidence in the future of the House of Israel…and also endowed with a clear sense that the obligation endlessly to interpret and re-interpret our Jewish heritage should be considered ennobling rather than burdensome, and as a sacred challenge.
Our authors represent Jewish spiritual learning at its finest and more variegated. They are men and women who hail from Great Britain and from France, from Israel and Canada, as well as from the United States. They are at many different stages of their professional careers. Many are formally affiliated with different inner-Jewish denominations, but others live and work outside the denominational framework. Some are seasoned writers who have published widely, while others are relatively new authors. Some are academics, some work as active clergy people, and still others are independent authors. They are, therefore, all very different people…and yet at the same time, they are very similar in the one specific way that counts the most profoundly: all believe in the power of the written word to inspire fresh thinking and to inform passionate commitment…and thus also to change the world.
For the sake of creating a unified volume that readers will find appealing and easy to read, our authors were asked to adhere to certain stylistic guidelines, particularly as pertains to transliteration of ancient texts. Any volume such as this one is necessarily built around consensus and compromise; my hope is that readers will find our efforts to produce a book that “feels” unified to outweigh the irritation of not having granted our authors an entirely free hand to write as they might otherwise have seen fit. The four-letter name of God, yod-hei-vav-hei—whose original pronunciation is unknown, and is generally enunciated as either “Adonai” or “Hashem” by contemporary Jews—is rendered as “the Eternal” or “the Eternal One” in this volume, as it will be in subsequent books in the series.
I must acknowledge the world class contributors to this volume who willingly agreed to be part of this innovative venture and who were collectively such a pleasure for me personally to work with, through a painstaking editorial process. And, of course, I would like also to salute Sanctification’s Rabbi Benjamin Blech and my other fellow editors in the Mesorah Matrix series, Rabbi Saul J. Berman and Professor Shalom Carmy.
In his own category, however, is the Editor-in-Chief, architect and ‘guiding light’ of the Mesorah Matrix series, David Birnbaum. It was David who first conceived of this immense landmark project – and who personally brought me into the project in the summer of 2012. Readers interested in learning more about the larger project can visit the Mesorah Matrix website at www.mesorahmatrix.com. David is to be commended for having the vision, the assiduity, the intellect, and the passion to engineer and guide this formidable and potentially historic endeavor.
Finally, I would like to acknowledge the men and women of the Shelter Rock Jewish Center in Roslyn, New York, who have embraced my literary pursuits as part and parcel of what it means for me personally to be a rabbi. Rather than seeing my writing and editing as a hobby that takes me away from my “real” job, my thoughtful, good-hearted congregants understand that it is precisely my effort to create Jewish books—to write, to edit, to publish, and to draw others into books like this one—that allows me personally to feel worthy of occupying the pulpit of their synagogue. I am more fortunate than I could ever say to serve a congregation like Shelter Rock as its spiritual leader, and this book and its sister volumes are merely the tangible proof of that fact. To all, then, I say thank you…and may we all together move forward to create many more books that inspire, inform, challenge, and enthuse.
Martin S. Cohen
Roslyn, New York
November 23, 2014
הוא יום השנה הל”ה לפטירת אמי מורתי ע”ה וז”ל
A Note from the Editors
Every effort has been made to retain a good level of consistency between the essays that appear here in terms of the translation and transliteration of Hebrew. Many of our decisions have, needs be, been arbitrary, but we have done our best to create a book that will be as accessible to newcomers to the study of Judaism as it is inspiring to cognoscenti. The four-letter name of God, left unpronounced by pious Jews as a sign of reverence, is mostly rendered in this volume as “the Eternal” or “the Eternal One.” Other divine names are either transliterated or translated to create in English something akin to the way the text reads in Hebrew. All translations are their authors’ unless otherwise indicated.