“One who seeks absolute certainty will not find comfort in a spiritual tradition whose response to the disagreements between the schools of Hillel and Shamai was that both schools of thought were the words of the living God.” This is Judaism according to David Hartman, the founder of the seminary where I will be studying to be a rabbi. I share this quote because it describes what I love about Judaism. It is pluralistic, encourages debate and discourages certainty.
In a 2001 sermon during Passover, my teacher, Rabbi David Wolpe, drove home the point about certainty when he questioned the benefit of historicism in reading the Haggadah. In essence, Rabbi Wolpe expressed what archeologists have been claiming for years, that the Passover story is not an historical epic. “It's a well-known fact that millions of Jews have doubts about the literal veracity of Bible stories,” said Rabbi Wolpe. “[W]e are afraid that science will shake our faith…that is why I spoke out.”
This year at my seder, I asked Rabbi Wolpe’s now famous fifth question, “Would anything change if we all accepted that the Exodus story were a myth?” The reaction I received was what I had expected from my very secular family. It didn’t matter to them because most of the people sitting around the table had given up their stake in our myth. They are Jews “in spite of Hitler,” or because we have a beautiful tradition with familiar rituals. As a system that guides their lives, Judaism means very little to them because they don’t believe in the God of the Bible.
In contrast to my family, I have embraced our tradition and have made it my occupation as well as my national identity. I am a citizen of the Jewish homeland and I plan to be ordained in Israel, “the birthplace of the Jewish people. [Wh]ere their spiritual, religious and political identity was shaped. [Wh]ere they first attained to statehood, created cultural values of national and universal significance and gave to the world the eternal Book of Books.” This is how Israel is described in her Declaration of Independence.
As a Jewish educator, I try to understand what is it that makes it easy for me to embrace our system regardless of the historicity of our story. I’m not afraid that science will shake our faith. Rather, I am afraid that science has become our faith. For this reason I consciously choose to define myself as agnostic. I choose doubt over religious and scientific certainty. As my Rabbi, Allan Kensky, says, “When I want scientific explanations, I turn to science. When I want religious explanations I turn to Judaism.”
As a Jewish educator, I grapple with these issues because my job description includes, among other things, dealing with attrition among our ranks. I ask how I can help Jewish families embrace their Judaism, and I think Rabbi Wolpe’s “hurricane,” as his sermon has been described, does part of the trick. We need to be honest in our discussions about faith. But the other half of the work comes from the tradition of Rabbi Akiva. We need to change the way we think about the world. Both science and faith try to describe the world as it is. Rabbi Akiva explained the world as it could be.
On the thirty-third day of the counting of the Omer, the 18th day of the Hebrew month of Iyar, May 12th on the secular calendar, we celebrate the end of the terrible plague that decimated Rabbi Akiva’s academy, killing over 24,000 students. Our legend relates that the plague was a response to the behavior of the students who mistreated each other. This is rather shocking when one considers that the core of Rabbi Akiva’s teaching was that the commandment “Love your neighbor as yourself" is "a fundamental principle of the Torah."
This year, as we celebrate La”g ba-Omer, let’s look to Rabbi Akiva to imagine the world as it could be, not the way it is, so that we may embrace our Judaism, not “in spite of Hitler,” not just because it is ours, but because it provides us with something greater than science and faith. It provides us with the tools to imagine the world as it could be instead of settling for the status quo.