By Harriet P. Gross
A friend from long ago, now far away but still a faithful TJP reader, saw our notice of Anshai Torah’s recent Scholar-in-Residence weekend and wrote to me:
“I just loved Rabbi Feinstein when I was in Dallas. I shall never forget his insight and interpretation of the week’s Torah portion the first time I heard him at a Shabbat service. And at his ‘Joys of Jewish Learning’ classes, his knowledge — and his quest for more knowledge — along with his wit, gave me so much. Since I’m not in Dallas now, you must go for me.” So of course, I did.
I signed up for the Friday “Lunch and Learn” that opened the weekend. There, I was just one of many past admirers Hailing the Conquering Hero on this return visit, along with a gaggle of younger folk eager to find out for themselves what the buzz was all about. And of course, they did.
Ed Feinstein, who cut his rabbinic teeth right here in Dallas, eased into business the way I remembered: He just spoke. No notes. Introductory memories of his own youth, both poignant and humorous, led seamlessly into our people’s history. We were laughing while we listened to truth.
Disconnection is the hallmark of Judaism, he said. When bad things happen, we make good things come out of them. This is why Jews, and Judaism, have endured. After Egypt and slavery came the Exodus and freedom. After the Romans destroyed our Temple came Rabbinic Judaism, replacing sacrifice with Torah study and learning. After the Holocaust came Israel…
Then came the crusher: We’re still telling our children that the reason we want them to go to synagogue and Sunday School is because of that death and destruction, he told us. But that alone won’t move them to be Jews. Remembering is certainly necessary, but past agonies by themselves cannot sustain us; they do not compel belief in those who come after. Of course we must remember Egypt and the devastated Temple, but we are not Jewish because of them; we are Jews today because of what our people were able to create to follow them. We must do the same with the Holocaust: look back, but look ahead. Find its new reasons for new generations to hold onto and love Judaism.
In his years as senior rabbi of California’s Valley Beth Shalom — one of the largest, if not THE largest, of our country’s Conservative congregations — Feinstein is seeing a modern-day “disconnection” of sorts: Into our faith communities come more and more men and women who are not Jewish by birth or (at least not yet) by conversion, but who have chosen to live Jewish lives, who marry Jewish spouses and raise Jewish children. He’s become vocal about making more meaningful, “insider” places for them: Perhaps, he posits, rabbis may need to sanctify the marriages of couples in which non-Jewish spouses-to-be are such committed people.
And what about God? The Feinstein picture is parental. Just as we raise our children with love and support toward growing independence, so does God raise us. When our children are on their own ways, we do not stop being their parents; we continue to love, and support and encourage them to be and do the best they can. And so does God continue to be that force for us, all of our adult lives. The rabbi taught us that day from Talmud: What we need to learn, and to live by, is not high up in Heaven or across far seas, to be fetched and brought to us by others. That wisdom is already in our Jewish minds, our hearts, our mouths…
From the mouth of Rabbi Ed Feinstein came solid food for thought, a big banquet of ideas accompanying the tasty menu offered at what might have been even better named a “Lunch and Learn Much.” To my corresponding friend: Thanks for “ordering” me to go.