Let us make humankind: the power to imagine

I was up before dawn today. Sitting in my living room, I watched the yahrzeit candle burn. For a few minutes I thought about the people whose lives are conjured up whenever I light one. They are the same people whose names I will review this afternoon at yizkor, and each name will stir up memories. What would they make of all of this? What would they think about my being a rabbi? What would they think about my being a reform rabbi? What would they make of my life, my family, of this world?

The same candle points me in the other direction, too. Who will remember me? How will I be remembered? Will yahrzeit candles still burn in Jewish homes on Yom Kippur, and in synagogues? What will the people who kindle the flame be thinking as they look back? Pre-dawn thoughts in my living room on this day of kapparah and teshuvah, healing and homecoming.


We’ll shortly be reading from the last chapters of sefer d’varim, the Book of Deuteronomy. Moses has gathered the people for a ceremony of covenanting, and he is exhorting them to be in partnership, in covenant, with God and with one another. You’ll hear it in Hebrew and in standard English; allow me to offer another translation, in the local dialect:

Y’all stand this day, all y’all, before the LORD your God—yall’s tribal heads, elders and officials, all the men of Israel, yall’s children, wives, even the stranger within yall’s camp, from woodchopper to water drawer— to enter into the covenant of the Eternal One your God, which the Eternal One your God is concluding with you today, in all of its details; to the end that God may establish you this day as God’s people and be your God, as was promised you and as was sworn by God to your ancestors, Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. I make this covenant, in all its details, not with y’all alone, but both with those who are standing here with us this day before the Eternal One our God and with those who are not with us here this day.

I offer this translation to highlight an unusual grammatical quirk of the original Hebrew: the shift, mid-paragraph, from the plural to the singular number, a shift lost in the translation to standard English but preserved in Southern American English. Here’s Shlomo Ephraim Luntschitz, the Kli Yakar, a sixteenth-century teacher, explaining the significance of this feature:

That the verse which describes the conclusion of the covenant is spoken in the singular form is decisive evidence that the covenant rests primarily upon our arevut, or “interdependence.” Each and every Yisra’el is like one person. Think about it: if a limb is injured, the whole body feels it, and suffers. So it is with us: when one of us errs, all of us feel it. The verse emphasizes that you, yourself, are part of the collective and subject to the covenant, so that you’ll feel that sense of interdependence. For it is upon that sense of interdependence that this entire passage of Torah depends.

Also significant is the fact that the “all y’all” in this scene is a pretty large and heterogenous group. It contains the privileged and the powerful, all of whom are included in the word ish (better translated here as “personage” than as “man”). It includes wives and children, about which we can be both gratified that they were present at all and aggravated that they are only named in relationship to the adult men in their lives. It includes people who are not a part of the tribe, but who are fellow travelers, the ger, or “stranger” within the camp. It includes people whose economic attainment and security is far surpassed by the elders and officials, the woodchoppers and water drawers. And, for good measure…it includes everyone else. The people who aren’t here with us? We include them, too: v’et asher eneynu po imanu hayom.

The question of “who’s in” and “who’s out” is always a front-burner one for the Jews. We see it in the continuing, and intensifying efforts by chareidi rabbi-politicians in Israel to delegitimize conversions performed even by Orthodox rabbis. We sense it in the ease with which American Jews question  each other’s Jewish credentials based on what we believe about God, or Torah, or the Administration, or the State of Israel, or what constitutes a decent bagel. “Not a real Jew.” “Not even Jewish.” We are quick to pass judgment, and slow to remember that it’s really not our job to do so. What did we say earlier about the truth of this day? “You are judge and plaintiff, counselor and witness. You inscribe and seal. You record and recount.”


Na’aseh adam b’tzalmeynu kid’muteynu, we’ve been studying over these holidays. “Let us make humankind in our image, after our likeness.” This morning’s teacher is Rabbi Simchah Bunim of Peshischa, who straddled the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. For him, what makes humans distinct, and divine, is our capacity for empathy and imagination.Here’s how he says it:

God said, “Let us make adam in our image…” Adam is related to the word adamah (“earth”). All of creation, praiseworthy and beautiful, had been created, and God wanted to show it off to someone. But none of the creatures, except for humankind, were able to see beyond themselves. And so God created Adam, in whom heaven and earth are brought together. Adam is able l’damot, to imagine. This is the essential quality of humankind: we are able to see, understand, to imagine that which is beyond us. And so, “Let us make adam in our image, after our d’mut.” D’mut alludes to dimyon, the imagination. Humankind alone can analogize and empathize.

It’s pretty powerful, this ability to walk in someone else’s shoes for a while, to see the world, even a little bit, through their eyes. Is it unique to human beings? Quite possibly, though we ought to remember the lesson from Rosh Hashanah morning, and not be too certain in our belief that we are all that different from the rest of the animals. What we can be sure of is that we can analogize and empathize, we can exercise koach hadimyon, the power of the imagination. We can use it to cultivate that sense of arevut, interdependence, that arises when we recognize what we share with our neighbors. We can even sit by the light of a yahrzeit candle and use that power to travel through time, imagining what our world would like like to our ancestors or our descendants. After all, the Jewish people have been in motion ever since we stood side by side, all of us, each of us. Like a yahrzeit candle, we are a study in change and transformation.

This morning I want to talk about something internal to Judea Reform Congregation. It’s part of a much bigger conversation, but the lens through which we’ll take it up is very much grounded in the here and now. It’s a variation on the “who’s in and who’s out” question suggested by this morning’s reading. It is this: how broadly do we construe our interdependence when it comes to sharing the responsibility for leadership of our synagogue? Specifically, are there leadership roles that are appropriate to our members who are not themselves Jewish?

You may have read Steve’s article in the most recent issue of our synagogue bulletin, but in case not, a quick recap: Judea Reform seeks to be a welcoming congregation, and recognizes that our membership includes people who are Jewish as well as people who share their lives with Jews. At life-cycle moments and in communal prayer and study, we aspire to be a place where all feel welcomed in a way that’s right for them. An Interfaith Task Force has spent many hours over the past few years considering our congregation’s practices. In some cases, they helped to amplify the message of welcome that had always been present. In others they suggested change, and helped to implement it. In all cases, the guiding principle was, listen. Listen to the voices of our members, listen to the voices of our Jewish tradition, listen to and learn from what’s happening in other congregations, and listen to our own hearts.

The next frontier is governance. Judea Reform Congregation’s constitution limits certain roles, like voting on committees or serving as a trustee or officer, to our members who are Jewish. As it happens, committees rarely call for the yeas and nays, our congregational culture being one of consensus-building, so this clause has not kept non-Jewish members from being actively engaged in committee-work. It has kept us from elevating non-Jewish members as committee chairs. The task force has been facilitating a conversation, first internally, then involving our Board of Trustees, and soon to encompass the entire congregation, about where the lines ought to be drawn. Should someone who isn’t Jewish be able to lead a committee? Any committee? Religious practices, even? What about serving as a trustee? An officer? President? These are interesting questions, and I hope you’ll come out on November 5 to think about them, together.

My purpose in lifting this question up so prominently at the High Holidays is not to tell you what you ought to think about this question. I’m trying not to tell you what I think about this question. What I do wish to prescribe is methodology, a way to think about this question. Specifically, as we consider these possible changes over the coming months, potentially leading to a congregational vote to amend the constitution next spring, I want each of us to bring Simchah Bunim’s teaching to bear. I want us to bring our humanity, which is to say our capacity to see the world through another’s eyes.

  • Are you of the opinion that it’s morally wrong to accept people into membership in the congregation, with all that entails, but then keep them away from the tables at which decisions are made? Okay. Now, be imaginative, and put yourself in the shoes of someone whose parents and grandparents were leaders in their synagogues, someone struggling with the sense that this change is a sort of betrayal.
  • Are you of the opinion that anyone who wants to lead that badly can just convert? Okay. Now, be imaginative, and put yourself in the shoes of the person who has helped her husband raise a Jewish family and given her heart and soul to the congregation, and who performs the mitzvah of honoring her parents by remaining, formally at least, a member of the faith in which she was raised.
  • Do you believe that “Jewish is as Jewish does,” that notions of “conversion” are quaint and outdated, and that anyone who subscribes to Jewish values ought to be welcome to lead? Okay. Now, be imaginative, and put yourself in the shoes of the man who spent a year in study and discernment, and who quite literally shed blood for the privilege of calling himself a Jew.
  • Do you believe that the possibility of a non-Jewish board member opens the congregation to religious syncretism and the attenuation of our Jewish character? Okay. Now, be imaginative, and put yourself in the shoes of the person whose value system is the same as yours, and no less deeply held, who loves this community every bit as much as you do…but who cannot lead the committee she has served on for a decade.

I could go on. The point is, it’s complicated.

I’m going to let someone who isn’t Jewish have the last word this morning. Meredith Garmon is a Unitarian Universalist minister in Westchester County, who formerly served in El Paso, where we became good friends. Just the other day Meredith wrote some thoughts about gender identity that, it seems to me, can be useful in this conversation about religious identity as well. I share them aware that the analogy is imperfect, and if misunderstood, dangerous. Gender and sexuality are, for most people, imprinted more deeply than religion. Indeed, we quite properly reject the very notion of “conversion” in those arenas, while allowing for it and even celebrating it in the realm of faith. With that caveat in place, listen to Meredith writing about the fact that different people experience gender identity differently:

I don’t know directly what that’s like, but I don’t have to know. Other people bear no burden to make their lives make sense to me. Rather it’s my responsibility to extend respect and care to everyone, whatever ways they differ from me. It’s up to me to take them at their word about who they are and what they make of the meaning of their life and experience.

What a blessing it will be to live in a community where we all took that approach to one another’s experiences, including their experience of religion and religious peoplehood. What a blessing it will be when we recognize in all the other ways that people are partaking of their congregation or their world not (to borrow a phrase) failed attempts at being us, but unique manifestations of the human spirit. What a blessing it will be when we take one another’s word about who we are and what we make of the meaning our lives. For all of us here today, for the ones whose names we recall when look at this candle, for the ones who will conjure up our memories generations hence: may we be strong, imaginative, and wise.

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